"Play" by VinothChandar via Flickr.

We had a sharp and thoughtful conversation this week in class about games and gameification — a word my spellchecker still doesn’t recognize, so that must mean it’s trendy — as the two relate to motivation and transfer in school settings.

I’ll attempt to sketch my gameification soapbox quickly:

• “Games” is not a monolithic category — chess is not World of Warcraft is not Tetris, so let’s be precise when we discuss what games “are” or mean for learners.

• Transfer still feels a little mysterious to me, but as far as I can tell, it’s not a predictable, linear process. Can gameification stoke positive learning outcomes for some students in some contexts? I certainly think so — I’ve read enough research to convince me. But I would hesitate to overlay any and all learning environments with an element of gameification, just as I wouldn’t want to choose one teaching style for the rest of my life. To quote rhetorician John Ramage: “Rhetoric is a science of single instances.” I would say the same thing about educational exchanges between teachers and learners. We work to develop best practices based on research, and then apply them in unique contexts. This flexibility is key to my developing teaching philosophy.

This leaves one last point, and one I find the most difficult to hash out: the interplay between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in learning encounters. What’s interesting to me in examining the tension in the education community over gameification is the underlying concept of play.

It is easy to forget how much the idea of play informs my efforts as a student and a professional, but it’s absolutely essential. I just don’t always think of what I do as play (because sometimes it’s really work). But my creative efforts — from teaching to writing to researching — are always on some level about play and curiosity and process.

Because play is about possibility, and what is more hopeful than that?

I picture my colleagues on the editing team at the newspaper where I worked for several years, and our well-honed routine that unfurled whenever someone got stuck on a difficult headline writing assignment.

We’d all stop what we were doing, gather around the colleague’s computer screen, and start riffing: cultural references, wordplay, snappy phrases, new and different angles to entice and inform the reader. This is what play can look like in the work world — and this process usually resulted in a better headline than what any one of us had first thought of.

So, what, then, to make of the push-pull between “play” in learning encounters — which, while we may not be great at playing in assessment-driven schools, at least seems accepted as an important part of children’s development — and “games”?

For my own part, I find myself drawn to the way play can open up experiences of flow, of curiosity, of having the freedom to fail. Do these experiences need the rules of a game to apply extrinsic structure, or are there other ways to incorporate these opportunities that might appeal to students who don’t care so much about badges and points? Because, honestly, the idea of more competition in schools makes me feel exhausted.

I’m interested to hear from you, though. Any thoughts on games and play in school and beyond?