Editor's Rating

Whether you are considering gamifying a single lesson, an entire curriculum, or a whole school, it can be a daunting and confusing process. Those who try their hand at integrating game mechanics into the classroom setting may meet with less than stellar results and give up after just one attempt.

But effective gamification is a complex undertaking that requires both the motivation to work harder at making learning engaging for students and the dedication to experience, accept, and learn from failures when doing so. I have spent the past year gamifying my college-level composition courses and, while I am still by no means an expert at gamifying education, I have, in the process, learned a few things from my own failures. In reviewing these lessons while preparing the next iterations of two of my classes, I realized that they can be categorized into five distinct processes that will make the task of gamifying learning less daunting and will lead to more effective results.

1. Learn from game designers

When it comes to learning the mechanics, methodologies, and principles of game design, you should learn from the experts: game designers. There are several books on game design that you can start with, including Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman and The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. There are also several game design websites and blogs that you can follow, such as Gamasutra, Lost Garden, and Raph Koster’s Website. I’m currently curating a Flipboard magazine on Games-Based Learning and Gamification that includes articles on game design that I find to be particularly insightful and/or useful.

A great way to learn about the principles and methods of game design is to take a games-based learning or gamification MOOC, such as the regularly recurring Games MOOC. The best of these will incorporate game mechanics into the course, so that you can gain first-hand experience with gamified learning environments, as well as get ideas for how to best apply what you are learning to your own students’ learning environments. The Games MOOC, for example, uses socially constructed learning experiences, badges that recognize and signal achievement, and different quest levels to increase motivation and student engagement.

Perhaps the most fun way to learn good game design is to actually play games. Any game will do, but for the best results I think we should be playing the kinds of games that our students are playing, such as MMORPG’s (massive multiplayer online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft). Playing these games will both give us insights into what kinds of game mechanics and interactions our students most enjoy and help us in identifying which mechanics would be easiest to integrate into a classroom setting.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]‘We are setting ourselves, and our students, up for failure if we simply apply poorly-designed game mechanics on top of a game that many students already do not want to play.’[/quote]

2. Take baby steps

Don’t try to turn an entire class into a game from top to bottom. Try one game mechanic at a time. Perhaps the easiest mechanic to integrate into a classroom setting is a reward system, such as experience points or badges. Sometimes simply changing the language that you use to frame activities can have a positive psychological impact. Designing the solving of a set of math problems as a puzzle or the writing of an essay as a quest can go a long way towards encouraging students to view these assignments as a challenge to be overcome with the same tenacity and problem-solving skills that they bring to their favorite video games. According to Shawna Shapiro and Lisa Leopold, allowing students to role-play has been shown to increase feelings of self-efficacy, as role-playing reduces fear of failure and increases experimentation and risk-taking. Asking students to take on roles as they complete readings and assignments is a game mechanic that requires little extra work or curriculum redesign.

3. Make it relevant—and interesting

Gamification should not be about entertaining students. At its heart, gamification is about increasing motivation to engage with an activity. As you consider how to integrate game mechanics into your learning environments, keep one thing in mind at all times: what do you want your students to learn how to do? Every game mechanic that you integrate should be relevant to helping them reach that learning goal.

For game designers, the ultimate factor in game design is player interaction; without player interaction, there is no game. And no amount of XP will encourage a player to keep playing a boring game. Simply adding game mechanics to a lesson or curriculum does not guarantee student engagement. Game designers have found that more than external rewards, factors such as narrative and aesthetics can have a major impact on player engagement. Experience points, puzzles, and role-playing can seem inauthentic if they are not part of a unifying game lore. Consider how you can contextualize your game mechanics within a narrative that will pique your students’ curiosity and keep them engaged with those mechanics over a long period of time.

4. Be flexible

Don’t force it. If students are resistant to a game mechanic, do not try to force it on them. There are some aspects of the learning environment that cannot be easily gamified. Rather than trying to mold your curriculum to fit within the constructs of the game, embed the game within your curriculum.

Be willing to make changes as needed. If something is not working, de-bug it as soon as possible. Consider your lesson or curriculum in beta phase at all times. I realized early in the semester that some aspects of the current iteration of my First-Year Composition course needed more extrinsic rewards to increase participation, while others needed to better encourage intrinsic desire to master the skills needed to win the game, so I have adjusted the rewards systems accordingly.

5. Assess and reiterate

Game designers subject games to a rigorous assessment and reiteration process. There are several methods for assessing the effectiveness of the game mechanics you integrate into your learning environments in order to determine what changes need to be made before the next iteration.

Comparing outcomes between those lessons or classes where no game mechanics are used and those that are gamified can provide some insight. However, be leery of looking at grades and standardized test scores to determine the success or failure of gamification. If done correctly, gamification can introduce a level of rigor into your curriculum that students may not be used to. What is most important to monitor is how well students persist in meeting the challenges that a gamified curriculum pose for them. As a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education found, grit, tenacity, and perseverance are critical factors in student success, much more so than intelligence or ability. These are all traits that games and gamification seek to encourage and capitalize on and monitoring these traits can help you to more accurately assess the effectiveness of your game mechanics.

Asking for student feedback both as they are interacting with the game mechanics and at the end of the lesson or term will also provide formative and summative assessments of your design. When planning the next iteration of a game mechanic or gamified curriculum, it is important to consider which aspects were effective and should be built upon and which were ineffective and need to be rethought and redesigned.

Keep in mind that, for most students, school is already a poorly-designed game; we are setting ourselves, and our students, up for failure if we simply apply poorly-designed game mechanics on top of a game that many students already do not want to play. The steps I have outlined above do not appear very differently than those that any dedicated educator takes when they design their students’ learning experiences. The difference lies in the experts we must look to. Game designers are able to engage and motivate our students in ways that a traditional classroom cannot. It is time that we stop denouncing games as a distraction and embrace them as the key to capturing and focusing our students’ attention. Games are honing students’ perseverance, problem-solving, collaboration, and self-assessment skills, transforming them into perfect 21st century thinkers. Now, it is up to us to transform our classrooms and schools into the perfect playground for those thinkers.

Photo credit: basheertome

By Tanya T. Sasser
English Instructor, Jacksonville State University
@TanyaSasser