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On Gamification, Games, and Edtech

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 -- Jessica Loredo

Today, everyone is playing games, whether it is tapping away on Candy Crush Saga or zoning out in front of a TV or monitor for a few hours playing an intense role-playing game. Many different industries (healthcare and fitness to name a few) are not blind to this cultural shift and are pouring real dollars into identifying the elements in games that can be leveraged for motivation and engagement in business. And, of course, the education industry is looking closely at games and their potential for increasing learning and engagement for students as well. Children can play games for hours on their tablets or home consoles, so it is easy to see the impact. As parents and teachers marvel at their children’s suddenly intense focus, it begs the question: how can I get my child this engaged in other areas, such as learning? 

This question and many like it, along with an increase in the general populace playing games, spawned a new buzzword and movement called “gamification.” Gabe Zichermann, the chair of GSummit (an organization and well-known gamification conference), defines gamification as:

 “…the process of engaging people and changing behavior with game design, loyalty, and behavioral economics. It’s taking what’s fun about games and applying it to situations that maybe aren’t so fun.”

While this is generally true, it is no new phenomenon. Teachers have been using “gamification” methods in their classrooms for decades, developing their own games and game-like activities to make learning fun. For example, a search for “math games” on TeachersPayTeachers.com produces over 94,000 results.

Furthermore, simply adding a game into a lesson does not necessarily guarantee that students will be more engaged. This is where identifying what truly motivates and engages students becomes more of a design activity than an easy plug-and-play solution. Jesse Schell, professor at Carnegie Mellon University in entertainment design and CEO of Schell Games, speaks on the movement:

“Gamification is a word people use when they are trying to figure out how to make boring things more interesting. It’s a kind of naïve word that I hope will go away soon. When people say “gamify,” they really mean something more like improve motivational design…”

And indeed, the key goal for teachers and parents is to motivate students by leveraging several elements from games or other fun activities. This could include using multiple systems of engagement like rewards, avatars, experience points, levels that reveal additional rewards, live competitions, badges, cinematic cut scenes (machinima), and high-quality art.

One Canadian company is even attempting to package many of these game elements (pulled from traditional role-playing games) into one well-designed motivational tool called Classcraft. The application is like a shell that a classroom teacher can use in any subject area to assign avatars to students, award points, create discussion topics and challenges among student teams, and even generate random events that add or subtract points from the students’ overall character attributes (always recoverable, of course). Motivational tools like these can add interest and engagement to a subject area that may not be naturally fitted with intrinsic motivation.

Many companies currently use minor forms of game elements in their software, such as avatars, mini games (as Study Island does), and reward points. At Edmentum, we are currently performing our own research and usability testing to gain insight as to how game elements can motivate a student to spend more time in a lesson and learn more effectively online. This research will help inform future motivational designs and ensure that game elements are not used irresponsibly and will have the data to back up their inclusion in a software package. Thus far, the results are promising. Further research will certainly be needed, but as it stands, motivational design is an exciting new frontier in education that seeks to benefit students, parents, and teachers alike.

Want to learn more about Edmentum’s award-winning solution for standards mastery, Study Island, which features a variety of engaging learning games? Check out this brochure!