One of the most important trends we've seen in the evolution of learning-apps over the past 2 decades is the ever-increasing reliance on gamification to attract and maintain the learning-attention of kids. Wizard battles, magical animal collections, elaborate adventure-narratives ➔ these features are now commonplace in learning-apps used both in school and at home across North America. And some apps have even gone so far as to create elaborate MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games).

Taken at face value this might appear to be a clear win for everyone involved. Kids are finding their learning experiences more fun, and parents & teachers have an easier time getting them to complete their learning assignments.

Our sense however, is that it's not so clear. While many of the subtler (and arguably more important) aspects of gamification both enhance and align naturally with learning, the more heavy-handed forms of gamification do not, and actually come at a heavy cost to learners that's just not appreciated by the vast majority of parents and teachers.

To understand what this is truly costing our kids, we need to delve into the world dopamine, its relation to learning, and what's happening to our brains as a result of an overconsumption of unearned high-dopamine experiences from social media, TV, and video games, made constantly accessible to us by our mobile devices.

Dopamine (a.k.a. synaptic sugar)

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is associated with pleasure, motivation, and reward. When we engage in activities that release dopamine, such as playing a game or achieving a goal, we feel good and motivated to continue.

The role of dopamine in learning

When learning, at those crucial moments where we finally make a connection or realization we were previously missing, our brains release dopamine to promote growth along the specific neural pathways forming that connection or realization. It is used by our brain to ensure that we remember what we just discovered. And the harder it was for us to finally get there (i.e. the more we earned it), the higher the dopamine hit, which makes sense since we especially want our brains to remember the things that took a lot of work to get to. In this way, dopamine plays a crucial role in learning. And promoting naturally-earned dopamine hits during learning is both necessary and beneficial.

Dopamine burnout

The trouble is that we also get dopamine hits every time we eat something sweet & tasty, watch an exciting movie or TV show, look at our phones while on public transit, play a fun video game, or look at pictures on social media.

And the ratio of reward to effort is far higher than what we're able to get from regular real-world activities. Washing the dishes is a medium-effort/low-dopamine activity. Doing homework is often the same.

So the dopamine hits we depend on to cement those crucial learning epiphanies can start to feel somewhat lackluster as a result of our overexposure to high unearned dopamine hits. Learning, which was supposed to feel exciting and engaging thanks to natural levels of dopamine being released, may now feel a lot more tedious for large numbers of kids.

Faced with this predicament, large developers of learning-apps have responded by trying to boost kids' dopamine-levels through heavy-handed gamification. Much the way a parent might be tempted to add sugar to their kid's otherwise healthy breakfast cereal to get them to eat it.

The consequences of adding too much synaptic sugar to our kids' learning

The danger of heavily-gamified learning is 3-fold:

  1. It creates an over-reliance on game-elements (such as earning rewards, points and prizes) for kids to remain engaged and motivated that distract from actual learning
  2. The dopamine hits occurring from pure game-play can interfere with (i.e. “steal the thunder” from) the naturally-earned dopamine occurring as a result of real learning.
  3. It contributes to our overall dependence on unearned high-dopamine experiences (which reduces our kids' resilience and ability to persevere through harder experiences more generally)

What we can do about this as parents & educators

First and foremost, we highly recommend limiting screen-time for kids - especially those under 12-years of age. This may seem paradoxical coming from a team that's built a math-learning app that contributes to a learner's overall screen time, but we can't stress this enough. Take them outside, have them interact with the world, and be highly selective of the learning-apps you have your kids use.

Secondly, when it comes to evaluating the learning-apps you're considering, be on the lookout for heavy-handed gamification features, such as:

  • Adventure narratives
  • Dazzling visuals & playful sounds (i.e. high sensory-stimuli)
  • Elaborate point systems
  • Customizable characters
  • Collectable items having no real relation to what's being learnt
  • Leaderboards encouraging competition and making “winning” the primary goal

These are the "artificial sweeteners" ➔ they create extrinsic motivation for kids to engage with an app that has nothing to do with the actual learning going on.

The best game characteristics are much more subtle, and often go unnoticed:

  • Maintaining just the right level of challenge for learners to remain in a state of flow
  • Rich feedback on how well learners are doing
  • Opportunities to help and collaborate with others

These are the "natural sugars" that are already present and whose flavors need merely be drawn out ➔ they are intrinsic to the learning-experience itself, allowing kids to experience the joy of mastering new skills for its own sake (something that may be even more important to cultivate than the learning itself).

In summary

While gamification can be a helpful tool to enhance learning, it should never become the main focus of the learning experience. And parents and teachers would do well to avoid the apps that put their own user-engagement numbers above the learning gains (and overall well-being) of their users.

For some children, especially those with acute ADHD, heavily gamified learning apps might still be an enticing option parents, and it's not always such an easy decision. But for most children, steering clear of heavily-gamified learning-apps is important to ensure they develop both a natural affinity toward learning, and the resilience needed to push through challenging experiences that will serve them well throughout their lives.