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Learning About Learning Games

There is a lot of debate these days about the application of game-based formats in academic settings, both online and face-to-face. I've been a part of several recent discussions that made me aware I need to learn more. At this point I have more questions than answers, and just a little experience with digital badges, but there are many resources available to guide the way. With this post my goal is to identify the fundamentals of gaming as an educational strategy and explore some of the pros and cons as it relates to online learning.

Games, Gamification, and Game-like Activities

What is a game and how can it help students to achieve learning goals? While there are no agreed upon standards in higher education, there are a few elements to look for. My search for more information started with a few definitions.

Gamification: In his presentation, Don't Play Games with Me: The Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design, Sebastian Deterding defines gamification as "using design elements from (video) games in non-game contexts to make a product, service, or application more fun, engaging, motivating." Some of the examples provided include the Nike+ application of scores, challenges, and trophies to achieving personal fitness and Foursquare's application of badges and social media to share users' location-based "check-ins." But what is a game?

Game: The term game can be used to describe a lot of different types of interaction, even in the specific context of learning. Different from game-like activities, such as puzzles, true games are more complex in nature. Educator Sarah "Intellagirl" Smith-Robbins presents three primary components of games:

  • goals,
  • obstacles or challenges, and
  • collaboration or competition.

Deterding presents several additional features of games:

  • leaderboards to track winners,
  • a set of rules to guide participation,
  • incentives for players (learners) to engage in and complete challenges,
  • feedback that informs decisions and performance, and
  • badges that recognize and reward accomplishment.

Games are also often described as "fun." This is what comes to mind when we think of "playing games" in general and is one of the reasons a game-based approach might be considered in a course. Our #IOLchat participants identified this characteristic when they described learning games as "a way to present learning materials that taps into the playfulness of learners" and "promote critical thinking and reflective thought processes in a fun way."

The Gamification of Online Learning

Smith-Robbins points out that "education has been a system of status and points since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Scores on assignments serve as points. Graduation is a level achieved. A diploma is a badge of confidence from an accredited institution." Technology, and the rise of video games and virtual worlds, allows for more experimentation with the application of game elements to formal learning. Here are just a few examples of how games and game components are being applied to education:

  • Open Study is an online "social learning network" where students across courses and schools can meet to help each another and answer questions. The goal is "to make the world one large study group." Participants can also earn badges for helping others within the system.
  • Using Games for Learning and Assessment, a for-credit course recently offered by the University of Wisconsin-Stout, not only focused on learning games, but also required learners to engage in one throughout the course. Students "explore[d] quests" and earned badges through the BadgeStack Project, which offers the ability to collect learning badges from multiple sources.
  • Quest2learn is an example of game-based learning for younger students, grades 6 through 12, who engage in quests throughout their curriculum. These activities create opportunities for "learning based on access to online resources and tools from around the globe, learning that supports customized content for every student, [and] learning that is game-like in its ability to inspire and motivate."

There are, as with most approaches, both benefits and challenges to be considered before making the decision to develop a game for your course or program. Game design, as a growing field gaining influence in education circles, is more than just adding a layer of points, competition, and levels to existing learning objectives. At its best "engagification," an alternative term presented by Clark Quinn, can foster meaningful learner engagement with materials, conversations, and activities that tap into intrinsic motivation and real world application of tasks.

Recent articles such as Ruth Colvin Clark's Why Games Don't Teach, challenge all of us to look a little closer at game design and how it might be most appropriately applied to help students learn. Clark notes that there are many genres of games (e.g., adventure, arcade, strategy, narrative, immersive) and a need for more information: "We need greater precision – a more finite and specific set of game types and features – in order to match specific game environments to diverse learning outcomes."

While leading practices have not been determined, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach to gamification, multiple groups of education researchers are already involved in these kinds of investigations. Take a look at some of the resources available from the Games for Learning Institute and to continue your own learning about learning games.

Have you participated in game-based learning in your online courses? Tell us about your experiences and recommendations for course designers, instructors, and students.

Image credit: tjmwatson, Flickr, CC-BY