Intro to Gamifying Education

prizeMaking learning fun for students has always been a balancing act for the teacher. At what point does fun become an end unto itself, rather than the means to a learning experience? The importance of the question grows along with the increasing popularity of learning games and gamification.

Gamification, for the uninitiated, is the process of identifying the elements that make games fun or addicting, and integrating them into activities or contexts that are not games. An example is the NikeFuel app. Users get points for physical activity points logged automatically by the app; accrual of points unlocks online “trophies” and rewards. All this is shareable with other users, who can compete with each other as well as with their own past performance. The social media side of NikeFuel not only provides an online community for motivation and virtual competition, but also reminds users of the Nike brand every time they exercise. All this does not detract from the intensity or the benefit of exercise. Nor are the users playing a game; the app simply adds mutuality, competition, social recognition and progress mechanics to an otherwise monotonous and unmotivating task.

When poorly executed, gamification comes across as a clumsy attempt to control the user’s behavior, which is, in effect, an accurate perception.

Well-designed gamification is so effective that submitting to behavioral control becomes fun, even compulsively so. This is why it is trending so powerfully, both in education and in business.

The most common misconception about gamification is that it means turning everything into a game. While learning games can be effective, gamification is different and does not involve playing games. Rather, it is the application of gaming elements to non-gaming activities for the purpose of leveraging users’ innate neurological and social response patterns to modify behavior.

To a large extent, this is what many skilled teachers are already practicing. Instant feedback and public recognition of achievement are good pedagogy; levels and scores have been used in education at least since the nineteenth century.

Educational gamification integrates those already effective practices, along with other gaming elements, into a coherent whole. Students – the users in the educational model – typically choose or create an avatar, or personal character, that progresses through levels and earns upgrades in a lifelike way. Often, the teacher will fashion a narrative context to lend a feeling of epic drama or higher purpose to the activities.

Traditionalists will object: is gamification necessary – or even helpful? This is a useful and legitimate question, and one that is good to ask when new ideas gain traction and become trendy. The answer: no, and yes. Gamification is not essential to education, or to anything else for that matter. But it is the most effective way to make routine tasks engaging, which is arguably the main challenge facing teacher with regard to their students.

Gamification is not about turning education into a game. It is not about taking learning less seriously – quite the contrary. Gamification is research-based and tested in the real world. When done well, it works. With regard to gamifying your learning environment, the central question is whether your students’ engagement and motivation to learn is generally high. If your students are already learning and loving it, you have a good thing going. If this is not generally the case, try gamifying an instructional unit and observe the response!