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I’m a casual gamer. Once a serious gamer, even: I was quite capable of spending ten hours, fifteen hours at a stretch playing Civilization in my twenties. Today I don’t have that kind of time, but I still love the possibilities that games provide to hone players’ skills or introduce them to new interests.


Photo Credit: Graham Holt

In recent years there’s been a huge amount of buzz around gamification–the use of games to accomplish certain social goods or reduce harmful behaviors. A couple of years ago I gave my students a writing assignment on citizen science using this video about gamers who solved a protein-folding problem that had stymied AIDS researchers. More recently, I’ve had a chance to look at the gamified approach that two websites use for teaching math: IXL and Khan Academy.


I’ve used IXL a good deal with my daughter, and I’ve loved it: I can tell that the skill-building exercises have been designed in consultation with psychologists to create positive reinforcement loops with all kinds of little badges and power-ups that a user receives as her score increases–and the way to increase one’s score, of course, is to correctly complete more math problems.

And that’s the problem with IXL for my daughter. The gamification of the process does appeal to her at some level, I can tell, but at the bottom of the game is a lot of math problems. The gaming aspects of the activity have not turned her from a math hater to a math lover, or even a math accepter.

When I decided to try an buff up my math skills–I never got farther than a basic calculus class as an undergrad–I went to Khan Academy. (I would gladly have just used IXL, which I was already familiar with, but IXL seems geared towards younger kids and seems to top out at pre-calculus). And, while I am new to the Khan Academy game, I will say right now that I love it. In fact, I have loved it so much that I am finding myself choosing Khan Academy over other games.

The difference between my daughter and me in this regard seems to be how much interest we had in math in the first place. While I would not consider myself a math-lover exactly, I definitely like math enough to want to cultivate my math skills. My daughter, on the other hand, hates most math activities and would be happy never to spend another minute on IXL.

I suppose the whole gamification movement is a way of making desserts out of broccoli. I guess I could imagine something like broccoli ice cream being tasty, but then, I like broccoli pretty well in most of its forms. For someone who hates broccoli to begin with, broccoli ice cream is still broccoli.