Gamification, Social learning in Education

The current trend towards the increased use of games and game mechanics in instructional situations could probably have been foreseen quite some time ago. Stretching right back to the primitive gaming technology of the ZX Spectrum in the early 80′s, kids were hooked.

As a wider variety and higher quality of educational games have been produced, it is really no surprise that educationists have gravitated towards further use of them as tools in the learning environment. Is this necessarily a positive development, however? A recent article on the subject makes for interesting reading.

In 2011, Joey J. Lee, Ph.D and Jessica Hammer, an Assistant Professor and Graduate Fellow from Teachers College Columbia University in New York, published this paper on the subject, entitled Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?   According to Lee, gamification can be applied to three different learning areas – namely, those covering ‘cognitive’, ‘emotional’ and ‘social’ needs of students.

‘Cognitive’ benefits include the development of problem-solving skills. Players must complete progressively complicated sequences of actions which may cover areas such as physics, maths, languages or spatial awareness. Successful completion of levels lead to the reward of more and more difficult levels, providing constant motivation to strive harder and constantly develop skills. This is perhaps the most obvious of the benefits, but the next two may be of equal, perhaps greater importance.

Gamification can, according to Lee, be a powerful tool in addressing the child’s ‘emotional’ needs. Games have the unusual ability to turn positive emotional experiences into positive ones. Simply put, in order to achieve success in games, failure must be experienced several times first. In a formal teaching environment, the negative emotions felt during initial failure would be far more extreme, and difficult to turn around into something positive. Not so in games. The failure is expected – inevitable even, which detracts from the feeling of despondency. When the success follows, as the level is eventually completed, the student’s previous feelings of negativity have been entirely eclipsed by the satisfaction of having finished the level.

The ‘social’ benefits of gamification may not be immediately apparent, since gaming has a rather unfair image of being an antisocial activity as games are often played alone. This does not mean that social skills are being compromised however. Lee argues that in the player assuming new in-game personas, they are exploring many aspects of their own personalities. Psychologists have long hailed the importance of sociodramatic play, where children assume different identities in a play environment. Games can achieve a similar effect, through inventing new characters for children to ‘be’ with different powers, strengths and personalities. By this same principle, children who cannot settle into a school environment can use a school-based gamified environment to assume the role of a student. Since Nasir & Saxe (1993) claimed that students are more likely to succeed if they have a ‘strong, school-based identity’, this could be one of the most subtle, but powerful benefits of gamification.


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