Hate the Game, Not the Gamers

Recently, I have been following a conversation on Twitter about why certain assessment methods are better than others (see Aaron Blackwelder’s post about cheating). One of the ideas coming out of this conversation is that educators can gauge a method’s effectiveness by whether it can be ‘gamed’ by students.

Wikipedia defines gaming as

using the rules and procedures meant to protect a system in order…to manipulate the system for a desired outcome.

Gaming a system means knowing how it works and understanding how to maximize your personal benefit and achievement within it. It means spending your limited resources, time, and effort in ways that the system recognizes and rewards. By extension, it means finding ways to put the least amount of resources in to get the maximum benefit out. Gaming a system is often equated with cheating because it allows people to achieve results and gain advantages that would be almost impossible if one were following the explicit and implicit rules of the system. In the classroom, some suggest that the more structured and defined an assessment, the more reliable and valid the results will be. This connection between rules, accountability, and evaluation is then equated with fairness, or a ‘level’ playing field.

Three conclusions flow from this description:

  1. Systems that can be gamed are bad because they allow for, and, in some ways, reward cheating.
  2. The more flexible the system, the more open it is to gaming.
  3. The most fair systems are those that have rules that cannot be gamed.

If one subscribes to this view of things, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way teachers traditionally evaluate students. In fact, there is likely now some added urgency to return to stricter, more structured grading because it is less likely to be gamed. Some of the same people might use this rationale to justify standardized tests and curriculum.

However, is it true that rigid structures are more resistant to gaming? And perhaps even more important, is gaming a system really a bad thing?

In a traditional classroom environment, assessment is tightly tied to relatively few measures, things like test taking, homework, fact recall, and compliance. The way these measures are assessed is somewhat rigid. Rubrics, checklists, and raw scores  are all hallmarks of this kind of classroom. Proponents of this kind of evaluation might say that it provides concrete, objective data directly to the curriculum. Objectivity is key in this model because it does not rely on the teacher’s interpretation or judgment which could fluctuate based on a wide range of factors. Objectivity equals fairness, and a perfectly fair system gives all students the same opportunity for high levels of achievement.

This type of assessment is resistant to gaming, they might add, because a student can’t get around not knowing the content :  it is either present on the page or it isn’t.

Curriculum and content is king.

I would argue that rigid systems that emphasize content are easy to game, and even go so far as to say the the system is actually set up to be gamed by select socioeconomic groups. Students know that certain parts of texts are important, and that knowledge need only be remembered for short bursts in this system. They are capable of manipulating this system to get a point or a grade.

Students who attend school regularly, who conform to rules, who have decent literacy skills, who have strong peer networks, and who have support from home (tutoring, extra-curriculars, travel, camps, parent involvement) are disproportionately successful in this system. The link between income, status, and education has long been clear, well researched, and reported (StatsCan, 2009).

However, a student with a learning or physical disability, who comes from a low-income or single parent home, or who learns in other modes, is likely to find education a Procrustean bed.

Because of the inherent bias in this kind of content, assessment, and testing, I don’t think that it can be called objective or fair. It is also easier to game because of the narrow range and shallow depth of the content it assesses. Educators should ask, “What kind of student does this system produce?” I suggest watching the valedictory speech below:

Thanks to Mike Szczepanik from our TG² Twitter group for sharing this, and kudos to Erica Goldson for having the courage to say it!

Should we be upset that students like Erica gamed the system, discovering that she didn’t have to be learner (perhaps just a rememberer?) to be successful?

I would say the answer to that should be a resounding ‘No.’ In order to game a system, you need to understand how it works, its limitations, what it values, and what it doesn’t. It is, in and of itself, a complex kind of learning that also requires creativity and the ability to apply what one has learned.

What teachers should be looking for is building a system that can be gamed by every student regardless of the context. But even more than this, a system is needed that requires students to ‘level up’ a variety of skills, and combine them in different ways at different times and in different contexts. There shouldn’t just be one simple algorithm for success currently seen.

Games are a context that students understand and enjoy. Games are also likely something that almost all students share in terms of schema, and so they provide an ideal lexical field to apply to teaching and learning.

Why should this matter to Teachers Going Gradeless? Well, for one, the flexibility of assessments used, the variety of student products created, and the sharing of responsibility with learners makes it hard, if not impossible, to game the system using a simplistic and rigid set of skills. The emphasis on feedback, goal setting, and continual growth means students never feel that they have ‘beaten’ the game or can simply replicate the same pathway over and over again. Students have to adapt and collaborate more frequently and more meaningfully to get to the point of gaming. Gaming is still possible, but that’s okay. If a student demonstrates that level of mastery in one area, we can devise tasks that allow students to work other mental muscles and grow in new ways.

There is risk and reward in making this change. When school involves students in all aspects of planning and assessment, things can get messy. Students will resist putting in the time and effort to make good choices and set high goals for themselves. They can also get fraught with anxiety and conflict. Not many people respond enthusiastically to change, especially when they are comfortable in the current system. When push back comes (and it always does), it is easy to just go back to the way things were before. Moving to a gradeless classroom is a process and not an event. Students should not be allowed to give up on a skill or concept because they do not understand it the first, second, or tenth time. Teachers need to model that same effort and resiliency in our efforts to create better (dare I say more gameable) classrooms for our students.

I encourage you to join the community, add your voice to the dialogue, and come along for the journey.

Mark Sonnemann is principal of Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Ontario. Find more of his writing on Medium.

5 thoughts on “Hate the Game, Not the Gamers

  1. Have you read Game of School by Robert Fried by any chance? Although somewhat dated now, I think it will resonate. I was given this book by my dad (an educator) back in 2005 when I was still a graduate teacher myself (after a career as an Engineer and Industria Designer). It has helped shaped the way I have approached my career in education. Ultimately, I found Montessori education fulfilled my own philosophy (and world’s best practice) in education for all ages (I currently work with adolescents 12-15 years). https://www.amazon.com/Game-School-Change-Jossey-Bass-Education/dp/1119143594

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the tip. I just read the synopsis and it looks like a good read. I will be putting it on my summer reading list for sure. I am interested in your journey to teaching – how has your engineering and design background informed your practice? I am familiar with Montessori, but I am always fascinated by the art of teaching and how individuals engage with students, content, and pedagogy to create spaces for students to grow. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the suggestion, both are much appreciated.


  2. Great article Mark. I tell my students all the time they are good at playing school but that won’t help in my class because I’m not playing the game. The traditional game is easy to play for those that value it. Those that don’t are left behind.


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