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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Moral Panic: ChatGPT and the Gamification of Education

Gamification concept in learning

Gamification concept in learning

Susan Kennedy

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Susan Kennedy is a faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and an assistant professor in the School of Philosophy at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

In November last year, OpenAI released ChatGPT, a free chatbot that produces AI-generated text. ChatGPT doesn’t produce responses of particularly high quality, but its capabilities are nonetheless impressive. There have been reports that ChatGPT can currently pass the exams offered by law, business, and medical schools, and its capabilities are only expected to improve over time. Following its release, a moral panic has set in about the impact ChatGPT will have on cheating in school.

What should we make of these concerns about ChatGPT becoming CheatGPT? In competitive contexts such as sports or games, cheating is said to be morally wrong because of the harm done to others in virtue of gaining an unfair advantage over one’s competitors. In the context of education, cheating can result in similar unfair advantages but the moral harm that tends to take center stage is the harm done to oneself. Students who cheat are harming themselves by failing to respect academic integrity and the cultivation of their learning. Put another way, the misuse of ChatGPT by students is more like cheating at solitaire than it is like cheating at poker. 

To be sure, there are ethical concerns surrounding ChatGPT insofar as it offers a new way for students to cheat. But one might wonder why the public reaction has been so frenzied. After all, ChatGPT is not the first, nor will it be the last, method students can use to cheat. It joins the ranks of wandering eyes during in-person exams, copying answers from Chegg, buying essays from paper mills, etc. But instead of being treated as yet another way to cheat, the reaction to ChatGPT seems to be characterized by an unusually high level of fear, panic, and desperation, as if it were threatening the very existence of higher education. Educators have flooded online forums to share their tips and tricks for making assignments ChatGPT-proof, an arms race has taken shape with online tools now being created to detect AI-generated text, and scorched-earth tactics are being implemented like the recent move by a NYC school district to ban access to ChatGPT on the school network.

Surprisingly, the panic over ChatGPT doesn’t actually seem to be about ChatGPT. It’s not all that impressive, nor is it significantly more effective than the “old ways” of cheating. Instead, the panic seems to be fueled by the expectation that students won’t be able to resist the temptation to use it and that cheating will become rampant. The release of ChatGPT is forcing educators to confront a much deeper issue that has been taking shape for quite some time; students who are becoming increasingly obsessed with grades, GPAs, and completing a degree, and who are willing to go to great, and sometimes unethical, lengths to achieve these things. 

This transformation that is taking place is best explained by the gamification of education. Gamification refers to the process of adding game-like elements, such as points, scores, rankings and badges, to make non-game activities more pleasurable. As philosopher C. Thi Nguyen has argued, part of what makes gamification so appealing is that it trades complexity for simplicity. Our values and goals become much clearer once we have quantified metrics for measuring our progress and success. 

In education, gamification takes the form of metrics like exam scores, course grades, GPA, and the completion of a degree. Without these metrics in place, it would be difficult to know when one has made progress towards, or been successful in, their pursuit of the true values of education. After all, the values associated with a good education are diverse and complex, including personal transformation, the cultivation of skills, exposure to diverse worldviews, becoming a more informed citizen, etc. Gamification offers some relief from this complexity by providing unmistakable metrics for success.

The problem with gamification is that, over time, it can transform our values and the very nature of the activity such that we begin to lose sight of what really matters. When students enter college, they may be motivated by a meaningful set of values that can be realized in the context of education. For some students, their grades and GPA are just a useful means to measure their progress towards those goals. But for other students, their values wind up being replaced by these metrics such that “getting an A” or “graduating with a 4.0” becomes the end. 

For the students who get swept up by gamification, ChatGPT is unlikely to strike them as morally wrong or problematic. If a student no longer values education for its own sake, then there would seem to be nothing to lose by using ChatGPT. They won’t see it as cheating themselves out of an education, but merely an easy avenue for a passing grade in a course or completing a college degree. When framed this way, the panic over ChatGPT starts to make a lot more sense. Educators are afraid because they know that, despite their best efforts to adapt their assessments to promote learning outcomes in the face of ChatGPT, these efforts will fall short until they can loosen the grip that gamification has on their students.

Many of the current conversations surrounding ChatGPT are focused on making it more difficult for students to cheat. Although this may turn out to be much ado about nothing in light of the recent announcement from OpenAI that they will start charging people to access a premium version of ChatGPT and restricting services provided by the free version. 

Whether or not ChatGPT remains free and widely accessible, education is still confronted with a crisis. It is not the ability to cheat with ChatGPT that jeopardizes education, rather the increasing desire to cheat fueled by the gamification of education. Personally, I hope ChatGPT is here to stay, for a little while longer at least. For now, it serves as the impetus to reflect on what the purpose of education is and how to achieve alignment between these values and the ones that students come to be motivated by. Looking ahead, the conversation should focus on how to diminish the emphasis placed on grades and GPAs in order to help students reconnect with the true values of education. 


Feb 6, 2023