“No more playing around!” Taking gamification seriously in digital education

Word Cloud "Gamification"Earlier this year, I was able to give a lecture on EverFi uses games to teach digital safety and responsibility in Jill Klein’s Global Digital Citizenship course at American University. In describing “HOW” we apply games to our courses, I found it necessary to attempt to explain “WHY” one would choose to incorporate them.

A quick search online revealed that EVERYBODY was talking about “gamification” in digital education, but few seemed to have a very clear grasp of what the term meant. For many, gamification seems to mean adding any sort of enjoyable distraction to an otherwise tedious subject in order to increase engagement, and hopefully, increase knowledge gain.

The basic assumption here is that learning is boring and in order to keep students focused on curriculum, you have to add in something else to distract them from what they are doing. The lowest bar for the addition of gamification for some is “anything that the student feels is fun”. If a game provides temporary enjoyment or engagement, then “HUZZAH!”, gamification has succeeded.

However, the simple addition of some unrelated game into the overall structure of a lesson, does not necessarily move the student any closer to the goals of education:  to increase knowledge in a given domain in such a way as to facilitate and inspire the transfer of that knowledge into another context. At EverFi, we think that games that only distract a student from the course content and goals not only add zero educational value, but detract from possible positive learning outcomes.

So what are some of the aspects of games that make them engaging? I am glad you asked…..

  1. A distant goal that requires building skills of increasing complexity in order to achieve.
  2. Games generally involve continuous progress toward said goal and recognition of/reward for large and small accomplishments along the way.
  3. A narrative or context for learning that extends beyond the information being provided (hopefully this helps the student to apply and transfer knowledge).

gamification 2

All of these elements can provide extrinsic forms of motivation to stay engaged in the lesson. HOWEVER, that extrinsic motivation needs to ignite internal motivation for it to be effective or as soon as the “prize/reward/carrot” is taken away, engagement may end as well. Thus, in order for any game element(s) to increase the effectiveness of a course, they need to be carefully crafted such that they facilitate the goals of the lesson without providing distraction.

This is an extremely difficult balancing act and one of the main drawbacks of gamification is that it is terribly time and labor intensive. It also requires creativity to be done correctly and to be blended seamlessly into the course.

Further, not only is gamifying a lesson correctly a complex process, but adding games or game elements does not guarantee that the course will be enhanced! Some topics may be too simplistic or complicated to benefit from game elements. Other subjects might be too serious or straightforward. Finally, not every student prefers the addition of game characteristics, some students are actually

more accustomed to traditional learning styles and find “gamified” courses distracting, childish, and/or unnecessary.

We are taking all of this into account at EverFi and only incorporate gaming elements into our courses when they are:  a) suitable for the audience, b) woven into the subject matter, and c) designed in such a way that they

improve the outcomes of the course without taking attention away from the topic. It’s a tough job, but if you want to do something right, it probably should be.