There's a nice variation from Lee on the "guide by the side instead of sage on the stage" sentiment (ala IDEO's David Kelley): "The result is that students feel that they are in control, with the teacher merely serving as a game master." I also liked the sentiment behind this comment: "The goal," says Lee, "is to make learning more about intrinsic motivation—to leverage a learner’s desire to explore, be curious, gain mastery, and so on. If a learner can gain experience points and level up as they gain knowledge, perhaps we can cultivate life-deep, life-wide, and lifelong learners."
On the other hand, "Gamification also gets a little bit of pushback for its sometimes heavy-handed use of extrinsic rewards to make course material palatable to students" according to Finnish profesor Juho Hamari.* That's a very important critique. We have to make sure that getting points and badges isn't what's driving the learning, but something more fundamental about the subject matter. That's the problem with Lee equating "experience points and level[ing] up" with intrinsic motivation. Points and levels are artificial and imprecise ways of describing knowledge. When designing games that really tap into "intrinsic motivation," learning itself should be the object (and the process fun). Learning should not be a mere by-product of grabbing digital goodies.
That's why I am fond of gamification when it is structured around enjoying whimsical experiences or building a sense of community—for instance "The Game" that Jeff Watson ran at USC. Social interaction, collaboration, unbinding student creativity—these are the real goals, and it really is about the journey itself, rather than just the ending. That might be what distinguishes subject-based games (e.g. "Learn European history!"), where the goal is absorbing a particular body of knowledge, from process-oriented games (design thinking, empathy building, etc.) where the lived experience itself is what matters. Perhaps gamification strategies might be more powerful and/or more appropriate for the latter scenario.
It's true that playing Age of Empires III can teach particular elements of history. Battle tactics and economic management aside, the pedagogy in such a game orbits around character names, civilization strengths, and unit types (all of which could be problematic if not placed in real historical context). In this case, the "lore" surrounding games may be more important—and probably where most of the learning happens—as opposed to the battles or economy building, which are simply game mechanics. Developing a rich, historically-truthful, and complex lore could be valuable for imparting subject-matter knowledge, and games where players create, memorize or play-act narrative could be influential in this regard.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how these types of pedagogical experiments continue to develop, and I look forward to incorporating game elements into my own classes at Stanford. After all, it's just as fun for the instructor to develop as for the students to play!
*It's rather fitting that "Hamari and Jonna Koivisto of the University of Tampere in Finland [who] have studied gamification extensively" and found that "some students simply dislike competition" hail from the land where in the realm of education, equality, rather than competitiveness, is the hallmark.