Electrifying Education Through Gamification: Part 1 – The Challenge

Today I am starting a series of blog posts (and shortly, a series of YouTube videos) about how teachers can use game mechanics to make their lessons more engaging, motivating and memorable. These posts are based not only on research I’ve done into how gamification is used by educators, but also on how I use game-thinking and game mechanics in my own classroom when I teach game design and production at The Los Angeles Film School.

Think back to the last great game you played. What made it great? You probably felt completely captivated while playing it. The minutes passed by in a blur; you were utterly absorbed and your full attention was devoted to the task at hand. This state of energized focus is what game designers call “flow”. Psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi created a model, known as the “flow channel,” to describe the environment where skill and difficulty increase just enough to ensure that an experience is neither frustrating nor boring. When game players reach a flow state, they are fully immersed in an experience, losing track of time and personal needs.

Is that how you would describe the students in a typical classroom? Probably not. Many kids think of school as it’s depicted in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. To these students, school is boring and demotivating, when it should be exhilirating and engaging. What is it that traditional classrooms are doing wrong?

According to MIT, students remember only 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear, and 50 percent of what they see demonstrated. But when students take an active role in their education, such when participating in a learning game or a virtual world, the retention rates skyrocket to 90 percent. Now, as any parent can tell you, most kids see homework as an unpleasant chore yet will happily toil for many hours grinding through quests in World of Warcraft and building elaborate structures in Minecraft. What makes “game work” more engaging than schoolwork?

One distinction is that schools typically reward students for compliance, thoroughness, and punctuality, whereas games reward players for experimentation, persistence, and play. The traditional educational model is passive and linear: the student sits at a desk and listens to a lecture; in a game, the experience is action-based and non-linear. If a student is struggling with a school subject, he is held back; however, when a player struggles with an obstacle, the game allows him to continue to try new strategies. There is little penalty for failure in a game, encouraging players to experiment.

In fact, failure itself serves as a learning tool: when players fail in a game, they acquire new knowledge and develop better skills. Such knowledge and skills become a resource for players, and the more players know, the better they become at playing the game. Game designer Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun, theorizes this process of constant learning is actually what makes games fun.

More and more educators are taking note that well designed games represent the best of learning design. Games are made of several design elements and work according to specific techniques. Games start easy and ramp up the difficulty level in such a way that players gain skills as they progress toward mastery. Games also provide models of desired behavior and give targeted feedback to direct players towards emulating that behavior. Game players regularly exhibit persistence, risk-taking, attention to detail, and problem solving — all behaviors that ideally would be regularly demonstrated in school.

How do we turn this game behavior into school behavior? That’s where gamfication comes in.

Gamification is the process of using a playful approach and game mechanics to engage people and solve problems. It’s purpose is to find out which of these elements and techniques should be used and how they should be used in non-game contexts. The final goal is to get people feel the deep levels of engagement experienced in games by approaching a flow state.

Gamification seeks to harness human motivation based on the premise that people play games because games are intrinsically rewarding and engaging. Although inventor and programmer Nick Pelling first coined the term in 2002, the concept has been in use for decades.

The boy scouts have long used merit badges to recognize a scout’s accomplishments in areas such as camping, electronics, and even game design, much in the same way that games now award achievements for players to display. Businesses use game-like techniques such as trading stamps, loyalty programs, and celebrations for the “one millionth customer” to encourage customer retention. Even the paying of taxes has been gamified through state lotteries.

But what would we do need to do to gamiify education? After all, schools already use several game-like elements. Students get points for completing assignments correctly. These points translate to achievements in the form of letter grades. Students are rewarded for desired behaviors and punished for undesirable ones using grades as a reward system.
And if students perform well, they “level up” at the end of every academic year.

Given all this, it would seem that school should already be the ultimate gamified experience. However, too often the traditional school environment results in boredom, cheating, and dropping out. There is still something missing from this environment, something that allows video games to excel at engaging kids.

Here is my YouTube video presentation of the above post.

In next week’s blog post, I’ll look at some of the game mechanics that have been used successfully to boost student engagement.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on February 16, 2015, in Gamification. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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