Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Duo Lingo And The Sneakier Downsides Of Gamification

 A few days ago I started using Duo Lingo -- the website and app for language learning. For now, I'm trying to improve my French.

As maybe you know, Duo Lingo uses gamification, which, as I understand it, means harnessing the power of visuals and rewards associated with games to make whatever you are doing really fun and engaging and maybe even addictive.

Before I used Duo Lingo, I had a sort of low-level general suspicion of gamification. But I thought language-learning was one area where it made total sense.

My general suspicions were grounded in several kinds of considerations.

First, it seems to me like there's a fine line between gamification and the saddest aspects of the "attention economy" described by Tim Wu and others. Capitalism means someone is paying to get your attention in one place rather than another. Using finely-honed techniques that make people really really good at that has got to end in depressing conclusions. Wu says the forces controlling our attention have us narcotized with listicles and that "fame, or the hunger for it, would become something of a pandemic, swallowing up more and more people and leaving them with scars of chronic attention-whoredom."

All this to say: the more sophisticated the techniques for harvesting your attention, the more someone is getting you to pay attention to what they want you to pay attention to. You could call this mind-control and not even really be exaggerating.

Furthermore, it seems to me that even learning through gamification could be a problem. A lot of what I teach -- and a lot of what I think matters most -- is inherently complex, open-ended, and subject to interpretation. It has been depressing the last year or so to see people saying things like "I guess statistics don't tell us everything we need to know" or "people believe what they believe for all kinds of complex reasons." FFS. Yes, in the humanities, we've known that forever, and if I sound bitter it's only because not only is teaching humanities hard, we've had to scramble to even keep our existence lately. Despite the fact that so many problems are actually people problems and not technology problems.

It's bad enough when people want to be able to learn via bullet points and slides, so that even a short essay seems to them a hopelessly dull and involved kind of thing. With gamification that's going to get even worse. "What do you mean I can't learn about the Middle East Crisis or income inequality or decoloniation in a few minutes with fun graphics? OK .. just forget the whole thing."

Before I used Duo Lingo, I thought that language-learning -- especially at the early stages -- was perhaps one context well-suited to gamification. A lot of the questions have straightforward right-or-wrong answers. There are some straightforward things to learn. And you need a lot of repetition. The ideal conditions for gamification!

To a certain extent, my experience so far has proven that to be true. Duo Lingo is fun to use, I feel an incentive to use it regularly, and I appreciate the way the algorithm keeps track of what I'm up on and what I need to work on and adjusts my practice. It is non-stressful and also not boring, which are qualities that almost never go together in the modern world.

And yet. I was disturbed to find myself thinking at several points over the last day or two, "Oh, this writing/teaching prep/answering email/ is difficult. Maybe I should take a break and do some Duo Lingo?"

I actually found myself having to fight off the urge. The power of the desire comes partly from the sense that using Duo Lingo is doing something productive. So -- sure, why not take a break from a difficult and frustrating productive thing to do an easy and fun productive thing?

And this, honestly, is just what I was worried about in the first place. Somehow, through a combination of luck and effort, I have that rarest of things: an ability to do and even enjoy quiet and complicated things. I use this ability in my work, but I also use it to enjoy literature, music, and other things. I am very protective of it.

If using Duo Lingo everyday means I'm going to stop getting lost in long novels and opera performances and start looking up every five minutes to be like "Oh, should I stop this quiet activity and go use Duo Lingo"? Well -- then forget it.

For now, we're good. I'll keep you posted. A bientôt!


Shannon said...

I was super hooked on DuoLingo for months, but eventually deleted the app because it got to a point where I was no longer improving my French and German; I was only improving my score. It was hard to resist my daily (who's kidding who -- sometimes hourly) DuoLingo fix, but I didn't regret it after I'd broken the habit. That said, I still kind of miss translating sentences about bears and bees and the other whimsicals parts of the DuoLingo world.

Patricia Marino said...

LOL at the bears and bees, no kidding! I literally just checked the discussion page for why my translation couldn't be "The cow understands the dog" instead of "the cow hears the dog."