Gamification

From Ictopus SGP 138:

The enthusiastic advocates of computer gaming in school make a number of claims for what games offer. They’re talking, of course, about commercial, ‘off the shelf’ (or downloadable) games, not the ‘educational’ games which rarely seem to offer more than ‘drill and practice’ with cool graphics and a nice interface. These claims might include things such as:

  • goal orientation – when playing a game, you often have a clear objective, and sometimes have a degree of choice in what that is;
  • interactivity – the game responds to what you do, i.e. it’s your actions that control what happens in the game;
  • feedback – you know how well things are going as you’re playing via some form of score;
  • progression – there’s a learning curve built in to most games, that takes you through from the gentler, easier levels at the beginning to significantly more complex activity later on;
  • challenge – many games are actually quite hard, often quite a lot harder than school work, with success after repeated failure a common experience; and
  • flow – that state of utter absorption in a constructive activity where time seems to fly by.

Most teachers would be happy to see more of these things in their lessons, and computer games offer these, so, the argument goes, why not bring computer games into lessons?

There is, though, another approach here, which is to take these ideas, look carefully at how computer games make use of these and see if we can’t perhaps apply the same principles and approaches, rather than the games themselves, to what we do in the classroom. James Paul Gee’s seminal What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) explores this territory in some detail, identifying 36 learning principles which games developers make use of; it’s well worth a read. More recently, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken (2011) looks at how we might ‘gamify’ personal and global problems, to unleash creativity and enthusiasm in finding solutions.

At a superficial level, at least a few game-type ideas are far from unusual in classrooms. Sharing our learning intentions is one way of focussing on specific goals. The ideas of interactive whole class teaching and assessment for learning ought to provide some connection between children’s input to a lesson and what happens in the lesson. Marking and other forms of assessment provide pupils with feedback on how they’re doing and ways to move on. There are parallels between reward structures in games and those we use in class – badges, certificates, house points and the like. Levels in games and in the National Curriculum provide one approach to progression, although I can’t think of any games where it takes a typical player 18 months or so to move up a level.

That said, I don’t think many children’s experience of school feels much like their experience of playing a computer game; so what’s missing?

As teachers, most of us do our best to pitch things so that they’re accessible for our students, so that things are comfortably in their grasp, so that they’re likely to succeed. In gaming, the experience of failure is far more common: there’s a real sense of things being too hard, really quite a lot of the time, with the player having to work hard to aquire skills, solve problems and overcome challenges. In class, practising a skill one already has isn’t nearly as engaging as developing new skills, even if this is really frustrating at times. Isn’t there some case here for raising our expectations, developing pupils’ willingness to persevere and not to be too bothered by failure, as long as pupils learn from their failure and ‘fail better’ next time?

Whilst many a good game, like many a good lesson, takes the player or pupil down a largely pre-determined path, there are many games where the player takes much more control over how the game develops. In games like this, the goals are determined, at least to some extent, by the player herself, offering more scope for autonomy and creativity. Around 2005, personalised learning became the New Thing, with its more radical, ‘choice and voice’ interpretation promising much in terms of pupils’ opportunity to pursue their own interests and enthusiasms: familiar territory to some from the Plowden Report or to others from Sir Ken Robinson. I remember fondly spending an afternoon a week when I was in Class 5 and Class 6 doing my own topic work on stamps and tea. At my last school, we gave over three week’s of history, geography, ICT and English time for pupils to research, prepare and present a topic of their own choice to their classmates. If we want our pupils to develop a love of learning and continue as independent learners, is there not a case for letting them have some say about what they learn, as well as how they learn it?

Whilst our mental image of a computer gamer might be a teenage boy in front of a glowing screen in a darkened room, computer gaming now is a far more social activity than in the past: look, for example, at families and other groups playing with Wiis and Kinects together, or the likes of Farmville, Words with Friends and Draw Something on Facebook or phones. The social dimension of education is one we’ve long acknowledged in primary classrooms, with children often learning from and with one another. We’ll often emphasise the collaborative dimension to this, but perhaps a little healthy competitiveness isn’t always a bad thing. There’s obviously a highly competitive element to many computer games, but it’s interesting to see how massively multi-player online games have evolved a strong collaborative dimension too, perhaps best illustrated by multi-player quests in World of Warcraft, where characters with different talents work together to achieve goals which would be impossible for any individual: this too has its place within a primary class.

For me, the most significant challenge for ‘gamifying’ the classroom is to step back from teaching to focus on learning. Computer games provide precious little by way of instructions or help: a big part of playing any game is about learning how the game works, developing through assimilation and accommodation a mental schema of the virtual world and the rules by which that world works. Watching or reading walk-throughs of a game seems far less effective a way of learning the game, and far less fun, than playing it. Early Years teachers have a good feel for this: they create rich environments in which children come to develop their own schemata for how the world around them works, and yet further up the primary school the chances to learn about the world through experience, exploration and experiment seem too often to take second place to being taught about it. Perhaps one way to get something of this experience back might be through creating a class or school alternate reality game (ARG), progressively revealing a complex, interconnected collection of transmedia resources and activities (both physical and virtual) for children to discover for themselves, perhaps working together to help a character in the ARG to solve a problem, or setting themselves challenges within the world of the game. With enough time and imagination, class readers, history and geography topics and a fair bit of science could lend themselves well to this sort of gamified approach, I’m sure.

So yes, please do play some proper computer games in school, but why not also see if there are perhaps just a few ways in which you might make school a little more like a really good computer game.