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Using Gamification as a Teaching Strategy

Joe Federer,

The word “gamification” had made its way through both corporate culture and the education world, but what exactly is gamification and does it really work?

In general, the “Gamification” teaching strategy means the taking of principals from games (often video games, but not always) and incorporating them into … well … whatever you’re trying to gamify.  Marketers have been circulating this term for years, and brands continue to try to formulate the perfect balance of gamification in their outreach schemes.

But gamification isn’t just for marketers. When you think about what a “game” is, what comes to mind? There’s nothing inherently valuable in a game, and when the game is over, you’re no better off than when you started (well, that’s debatable. Studies have shown there to be tangible benefits to video games). So why do we love games?

That’s exactly what gamification advocates are trying to solve. Because what could be the secret to marketing could be an equally viable force in the education space (we’re both trying to get people to do something they don’t necessarily want to do, right?). Game creators (especially video game makers) have mastered the art of the interface – after all, what else is a video game but a fun computer interface?

Now in the traditional sense, gamification is what I’ve described above. But some teachers are taking gamification to mean something else – they’re using video games themselves in classrooms to help teach. Minecraft in particular has made its way into education with its open sandbox style of play. The game’s graphics are nothing spectacular, and the game itself isn’t a “game” in the traditional sense – when it launched, there were no levels, no weapons or guns, no bad guys. But players are able to create houses, skyscrapers, experiments, even working calculators just by moving blocks around in the game. One student used Minecraft to demonstrate Newton’s Laws of Motion for his Physics class!

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Here are some elements of gamification that are often utilized by game creators to keep players coming back for more:

Experience – This is mechanic is used by the vast majority of game makers now because it provides real-time feedback and progress tracking for players.

Leveling Up – Tied closely to experience (above), when a player accumulates enough experience, a character often “levels up,” providing a metric for progress that doesn’t feel like a grade.

Rewarding Exploration – Think like a video game developer – if you went to all the trouble of creating an entire world for people to play in, wouldn’t you want them to explore? Games often reward players for exploring – how can you do the same in your classroom?

Unlocking – What makes players want to gain experience, level up and explore? Unlocking new things! In games, that means new abilities, areas, items, etc. When players reach a certain level, they can do more, use more and explore more.

Competition – Now this is a hot-button issue when we’re thinking about school generally, but something about competitiveness in gaming only pushes players to continue to do better. Rather than “losing” players receiving negative feedback, the “winning” players receive some type of (low-value) reward. The reward is simply a token for winning (sometimes as simple as a badge or a title) and doesn’t have significant impact on the experience of the players.

Something New – Gamers and developers alike will tell you that once a game is “finished” – once all of the cool items, abilities, levels, etc. have been unlocked - players begin to lose interest. That’s why today’s game developers constantly update games with new items, unlocks, and so on. When thinking about this mechanic in a classroom context, it’s important to make sure there is a reason for students to continue playing the “game.”