What Does Game-based Learning Offer Higher Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As someone interested in learning and video games, one of the most inspirational things I have seen, read, or heard lately, is the TED talk by game designer Jane McGonigal, “Gaming can make a better world.” You can watch the entire video below, but here is a brief summary. McGonigal’s hypothesis is that, if we can create engaging and fun games based on meaningful real world problems, we have the ability to leverage an incredible amount of energy and passion to solve the world’s biggest problems. As an example, one such problem was recently solved by players of the online science game Foldit, who unlocked the secrets of a protein associated with AIDS (Rooney, Sept 27, 2011). According to McGonigal, leveraging the combined knowledge, energy and enthusiasm of gamers is the next logical step in creating a world worth living in. Higher education needs to begin to seriously consider gaming not only as an area of inquiry, but also as a means for engaging students and pushing learning beyond its current state. Effective use of gaming will help to reinvent the college experience in a way that makes its value to the individual and society unassailable.

According to McGonigal, there are four ways in which game play aligns nicely with solving the world’s problems. I would like to re-direct that discussion by examining the ways in which these same four attributes can become a meaningful focus for higher education. The four characteristics of gamers that she identifies are:

  • Urgent Optimism: Gamers are characterized by extreme self-motivation. They act immediately and decisively to attack an obstacle and always believe that there is a realistic chance of success.
  • Social Fabric: Through game play, individuals develop an affinity for the other gamers they are playing with, trust that those individuals will support the collective effort, and nurture a strong understanding of cooperation and its benefits.
  • Blissful productivity: Game play makes the gamer happier while working hard than people generally are while relaxing or doing nothing. During game play, the individual is optimizing their productivity and enjoying it.
  • Epic Meaning: The problem-based nature of games allows players to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, and people love feeling like they are a part of something big. This feeling motivates and inspires them to keep playing to solve any problem they encounter.

In summary, McGonigal concludes that gamers are “Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals.” Games allow individuals to believe that they are capable of changing the world – unfortunately they believe that they can change virtual worlds! Not the real one. Given the power of gaming and the lack of real world problems in games, we need to make more real problem-focused games and make the real world more like games by facilitating the kinds of powerful, energetic, and inspired social interactions that characterize problem solving in virtual worlds. Can these principles be incorporated into higher education? The answer is yes, but only if we opt in on the gamification of our educational system.

 Gamification of Higher Education
There is already some significant game-based learning happening in the public schools. The work of Katie Salen and her Quest2Learn school in NYC and the work of University of Wisconsin gaming researcher Kurt Squire are two notable examples of the power of gaming in education and the impact that it can have on learning.

The 2011 Horizon report puts game-based learning in higher education as a development that is only 2-3 years away from large-scale implementation, citing many benefits to game play, including, socialization, engagement, collaboration, and problem solving as reasons for the imminent arrival. These benefits are significant but don’t truly reflect the power that McGonigal claims for games.  A deeper examination of the ways in which those attributes could be leveraged in higher education provides a concrete understanding of the potential of gaming to change the university system.

Urgent Optimism
College today has neither urgency nor optimism. Students may enter with a certain degree of optimism, but, more often than not, graduate with any faint optimism they had crushed as they return home, jobless, to live with their parents. Urgency is also lacking in the today’s college student. Higher education is seen as one more rung of the educational ladder which one needs to climb in order to get a job. There is no urgency to learn and even less urgency to graduate and cut the apron strings. A significant reason for this lack of urgency is the inability of the university system to relate to the problems of the world in direct and meaningful ways. Classes that take place in an isolated classroom, inside an ivory tower, have very little obvious real world application and thus lack the urgency necessary to make them truly engaging. An incorporation of games specifically designed to align students with real problems centered in the discipline being studied, would provide learners not only with a sense of urgency to solve the problems they encounter, but would also give them a sense of optimism, both in terms of solving the immediate problem and any other problems they may encounter. Seeing proof that one’s education is relevant, meaningful, and useful is one of the benefits of a game-based curriculum in higher education.

Social Fabric
While the traditional college campus and the virtual classroom are relatively good at providing a social life for students, those social interactions are seldom centered on truly meaningful problems. Games provide the content, structure, and medium for focused social interactions aimed at solving problems. In the gaming environment, in the classroom, and all across campus, the injection of game-based problems will provide students with a reason for learning, interacting, and working together in ways only rarely seen on the traditional campus. A game-based curriculum in higher education has the potential to extend learning beyond the classroom and beyond the campus in ways which would utilize the collaborative intellectual power of our faculty and students in visible and productive ways. 

Blissful Productivity
From my own experiences as a student and faculty member, I can say that students often view university classes as work to be done, boxes to be checked, or hurdles to be jumped in order to secure the comfortable life they want. Aside from the occasional “aha” moment, students are seldom blissful in the classroom. Imagine all the people . . . blissfully focused on their virtual problems, asking insightful questions, and creating powerful solutions to the big issues we face. There is a challenge here, as so many “serious” games are far from the engaging shoot-em-ups that students are used to. This is an issue, but one that game developers and educators can address if they will focus their attention on creating meaningful games in the mold that McGonigal proposes. She is not alone, however as many researchers and developers, and some folks who wear both hats, are making serious progress in overcoming the engagement barrier in educational gaming.

Playing games is only the first phase of this new and excitingly productive model of learning. The technology and expertise is now present to have students create the games that will change the world as part of their education. Beyond the game play, this is the next stage of advancement for the gamification of higher education.

Epic Meaning
This is probably the area of higher education that would be most seriously impacted by the incorporation of a game-based model. Higher education, in many instances, really does lack any sort of connection to the greater meaning that games can provide. Theory without application has little place in a world that is all about hands-on experiences, interacting with the world, and creative thinking. Students learn best by doing. College is about giving students the knowledge to change the world. The gamification of higher education would bridge those two areas by providing students with the skills and knowledge to change the world.

How Does Higher Ed Get in the Game?
The bad news here is that educational institutions are notoriously slow to change. The good news is that they may not be able to hold back a wave of change that is about to crest and wash their resistance away. Gaming has become an increasingly important part of culture and its spread into public education means that students entering college in the next several years are going to have an expectation that gaming will be a part of the college curriculum.

If higher education does not adapt to meet this demand, it may find itself in even deeper trouble than it already is as potential students seek alternative paths to have their interests satisfied. If an initiative such as the MacArthur Foundation’s digital badges takes hold, game-based learning may become an acceptable, even accredited, alternative path to higher education. If that happens, the dams will burst and the most significant changes in education since the Industrial Revolution will sweep away previous notions of what learning looked like.