Competition, Gamification and the “Danger” of Being on Top

In attempting to gamify certain aspects of education, there’s inherently an aspect of competition involved, whether it is “against yourself” or against others. This can be both an excellent motivator, whilst also being a slippery slope that, in extreme cases, could encourage learned helplessness or create divisions within a group of individuals that were previously united. In terms of gamifying aspects of education, GOOD gamification should not result in learned helplessness– because then it has truly failed to provide any benefit right?
However, it could be argued that in a competition where groups are pitted against each other the idea that “your team can never win” can develop like a cancer, simultaneously forming in groups and out groups– “the us and them” of the winning and losing teams. This is usually the time when some writer will quote the tale of David and Goliath, or an entrepreneur will talk about how they made millions out of nothing– basically, people start telling stories about when the underdog actually wins against the odds.
I started thinking about this– about WHY the underdog wins in certain times and not in others (for it the underdog always won, they wouldn’t be an underdog)– and group morale seems to be a significant component in the success of the underdog. I’m not saying that it’s ONLY group morale, sometimes people just get lucky. Often times it’s due to an innovative unconventional strategy– doing something so unexpected or unpredictable that the opposition doesn’t REALLY know what to do or how to respond.
In the article below, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the underdogs and the outsider– and uses the David and Goliath Metaphor to boot.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/11/090511fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all

BUT, you can have the best specialists in a field and the most innovative strategies that still don’t succeed to that high level of achievement– wining the house, topping the leader board, hitting the jackpot.  If Ender’s Game is anything to go by, you can see that group morale and the support and encouragements of one’s team or “jeesh” can play a huge factor. Ender was certainly a great leader, not without faults, yet he knew how to build this aspect of group morale. To build a team.
Soldiers in the Army whose commanders are identified as the most effective leaders not only produce the most efficient results, but the soldiers under their command are also the happiest, the most likely to feel a true “sense of brotherhood” as well as a higher degree of perseverance when attempting to achieve goals.

So what does this have to do with competition, games and education? Well it seems almost too simple:

Good team/group morale + competition = perseverance +  achievement + positive psychological outcomes.

Fostering “good group morale” within a classroom could be a key driver in academic success– promoting students to work together, teach each other and learn from each other– while potentially mitigating the danger of some of the negative psychological pitfalls of adolescence via the creation of a group of people you can rely on. Definitely a more difficult objective to achieve with a group of adolescents rather than a group of military personnel.

On a side note, what happens to group morale when there is no challenge perceived? When you’re on top and there’s no enemy in sight?
Research indicates that group morale is at its highest/best/most effective when challenge is perceived, because a group will rally together to thwart the dangerous outcome.

Then the underdog comes in with a unbalancing strategy and claims the lead in the last 10 seconds of the game. Perhaps that is why the idea of being the underdog is not always a bad thing– technically you’re always being challenged, so your group morale is always high and your group is always (theoretically) on point.
Therein lies the danger of the top dog.

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