Gamification: Not Just For After-School

If you have kids, chances are you’ve seen them glued to a TV playing video games at some point in their lives.  Gaming has shifted quite a bit from the days of my youth, from a niche market populated by “geeks” and “nerds,” to a multi-billion dollar industry that has become just as mainstream as pro-sports. It’s gotten so popular that “gamification,” or the incorporation of game-based elements, is now a huge buzzword in the elearning industry.  That said, like all buzzwords, there’s a difference between saying it and executing on it.  The reality is that it’s not that hard to implement well and I wanted to share a few articles with you today on how to incorporate gaming elements using minimal effort.

Be forewarned, you’ll need a subscription to to access a lot of what I’m sharing but that subscription is free and I’ve found the resource to be extremely helpful for my work so, if you don’t have one yet, I’d highly recommend it.

This week, let’s start with an overview of gamification elements; although it’s somewhat a plug for a product (but these days what isn’t?), what’s important is that it’s a good listing of standard gamification elements which I’ll summarize here:

  1. Multi-Level Action: “Learners must be able to progress through levels of difficulty, which gives them a continuing sense of achievement.”
  2. Competitions: Students need to feel as though they are competing (hence game), which can be done either against each other, the professor or some automated device. Competition drives engagement, which makes the brain decide something’s worth learning.
  3. Rewards: These can be intangible (plot progression, badges, new levels or recognition) or tangible (grades, homework passes, actual money, etc.) but students need to feel as though their work is rewarding them in some way.
  4. Incorporation of a narrative: A lot of the video games your kids own have a story that progresses as they play. Even as grownups, we like to pretend.  Role-playing’s been a game element in face to face for decades; it’s used by the army to teach counter-insurgency, doctors to train their bedside manner, teachers to learn classroom management, and all sorts of other professions.
  5. Social Connectivity: I don’t, but some gamers like to gloat. In all honesty, providing an opportunity for gamers to connect and share their experience within it often leads to further growth in the subject we’re trying to teach.

Gamification’s a cool concept and very powerful if done well, but it’s not always a good idea to go full throttle into a new trend.  Certain traditional elements of instruction (tests, papers, etc) are important in any course as well and, like all things, we should focus on incorporating game elements in targeted ways as part of a larger purpose.  Some of the below strategies are extremely simple and might be helpful to run by your faculty if you’re interested in including gaming elements:

  1. Role playing is a great tool. Moodle lessons (a Moodle activity type) can be set up to act like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book from the 80s (yeah, I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid).  Multiple endings can be included with different feedback based off the students behavior and the students can then discuss their outcomes in a forum as a deliverable.
  2. Ratchet up the difficulty as students get through the course. Ideally setting the modules up to build on each other will do this already, but consider incorporating elements of previous learning as students advance through different courses as well (this is especially effective in linear programs).
  3. Establish a social network beyond the course. Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow for closed groups (thanks, FERPA) and give students an opportunity to share what they’re doing, ask questions, and establish connections outside of class.
  4. By simply adding a few game elements, you can breathe new life into an old activity. Set up a prize for students to achieve and a competition for them to get there.  This can work in a presentation assignment where students can vote on the best presenter (anonymously, of course).  Or consider a research assignment where the student who shares the highest number of relevant resources in a week is granted extra credit (a leaderboard could be kept updated in a discussion forum), an added badge, or an alternative assignment option the other students don’t have.
  5. Finally, there’s no shortage of educational resources out there that are games themselves. I’ve seen many marketing courses make use of Marketplace Live.  Political Science or Ethics courses can make use of NationStates and there’s a host of government media out there for educational use like this one about the Federal Reserve.  Build in a way for students to share their experience in the game with each other and derive a meaning associated with a learning objective, and you’re set.  Gameification is a Google search away.

This is a very basic view of Gamification and the majority of instructional designers who use it are in the corporate sector, not higher ed.  With that in mind, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how it could be implemented for students.  What are your concerns/questions, and what do you think would need to occur for game-based learning to take on a larger role at your institution?


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