What is Gamification?

CHEAT SHEET: Gamification in the classroom

Gamification has been the talk of the (educational) town for a while now and is considered a key trend for 2021. But what is ‘gamification’ and what does it look like in action? If you’ve ever turned a learning task into a game, you are already across gamification. Teachers are the undisputed masters at using games to make learning fun, but ideas about gamification as we currently understand it are shifting. This week on School Stream, we are taking a look at gamification, the benefits and the barriers.

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The definition of gamification

Gamification in an educational context can be understood as using games to make learning fun – something teachers have been doing forever. But the times, they are a-changing and so are the kinds of games that capture and keep the attention of learners. It’s probably no surprise to hear that the recent boom in gamification has arrived hand-in-hand with our increased use of technology. As a result, gamification is more likely to occur via a digital conduit such as video games, ‘playful design’, virtual reality, awarding points and badges to learners, leaderboards to show progress and simulations that are designed to attract and keep learners engaged. There are many definitions of gamification but the following seems to be the most widely accepted:

“Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It can also be defined as a set of activities and processes to solve problems by using or applying the characteristics of game elements.”

Why gamification in the classroom? The benefits and why it works. 

Game Designer Jane McGonigal gave an influential TED Talk in 2010 (6 million+ views!) that was at the forefront in extolling the benefits of gaming and the skills of gamers. She spoke of the skills and attributes that may go some way in explaining why gaming is such an effective learning tool: urgent optimism (or extreme self-motivation), virtuosity in weaving tight social fabrics, blissful productivity and epic meaning. In other words, all the good stuff. Gaming works because it taps into something inherent in all of us:

“The benefits of gamification are rooted in human psychology. By pitching learners against themselves or using stories with learners embedded in the plot, gamification makes learning much more interactive and exciting. Elements of competitiveness and associated rewards make the whole experience even more satisfying and rewarding.” eLearning Industry.

Education technology researchers say there is plenty of compelling data to recommend this kind of learning, as long as it aligns with learning outcomes and is not competitive in the traditional sense. Other explorations of this topic by researchers state that gaming has the potential to:

  • Draw students into a course more actively.
  • Utilise competition to pique motivation.
  • Hone student abilities while achieving interim goals that makes them feel like they are progressing.
  • Reinforce the fact that failure is not a setback nor an outcome but indication that more skill building is needed.
  • Through discrete steps, lead to a major goal, students can see the interrelationship of tactics and strategy.
  • Learn about procedure and the value of alternative paths.
  • Help students become more confident, independent thinkers who are more prepared to take on large projects and carry them through to completion.

Gaming is never going to replace the knowledge, experience and connection of a real-life teacher, but gamification may be another arrow in the educational quiver that teachers can use to support students’ learning.

The challenges of gamification

Gamification, of course, is not without its challenges. One of the key challenges is designing games that meet at the sweet spot of educational and fun. The game may be knowledge-rich and curriculum-aligned, but if it’s no fun then students won’t play it. Other barriers to successful gamification activities include: 

  • Games take time to design and learn properly.
  • Wasted efforts will be the greatest administrative fear.
  • Involve materials that range from the inexpensive to the costly.
  • Design efforts are often funded via grants which have to be managed.
  • Pedagogical and technical supports might be necessary (additional resources).
  • Issues of access and the digital divide.
  • An examination is needed as to whether students actually prefer this approach to teaching.

And across the board, all researchers urge caution and moderation in using gamification. 

Whether you love it or loathe it, gamification is already playing a big part in all our lives. From the star rating you give your ride-share driver to the mini celebration on your watch when you reach 10,000 steps, gamification is seeping into every corner of our world. The classrooms of today are packed with students who are 100 per-cent digital natives. If we want to engage them and inspire them to learn in a way that resonates, gamification might be a good place to start.

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