The Gamification of Education

The infographic below, created by Knewton, provides a wonderful summary of games in education. The last portion of the graphic is a time line of game development starting with Carmen SanDiego in 1985.


Carmen Sandiego

Image via Wikipedia

I was in college with Carmen SanDiego was first released for children. Even though I was in my 20s, the game engaged me. I didn’t even mind flipping through an Almanac to improve my odds at catching the thief.


Mavis Beacon was my friendly typing teacher just as I was beginning to use my computer as a word processor. I thought the race car theme was a little odd, but it did make learning the manual skill of typing a bit more interesting.

I never owned Math Blaster, but I played it on the school computers my first year of teaching. I encouraged my students to play it when they had time in the computer lab.

Sim City was my first game that wasn’t designed specifically for the education market. With it’s easy point and click interface, I could spent hours trying to please the residents of my city.

When I could afford to purchase my own computer, I had to go with one that would help me advance in my career. I was working for a publishing company by then and Macs were the only way to go. At that time, Hoyle’s card and puzzle games were the most popular Mac games. With the increased expense of developing visually-rich games, PC game developers didn’t bother to make their games available for the small Mac consumer base. So I don’t have much experience with most of the other games on the time line.

Diner Dash

Image via Wikipedia


Only in the past decade or so have I started to see a greater availability of games for Macs. I spent many hours in Flo’s Diner Dash world and sourcing ingredients for chocolates in Chocolatier.

Reviewing the games in the time line and my experiences with them, I understand why I am drawn to more direct, task-based games. I find the open, world-exploration, sandbox games frustrating. I need a goal and an achievable task. That has been my overriding experience with games.

In order to develop successful games for the current generation, I need a much broader range of experiences. While Diner Dash and other time-management games are popular, there are many other game types that students experience today. Their expectations of games will be much different from my own.


Gamification of Education

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media


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The EdTech 532 class I’m taking this semester uses a gamification structure. From what I can tell, most of the students in the class are finding this class structure motivating. I have felt like the class curmudgeon because I am having a completely opposite reaction. I’m not motivated. I’m not engaged. I’m doing the “quests” just because I need to in order to earn enough points to “win” the class.

Today I discovered why I feel the way I do. I watched the video below by Dan Pink about what motivates us. He pointed out three key elements that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction, which are important influences on motivation. I discovered that, for me, gamifying a class took away these three factors.

  1. Autonomy
    You’re probably scratching your head. How could I not feel autonomous in a class where I get to choose my assignments, I don’t have deadlines, and I rely on no one else in the class to get my work done?

    First, the “free choices” are not really free. I have to do some quests in order to unlock other, unknown, quests. I have rarely found that the quests I do supply learning necessary to the quests I unlock. As a person who, admittedly, is too logical for her own good, I’m frustrated by things that have no rhyme or reason. I choose some tasks that I’m not really thrilled with in order to open up greater choices that, hopefully, I’ll like better.

    Secondly, autonomy as a key to better performance is not so much about choices as it is about being able to set your own course–figure out how you want to get from point A to point B. This sense of autonomy is like knowing you have to drive to the store, but you can get there any way you choose. In EdTech532, I know point B is a game model. I know I need to learn a few things before I can start working on the game model, but the quests I have encountered so far are out of alignment with the type of game I want to make.

    I can’t say I’m not learning anything from the quests. It’s more that the quests are taking me on a meandering path of detours and I’m not quite sure when I’ll ever make it to the highway where I’ll have greater access to the tools I need to build a game.

    As I mentioned, as I complete quests, more quests are unlocked. I am starting to see greater options in some quests, so the highway may not be far off.

  2. Mastery
    Each time I complete a quest, I earn points. I can’t master a quest. Either I do it and get points, or I don’t do it and don’t get points. I assume if I didn’t reach some level of expectation, I would be asked to do the quest again, but I have no idea what the level of expectation is. I only know what the minimum requirement is. I’ve been given some “awards” for my outstanding work, but I do not know what I did to earn those awards. I don’t know which quests I did at a level of performance worthy of an award. I can’t aim for mastery when mastery is not defined.
  3. Purpose
    This gets back to the fact that I’m too logical for my own good and don’t understand the purpose of many of the quests. I feel like I’m wasting my time playing games. I understand that I need to explore a variety of game types in order to know what I think works or doesn’t work. And I need to be pushed to explore game types I don’t like because I’m not building a game just for myself. I know I just need to be patient as “all things will be revealed” eventually. I just don’t get it…yet.

Putting what I’ve learned about drive back into the context of gamification, my opinion based on my current experience is that a gamification “shell” will not provide sustained motivation. You can’t just put points on assignments and call it a game. But if you can incorporate a feeling of purpose and mastery and a sense of real choices, gamification may work on a longer term.

What I think may be the most challenging to incorporate into the gamification model is mastery. Students have to have an understanding of the meaning behind the points they earn. Reaching the level of “cadet” with only the understanding that you got there by earning 500 points will not contribute to a student’s sense of mastery. The student needs to feel that he/she improved in some way as an outcome of doing the activities that contributed to a 500-point score.

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Gamifying Education

English: Teen Patti Game Play 1Video Games and Learning*, a video viewing assignment for EdTech 532, provides some key ideas for utilizing engagement and enthusiasm brought from game play into learning. Among the ideas presented, I think the following are important to keep in mind when designing educational activities, games or not.

  1. In general, people learn with greater ease when they are engaged. Think about the topics you are interested in. You probably remember facts that would bore with friends. And these facts were easier to remember than the 50 state capitals (unless, of course, state capitals are your thing). Educational activities need to provide a hook, something that captures student interest and makes them WANT to know more.
  2. When we are playing a game, it feels like a huge detour if we have to stop and “learn” something. Learning opportunities can be built into a game almost seamlessly so it doesn’t feel like we are being beaten over the head with a lesson. DimensionM

    is a game that requires detours. I honestly don’t understand the success of this game when fun, virtual world, game play is interrupted by a multiple-choice question.

  3. Tangential learning was one of the biggest points made in this video. We learn tangentially when our interest is piqued by something in a game and we choose to find out more about it. This IS a great way to learn, but it isn’t something an educator can bank on. Some, but not all, students will make the choice to self-educate. Some will find a factoid in a game interesting enough to find out more about it. Educators are required to meet set standards and can’t build activities on the hope that students will self-educate. This is a great idea for inclusion in all games. It’s just not reliable enough for educational products.

There is much the world of educational games can learn from standard, off-the-shelf games (both digital and non-digital). The gaming elements that are appropriate, suitable, and improve the learning opportunity all depend on the activity. As I learn more about gaming elements, I will gain a better understanding of where and when to use gaming elements for their greatest effect.


HUGE Disclaimer

*If you are a reader of my blog, you know that I always provide links to the videos, articles, or websites I write about. I am purposefully not including the link to this video because I believe the creator used images without permission. There’s a small chance that I am wrong. The reason I believe this to be true is because I work for a company who went through the process of gaining permission for one of the images used and I know that we had to provide attribution, in addition to paying a large sum of money. No attribution is included in this video.

Too often people feel that sharing images on the web falls under the “personal use” clause of the copyright law. With the type of distribution available via YouTube, this avenue of sharing goes well beyond “personal use”. Awareness and understanding of copyright and ownership needs to be improved across digital channels, especially in education, as opportunities for sharing (eg. via iBooks Author) increase.


AECT Standards

1.1  Instructional Systems Design–It is important to keep in mind elements such as those utilized in games to improve the engagement factor of instructional systems. Engaging a student is half the battle. If you can’t engage a student, you have lost the chance at helping that student learn. Sure, students can get by without interest. I know I did throughout most of my history courses. I could get an average score by memorizing things long enough to take a test, but what I still remember today aren’t those facts. What I remember is the stories my American History teacher told that brought history to life. I was engaged in his class because of these stories, and my ability to recall facts from that class proves to me that engagement is what I needed to deeply learn.

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