Albert Einstein saw games as avenues for something more profound than child’s play.
With armies of spotty faced kids holed up in cyber cafes (sometimes even playing till they drop dead and students today embodying the curious paradox of having short attention spans but possessing the superhuman ability to process information from several channels at a time (while texting on their phones), implementing game mechanics as opposed to "What do I need to do to get an A?" in schools or home tuition theoretically might not seem like such a bad idea.
The trend we’ve been seeing rise and fall is called gamification, a word that, according to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, wasn’t even in use until 2010.
Science shows us that reward centers in the brain light up when a level is completed or that pesky big boss or little boss is defeated, however, unlike a large majority of newfangled ideas, gamification, or specifically the half-hearted attempts at ‘video gaming’ education have fallen short.
Why is that?
Classroom broken? Slap a badge on it!
Image taken from Mansfield ISD Educational Technology
Experts the world over have cracked their heads trying to get kids as engrossed in their lessons as they are in Counter-Strike or Dota.
Findings from a research study coming out of New York University caution against becoming too focused on the learning outcomes of games at the expense of interest and motivation.
The sad (and pretty obvious) reality here is that not many educators seem to grasp why people play games, hint: it’s not to learn stuff.
Games are (sometimes extremely) challenging and stressful activities that we do for FUN. We play games to relax and I’ll tell you from experience, some of the games these kids play (to relax) have controls that are more complicated than an F-16 fighter jet.
Kids are willing to pick up some amazing abilities and skills as well as go through some intense processes and mental gymnastics (have you ever tried torrenting and then cracking a game? I’ve seen it being done and it is messed up!) just to get their fix of fun.
Badges, points and rewards as well as other extrinsic motivators are today positioned as key ingredients of gamification, resulting in a bevy of plastic carrot-and-stick mechanisms, trying to entice motivation through some gimmicky reward.
As John Spencer, an education writer and teacher in Phoenix puts it. “the novelty wears off quickly” and when the badges weren’t enough, he soon found that he had to add a second layer of rewards.
New challenger has arrived
Rather than superficially coating game mechanics onto an education product (such as a lesson plan) or getting lost in convoluted technological processes, (I can award badges and publish points directly to the students profile with one click!) and expecting kids to respond with the same steam (this is an insider pun directed at gamers) as a round of Ghost Recon or GTA San Andreas, maybe we as educators should take a step back.
Speaking as a hardcore Payday 2 fan and someone who practically built an entire eLearning virtual classroom application by hand (with Mozilla open badges at its core), let me make one thing clear. I am NOT anti-gamification.
What I am arguing for is a re-evaluation (and maybe even a fresh re-naming) of the gamification concept.
With gamification in education mostly going the way of IoT (The Internet of Things), implementation has been nothing to shout out (at best) and at worst a complete and utter waste of money and resources.
Image taken from DOTABUFF
As Kathy Sierra, a popular game developer, author and technology blogger states, “A well-designed game only deploys certain mechanics to support an intrinsically rewarding experience”.
Kathy Sierra recommends that educators “Try to find what is inherently interesting in a subject and exploit that.”
So what’s my take on it?
Concept: It has to begin with a strong narrative and experiential structure, bringing the player on an amazing and downright addictive journey.
More than one life and level up: There’s a reason why most video games give you more than one life. Progressing through the game is intrinsically a learning process in itself. Many of the best games also create a reason to keep coming back to the game by making your character level up (often changing appearance) as you progress through the game.
Multiplayer rocks: Ever since the first Daytona arcade machines actually allowed you to race side by side with your friends, the multiplayer experience has been an integral part of many (especially online) games. Sharing a multiplayer experience with your friends provides something to talk/laugh about and solidifies a shared, collective bond. Some of the most popular (particularly mobile device based) games allow players to trade, buy or sell items relevant to progressing in the game.