These last few weeks I have read some enlightening blogs and articles about game design, motivation and praise in children's apps. As the education director at KinderTown, I have looked at a tremendous number of apps that use stars, stickers and praise as the method of keeping kids engaged and active on the app. In contrast, as a teacher, I see more value in educational apps modeling lesson design, content and activities that are engaging with leveling for decreased frustration. The challenge for me has been to find apps and games which develop any kind of intrinsic (internal) motivation.
Many educators started questioning and criticizing all external motivation, and I admit I was one of them. I want kids to love learning, and I worried they were not going to if we praised them too frequently and for trivial accomplishments. I feared that kids would just develop a love for the praise. Well, thankfully, I am a questioner, even of my own perspective and assumptions, so question I did.
Three Failed Assumptions
Assumption #1: Apps that use rewards and praise will condition our children to need constant feedback from others as adults.
In the classroom, I was encouraged to be careful with praise, as it would teach kids to work and learn for my praise instead of developing an internal drive. Books like Nurture Shock reinforced this by highlighting studies that showed kids tried harder and had more gains when given feedback about the attempts they were making, rather than praise about their abilities.
Yet, after an enlightening conversation with Peter Ginsburg at Thup games, developers of Monkey Preschool Sunshine, I started to think about praise and motivation in games as being distinctly unique from what I would do as a teacher. Peter talked about how people interpret the feedback from a system, like computers and apps, differently than from a respected adult.
How Assumption #1 fails: There is something valuable and real in receiving feedback during human interaction that does not translate to machines. Looking back at how children responded to the feedback in apps, I saw how they interpreted it as encouragement to keep playing, not as a form of meaningful feedback.
For example, when Tribal Nova's new app Ice Land Adventures came out, with its additional award area Planet Boing, I questioned if kids would be motivated or distracted by the awards and praise. After conversations with the developers and feedback from our Parent Review Team, it was clear the "challenge + entertainment" formula of game play contributed greatly to task persistence. The praise acted like a nice pat on the back to let kids know that they were doing well and to keep going. They noticed the "good jobs," but were much more motivated by leveling up.
Assumption #2: Praise is interfering with learning.
I recently read Excessive Praise in Preschool Apps!, a clever post from Karen Nemeth, whose "praise interruptions" between every word had me laughing and relating. Her point is that praise carelessly integrated into apps can disrupt the child's internal motivation of completing a challenging task and actually decrease the internal interest and learning.
Yet, there is more to praise and feedback in the context of game design that needs to be considered. Apps are not computerized teachers or parents. Apps are games from which our kids are learning.
How Assumption #2 fails: Games use hooks like praise and feedback to draw you in and promote playing. Apps can effectively get kids started, interested and motivated by engaging them through extrinsic methods that scale down to challenging, more intrinsically motivating play. The outcome is longer time on a meaningful task.
An app that just came onto my radar as we moved to reviewing apps for seven- and eight-year-olds is Operation Math by Spinlight Studios. Maybe it's because I really love books about spies and never miss a James Bond movie, but there was something special about this app. Whether we like to do it or not, there is value in memorizing and being able to quickly compute in our heads. The traditional timed tests of the classroom do not make me excited, but an app like Operation Math does! The developers thoughtfully created an engaging storyline, scaffolded the learning to decrease frustration, and let kids be aware of how they were learning. If you play it, you'll notice that the praise in the app fits seamlessly with all the amazing details in the game design.
Assumption #3: Apps should pay more attention to the content they are presenting than to the feedback.
My perspective has been that by focusing so much on the praise, we are overlooking the content that the praise is supporting. We should be questioning the content when stars, sparkles and praise are used to make one-dimensional content more interesting. Content in apps should have more substance than answering simple questions about what a child has learned in school.
How Assumption #3 fails: By thinking about feedback and content as separate pieces, we miss how the two elements support each other. When content and praise are designed holistically, you get an app that teaches, models and gives ample scaffolding for practice. The praise is there to keep the users engaged, feeling capable, understanding where they have achieved success and encouraging them to keep persisting at a meaningful task.
Look at every app that Motion Math has published. They take the important concepts we often present with straightforward lessons and practice in the classroom, and make them into something magical. When you were in school, did you enjoy learning about fractions, worksheets with number-lines, multiplication tables, addition timed tests, etc? Well, no one did. Yet, with their strong understanding of the math content integrated in quality game design, Motion Math has had great success. With examples like this it is clear that apps should not only support the traditional experience, but transform it as well.
What can be done to encourage more apps that integrate content and feedback thoughtfully in their design?
Every day, teachers are tasked with creating multiple lesson plans that try to make educational objectives interesting, intrinsically motivating and connected in many different contexts. Game designers understand what motivates people playing a game, a unique skill that is hard to acquire. Without this knowledge, games cause boredom and frustration instead of excitement and self-confidence. Designing apps for children requires the skills of both the teacher and the game designer. Most people aren't both, but through collaboration, educational apps for kids will evolve and lead to innovative games that teach and entertain in ways we previously couldn't imagine.