April 6, 2024

Gamification in language learning apps: Hidden negative effects (2023 and beyond)

by Mateusz Wiącek

Powerful computers nowadays can help us remember better, automatically recognize, translate and generate a human-sounding voice, search through massive amounts of data, generate text on any topic, or even talk to us. Language learning technology has become more accessible and interactive. Virtual and augmented reality, and AI tools, have been integrated into language education.

Yet, according to experts, scientists and the language learning community in general, current language learning is not better than that done with the methods from 30 years ago. 

The main criticism is around retention challenges. Language learning involves the memorization of vocabulary, grammar rules, and sentence structures. Short, infrequent sessions may result in challenges with retention, as there might not be enough repetition and reinforcement to solidify what has been learned. They create an illusion of learning. The exercises are usually not challenging enough because they reveal too much context. If there is no mental struggle, learning will be very very inefficient. It’s like lifting weights. If it’s very easy, your muscles will not grow. 

What is worse is that, under certain conditions, the current apps can be harmful for the long-term learning process.

Brazilian scientists, including Cláuvin Amanda, conducted a systematic mapping study of the negative effects of game design (gamification) elements on education/learning systems. 

Their results include the following:

  • They found 87 scientific publications reporting undesired effects of game design elements. They found that badges, leaderboards, competitions, and points are the game design elements most often reported as causing negative effects. The most cited negative effects were lack of effect, worsened performance, motivational issues, lack of understanding, and irrelevance. They gave Duolingo as a primary example.
  • They found out that unethical behaviours, like gaming the system and cheating, were also often reported. 
  • Developers are not aware of many of the possible negative effects and they consider this type of information useful. 

Other studies mention addiction, irrelevance, demotivation, and loss of self-belief. 

However, gamification is also prone to generate harmful effects, usually unknown to designers and engineers. These unexpected effects happen because current gamification research lacks a critical lens capable of exploring unintended design consequences.

It looks like we need to take a step back.

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