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Quick Guide to Gamification

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Game-based Learning (GBL) or gamification is one of the hottest topics in education because of the potential for learning that play has for students. The basic idea is that traditional classroom experiences can be enhanced or even replaced by learning that is fun, engaging, and more effective. This all happens when learners play games, particularly educational video games that help them learn content while being deeply invested in the process. Learning becomes something students want to do, rather than something they have to do.

This all sounds amazing, but it won’t happen until game developers and educators can come together to create educational games that have rich content and the strong engagement that is currently only seen in the best commercial games. The real gamification of education is going to take years of serious effort to make happen, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to think about right now.

A recent infographic from Edudemic, The Gamification of Education, attempts to encapsulate the entire movement in 100 seconds. This document is packed with information about the theory, history, and process of incorporating games in education. Here is an attempt to unpack and elaborate on some of the broad content it provides.

Defining the Field
The document begins by explaining exactly what "gamification" is:

(The Gamification of Education, Edudemic)

These gaming elements, and games in general, can be used in a wide variety of ways as the document illustrates:

(The Gamification of Education, Edudemic)

  • As Authoring Platforms – Students can use games, particularly game mods or a platform like Kodu or Scratch, to create an artifact that demonstrates their learning.
  • As Content Systems – Games can contain rich information about historical events, such as Rome: Total War, works of literature, or the way the world operates (Civilization, Sim City, etc.).
  • As Simulations – Students can use games as simulations of reality which allow them to tinker with variables of the physical or social world to see what happens if they are altered – Sodaconstructor is the classic example of a physics simulation sandbox game.
  • As Trigger Systems – Games can be used as tools for sparking interest or discussions. Even a game like Grand Theft Auto can provide a teachable moment in which to explore broader societal issues like poverty and violence.
  • As Technology Gateways – The engagement of games provides a great way to get students using technology in deep and meaningful ways. Any use of technology helps learners build their ICT literacy, basic technology skills, and troubleshooting abilities.
  • As Exemplars of Point of View – Back to a much maligned game like Grand Theft Auto, games provide an opportunity for students to experience alternative perspectives. Recent research into the ways in which games are legitimate texts worthy of academic inquiry (Wardrip & Harrigan, 2004) and studies that examine the psychological effects of fiction on the brain, indicate that this use of games may have a profound effect on young minds.
  • As Documentaries – The internal feedback mechanisms can, with external support from instructors, be used to help students reflect on and document their learning process. With a thoughtful approach, there is potential for games to serve as prompts for students to track and reflect on their learning in ways that help them develop self-awareness, critical thinking and decision making strategies.
  • As Texts – It is well-established at this point that games, like film, are legitimate texts that can be examined, deconstructed, and analyzed in the same ways that traditional print texts are (Wardrip & Harrigan, 2004).
  • As Research Assignments – Games can serve as sites for students to conduct research, either into the content of the game, the mechanics of play, or societal issues surrounding the context of the game.

History Lesson
While Gamification is generally understood to infer digital games, as the Edudemic infographic’s breakdown of the history of GBL indicates, games are actually a natural part of learning and, in fact, predate any historical records. Our earliest ancestors are likely to have used play and games to teach their young in much the same way that female lions teach their cubs to hunt by playing hunting/chasing/stalking games with them. Gamification is a natural way for any intelligent animal to learn. Surprisingly, our straight rows, silent, sedentary education model is much less of a natural way to learn. Ancient history aside, the infographic provides an enlightening overview of the history of digital games in education. Some of the highlights:

  • 1974 Oregon Trail – Somehow the guide missed this seminal moment in educational gaming. Oregon Trail is generally regarded as the first video game with any significant learning applications. While the actual learning in the game was minimal, it served as a prompt to get students interested in the history of westward expansion.  It also pre-dates Carmen Sandiego by 10+ years.
  • 1985 Carmen Sandiego – An early game for pre-teens that focused on teaching geography and history.
  • 1986 Reader Rabbit – A series that has expanded to cover pre-K through sixth grade, focuses on early reading and literacy.
  • 1989 Sim City – One of the most successful educational gaming franchises, Sim City has spawned countless sequels and spin offs as well as the Sims, and games like Zoo Tycoon and Roller Coaster Tycoon, games that are still popular with younger gamers.
  • 1990 Civilization (early web-enabled game) – Civilization has also inspired countless sequels and copycat games. Most importantly, it led to the creation of Apolyton U, an informal learning network that supports users in creating new, and often historically accurate, mods for the game.
  • 1995 Active Worlds (early virtual world) – One of the first interactive virtual worlds, Active Worlds eventually inspired Second Life and the exclusively educational Quest Atlantis.
  • 2002 Serious Games Movement begins – It is unclear why this date is cited as the beginning of the movement because, as the examples above illustrate, games in education had been garnering serious attention long before this point. The best reason for picking 2002 is probably because that is approximately when universities such as UCLA and Indiana began examining games and game design as legitimate academic subjects, even though they had been used to a limited extent in K-12 for nearly 30 years prior to this date.
  • 2004 World of Warcraft – The most popular of the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), WOW has inspired significant academic research, notably by Constance Steinkhueler who is currently the gaming guru for the White House. Wow has, according to game designer Jane McGonigal, the potential manpower to solve the planet’s major problems.
  • 2007 Wii Fit – The Wii spawned the gesture-based, active computing movement. This fitness-focused game has helped to make platforms such as the Xbox Kinect acceptable options for education.
  • 2009 Gamestar Mechanic – Sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Gamestar allows students to engage in quests where they build and repair games. The Gamestar website is an excellent resource for teachers looking to get started with GBL.
  • 2010 Quest to Learn – (First fully gamified curricular design) Game designer and researcher Katie Salen directs this innovative school in which the entire curriculum is based on the principles of game play and design.

It is clear that the gamifiaction movement already has a rich history and efforts like this infographic from Edudemic will only help push the concept forward. With more information like this about the history of games in education and the power of GBL, educators will have more ammunition to help make playing games a part of our education system going forward.