A Dummy’s Guide to Gamification

As an English teacher, I pride myself on having a better-than-average facility with words. I like to think I know the meanings of obscure words no one really uses and of course, new words that pop into the vernacular regularly (like tiger mum, photobomb and frenemy). So, it’s not easy for me to confess that when someone used the word “gamification”, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I was then asked to write a post on the subject which made me more than a little stressed.

It didn’t help matters that many articles I read online seemed to use the terms “gamification” and “game-based learning” interchangeably. I soon found out from an expert that strictly speaking, gamification (unlike GBL) does not refer to using online games at all. Rather, it refers to using “game-thinking and mechanics in non-game contexts”. This didn’t really help me much either to tell you the truth. But as I dug a little deeper, I discovered that it was a method of incorporating elements from games (such as a point system or rewards) to track and reward good behaviour and accomplishments. In education, this is being used by teachers to encourage good behaviour and academic achievement. The result: a more motivated, disciplined class. In my book, this does seem like something worth paying attention to.

For sure, there is nothing very new about using game elements as inducements for good behaviour. Parents the world over have been doing it for years. I, for one, have rewarded my kids with their favourite stickers or gold stars for doing any number of things properly from using the potty when they were toddlers to sharing their toys with guests to doing well in an exam. Once they accumulated a certain number of stickers, they would get a toy they wanted or go on an outing to somewhere fun. Some people might call this a subtle kind of bribery but hey, it works. Nothing like a little positive reinforcement to get what you want. And we parents deserve to get what we want now and then, wouldn’t you agree?

Teachers too, have found that giving rewards to students for good behaviour or doing well in their assignments goes a long way. Students are more motivated to get the rewards and teachers have an easier time managing the classroom and getting on with the business of teaching. From having a points system or leader boards, teachers have come up with ingenious ways of creating a healthy learning environment for their students.

Of course, when students fall short of the teacher’s expectations, points might be deducted from them as individuals or as a group. Remember the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (from the Harry Potter series)? Thanks to the rule-breaking shenanigans of Harry and his friends, his house Gryffindor, kept losing points. Fortunately, our young hero usually more than made up for it as he was quite an expert at defeating the baddies and saving the day.

But these days, as with almost everything else, gamification has taken on a whole new digital dimension. An article from the IHT reports on how businesses are using gamification “to try and hook people on their products and services.” From buying coffee to conserving energy, customers, through apps on their smart devices, can receive virtual rewards such as badges or points. These can translate into real-world gifts once they accumulate a certain number.

One parent in the US makes use of this to get her 9-year old to exercise. The girl wears a small motion sensor all the time that records her level of physical activity. Using a service called Zamzee, she is rewarded badges and medals every time she is active. These can then be converted into actual gifts like a video game from the site. Her mum claims that it has worked wonders for her daughter. Is it just me or does anyone else wonder why a 9-year old would need incentives to be active? Now, if she was busy, working 40-year old mum, I would totally get it. But that’s not really the point, I guess. It seems to me that gamification works because it relies on a most universal of truths as its basic premise: that you could get people to do anything as long as there’s something in it for them in the end.

In education too, digital incentives are being used by more and more teachers to promote better behaviour and encourage success in learning. I read about a particular online classroom management system. Using this system, a teacher can assign points to or deduct points from each student in class depending on their behaviour. For instance, answering a question could get you points while coming in late could make you lose points. At the end of the day, students with a certain number of points might get a reward like extra break time or a shorter homework assignment. A teacher might also choose to reward the whole class (with a field trip, for example) if they reach a specific target. This will surely have the class rooting for each other and probably exerting subtle pressure on errant students who can’t seem to get their act together. It looks like everyone can come out a winner with this. And the icing on the cake must surely be that students can create their own avatars. This way of personalising how they are represented in the system gives them a greater sense of involvement in what’s going on, much like an actual video game. Needless to say, when students feel they have a stake in any endeavour or project, they are more likely to be cooperative and enthusiastic about it.

Besides managing behaviour, gamification can be used in assessment. Instead of the traditional way of marking work by assigning marks and grades, teachers can make all assignments worth points. And different points correspond to different levels. In this way, students are somehow motivated to get more points under their belt in order to move up the levels as in a video game. They are always moving up (by gaining points) and never going down. With each level, they could be given skills to indicate mastery over those skills. There could be rewards for individuals who have done well and for the class as a whole.

It seems to me that right now, a lot of the grading we teachers do is punitive. When we give low marks or a poor grade, we are unwittingly sending out the signal that the student has not succeeded. Is it any wonder then that many of them feel like giving up altogether? By re-defining how we award marks and grades, students know that the only way for them to go is up. Throw in a couple of rewards and treats and we are likely to see greater success for all. What’s more is that the better-performing students are also likely to help the less able ones since class-wide achievements mean an even bigger reward. I must add though that for many of us, taking liberties with assessment might not be within our power. We could come up with numerous ways to motivate students when we grade their assignments but that doesn’t mean we will actually be allowed by the powers-that-be to carry them out. Sadly, following rigid marking guidelines especially for tests and exams is the norm in our schools.

Infographic Source: http://www.knewton.com/gamification-education/

Another interesting use of gamification I came across was in an activity called “Plot Your Own Route”. Here, students have to make connections between 2 seemingly unrelated topics, like say, World War 2 and F1 racing for instance. The student who connects the topics using the fewest number of links gets the highest number of points. This game encourages students to be curious, explore different topics in alternative ways and link ideas together. Critical thinking and reasoning skills can be developed with this exercise as students have to be able to justify their responses. And to make it more fun, students themselves can come up with the topics at random. Clearly, gamifying tasks and assignments can benefit students in many ways.

Well, so much for my understanding of gamification. Hopefully, you have found some of these ideas useful. Or better still, maybe you will be able to come up with your own ways of gamifying the classroom to motivate your students and get the best out of them.
But going back to World War 2 and F1 racing. How can we connect them? Let’s see..….World War 2 to Germany to cars to sports cars to F1 racing. Now see if you can beat that!

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