“This Game Sucks”: How to Improve the Gamification of Education

“This Game Sucks”: How to Improve the Gamification of Education

Sarah Smith-Robbins looks at the idea of gamification and how it’s being applied to education.

Gamification is the application of game mechanics such as points, badges, and levels to non-game processes. Through the use of gamification techniques businesses (and potentially education) can motivate people to participate in the games that are being devised. This idea isn’t new. Education has been using points, status and achievements for a century. Private industry has used elements of gamification as well. Mileage cards, shopping stamps and coupon systems are all a form of gamification.

The problem, according to Smith-Robbins, is that that education is not very good at using game systems to motivate students. Part of the problem is that the game isn’t fully understood by those who are playing (ie students).

A game has three elements – a goal, obstacles, and is either collaborative or competitive. A goal is the win condition – the outcomes required to end the game. The obstacles are challenges of various difficulty the participant needs to overcome. Obstacles are a good thing because, as we all know, a game that’s too easy is no fun. Finally games are  cooperative (beating the game by working together) or competitive (beating the other players). 

Education, if it’s a game, isn’t using these elements very well. Is the goal “learning” or is the goal “getting a job”? What are the obstacles: critical thinking skills or getting past assessment (by any means necessary, including cheating)? Is education collaborative (working together to acquire knowledge) or competitive (fighting for better jobs and more money)?

If the game of education can’t be changed, then it can be improved by making the game clearer to the players (students). To quote the article:

  • Make goals clear, and explain how the course, major, or degree prepares learners to achieve those goals. Ensure that students align on the goals and want to achieve them.
    • Spend as much time in class and on the syllabus covering the importance of the learning goals as is spent explaining the grading system of the class.
    • When writing assignment descriptions, include a “How you can use this in the future” section.
  • Make progress transparent to each learner. Grades and assignment completion are not the only ways to measure progress toward achieving the goals.
    • Give students a way to track their progress on each learning goal of the class. An online checklist that students fill out on their own can help them stay on track.
    • Create commodities for desired behavior. For example, hand out poker chips to students who contribute in class; a student who cashes in ten poker chips earns a “Top Contributor” badge.
    • Add peer voting to class activities such as discussions and online forums. Allowing students to identify the contributions that they see as valuable will highlight good models for other students to follow, as well as provide positive feedback to the contributing student.
  • Think about your own game play. Reflection can reveal insights into innovations that can be leveraged in education.
    • Consider the game apps on your phone or iPad. How do you decide which to play and which to ditch? What makes a game “fun” to play?
    • Ask students which games they play and how they learned to play them. Talking about how we learn can help students improve their own techniques.
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