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Gamification and Education: Value Added or Lost?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

There is a tendency in life to see things in absolutes. Sensationalist media thrives on the love/hate, friend/enemy, smash hit/trash it dichotomy. The proposition of including games in the classroom at any level is no different. There are those who love the concept and are all in for redesigning entire classes, curriculums, and even whole schools that are focused on game-based learning (GBL),  such as Quest to Learn and the Playmaker School. There are also those who think that games and gamification have little value in education. In reality, however, those who are really using games for learning such as Susan Bohler (stay tuned for our upcoming Google+ hangout where we’ll discuss this very issue) know that, like any innovation, games must be deployed in a measured and systematic way that maximizes their benefits while minimizing the negative consequences. That said here is a look at the possible ways in which games detract from students’ educational experiences, and a consideration of the value added through gamification.

The Negatives
Those who have both feet firmly in the anti-gamification camp most often argue that there are no empirical studies that demonstrate real learning from games or that the skills learned in game play do not translate to the real world. That said, however, there are real negatives that can be associated with the introduction of gamification into education:

  • Cost – A fully game-based curriculum, or even one that relies heavily on games, represents a substantial increase in cost over standard book/paper/pencil education. For starters, there is the cost of the equipment, the cost of the software, and the additional expense of training teachers in the most effective pedagogical use of the medium. These are real impediments to GBL, but obstacles that should not present a challenge if we readjust our priorities to fund education at appropriate levels.
  • Distraction from other objectives – The idea that playing games pulls learners from other more valuable skills must also be addressed. The underlying premise here is that games are fairly limited in their content and the context that they present for learning. This is true. Currently there is a shortage of really engaging, educationally focused games that integrate with existing curriculums and teach directly useable skills. This does not mean that such games are not possible from game designers dedicated to education, or that engaging in the flip side of GBL, game design/production by students, does not teach real skills. It does.
  • Social isolation – One of the biggest ongoing criticisms of games, and technology in general, is that it promotes anti-social behavior and isolates individuals. While some of this may have been true prior to the explosion of Web 2.0 technologies, it certainly is not any longer.  The focus of most new games is in social play. While players may not be interacting face-to-face they are interacting nonetheless. In fact, these technologically mediated interactions mirror much of the real-world communication that drives our personal lives and business. The process and social norms taught by these interactions represent very real and useful skills that translate perfectly outside of games.
  • Shortened attention span – This is the criticism of all modern media, and probably was a criticism of books when Guttenberg first started mass producing them. New technologies necessitate new ways of viewing the world and the nature of knowledge. Computer games are no different. The often rapid pace of action and the immediate feedback can make people expect the same kinds of fast-paced, instantaneous response of all things. While that may not translate to every context, it certainly is a direction in which our hyper-connected, global society is headed. However, with average completion times of 40 hours of intense concentration and problem solving, games do promote sustained focus, just in non-traditional ways.

The Positives
While the limitations above are daunting and require significant shifting of educational and societal priorities in order to be overcome, they are worth addressing, particularly if weighed against the positive effects of gamification.

  • Technological literacy – Game play promotes literacy at many different levels, from technological to socio-emotional. At the very minimum, game play supports the development of skills necessary to run a computer, but it really goes far beyond that, as the installation, upkeep, and networking required for much game play also promotes high-level literacy skills in students (Marquis, 2009).
  • Multitasking mentality – The reality of our world is that we all multitask to a certain extent, splitting our attention between multiple screen, devices, and stimuli constantly. Games enhance this ability by forcing players to balance multiple kinds of inputs simultaneously in order to be successful. Try the fun multitasking game at the end of this post to see how well you can focus on multiple inputs.
  • Teamwork – While the isolationist tendencies of gamers have long been a popular stereotype, many current games are built on a social networking paradigm that not only allows for teamwork and collaborative play, but often requires it to be successful. This is one of the key skills required for working in a hyper-connected global economy.
  • Long-range planning – While the critique of games is that they shorten players’ ability to concentrate for extended periods of time, the opposite is actually true. Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal refers to the hyper-intense and prolonged focus that gamers can experience in well-designed games and sees importance in the concept of "blissful productivity," where players become so absorbed in the game that they lose track of time while working hard to achieve goals. The focus required to successfully navigate a long strategy game is intense and players must often weigh available resources against long-term goals and objective in order to be successful. There is little long range planning needed to succeed in a traditional educational setting beyond knowing that you must complete a book or write a paper by a certain deadline.
  • Individualized instruction – Because GBL focuses on each student playing and learning for themselves, individualized instruction is a natural part of the equation. This means two things; each student can work towards mastery, and each student can work at their own pace.

Many successful educators try to appeal to their students’ interest in order to engage them. With so many children and adults currently playing video games, games represent a natural way for teachers to reach a larger audience and have fun at the same time.

Still Open for Debate/Research
Much of what has been laid out here is still open for debate as the use of games in education is a field still in its infancy. There is research to do, implementations to try, and new and exciting games to develop. For GBL to every truly become an important part of education, the system is going to have to change so that technology is valued more highly and all levels of education are funded to the extent needed to make rich technology integration a reality. In the meantime why not explore the potential of games for learning.

Share your opinion on the value of gamification on Google+ or Twitter using the hashtag #GBLFriday.

Image courtesy of imagemajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net