For as long as children have preferred playing to sitting quietly and learning their ABCs, preschool teachers have been craftily devising games as Trojan horses to teach them concepts such as shapes, letter recognition, colors, seasons and relationships.
Gamification in learning is an established trend, and uses the core elements of what make games fun – mastery, narrative, instant feedback, competition, and reward, to create new ways for learners to internalize information. But while teenagers still find learning algebra nowhere near as much fun as playing Assassin’s Creed, successes in classrooms across the world abound.
Most students accept that when they advance beyond pre-school their studies will become less fun, and more the application of rigor, dedication and plain old hard work. However, the growing trend of gamification – defined as adding game elements to a non-game environment – has begun to inspire teachers to apply game elements to advanced grades, older age-groups and more challenging curricula.
The results are, by and large, very encouraging, and in the context of e-learning environments, digital game-based learning (DGBL) in the classroom has enormous potential to refocus and motivate students.
E-learning is ideally situated to leverage the techniques of gamification, as the digital interface is highly adaptive and offers instant feedback. Also, most students are digital natives, so they are already primed towards game-play via tablets and computers.
A digital game-based learning experience
Before we explore a few of the benefits to students and teachers of gamification in the classroom, it is helpful to look at a concrete, real-world example of DGBL.
In 2011, the Smithsonian Institute partnered with the MIT School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences to design a curated game centered around climate change. A curated game involves a blend of online educational media, and real-world tasks, initiated and guided by a collection of characters that are moderated by real educators.
Called Vanished, the game was targeted at middle school students, and stimulated learning and problem solving in the STEM subjects.
The scenario, very briefly, involved scientists in the future reaching out to students in the current day with the news that Earth was on the brink of environmental and species collapse. Students signed up to solve various puzzles and mysteries connected to the future event, and find out ways to prevent it.
Some of the key features of the game included teamwork and information sharing via forums, real world activities such as measuring temperatures and plant material, as well as interactive events held at the Smithsonian museum and various other associated museums throughout the US.
The game attracted over 6500 middle schoolers, and even had a significant following outside of the US. Teachers reported that children expressed interest in STEM subjects after playing the game, and considered a career in science, where they had not contemplated it before.
Why students love game-based learning
So what benefits of gamification in middle school classrooms can we extrapolate from the above case study?
Scientific subjects are considered difficult or boring by many young adults and school learners. Games such as this, that create drama and mystery around a scientific quest, make learning and applying scientific methods fun and interactive.
The rich and imaginative narrative, overlaid with sci-fi themes, brought STEM subjects alive for the players. The creation of an on-going mystery constructed using increasingly difficult puzzles and problems, curated by interesting characters, made scientific discovery entertaining and enticing.
A game such as “Vanish” enables players to advance their scientific skill sets and comprehension through active application — learning by doing. Knowledge retention is famously high when lessons are designed around experiential discovery.
A key ingredient of DGBL is that it requires players to constantly improve their skill and comprehension. Levels and gateways ensure that players cannot proceed through the game without demonstrating their mastery of a level-specific skill.
Mastery is consequently rewarded by advancement through the game, often reinforced by achievement badges and points. Players’ mastery of technical or complicated subjects is immediately rewarded.
Utterly changing the traditional learning environment (i.e. arriving at a specific class, at a specific time for a designated period) e-learning allows students to engage with the course or curriculum at their own pace. Gamification reinforces this degree of autonomy; and is yet another reason students love a game-based learning environment.
Online learning games allow students a degree of self-management when it comes to achieving the various goals. This is naturally a great skill to learn in and of itself, as self-motivation is a critical skill when it comes to other educational and workplace environments.
When playing a game, mistakes are inevitable made. If a player takes a wrong step, or makes the wrong decision, or uses too many moves in a puzzle, they are immediately informed via the system, or as a result of a negative consequence in the game-play.
This type of instant feedback is tremendously stimulating in a game-play scenario, in which frustration is swiftly transformed into a determination to improve, and win. When combined with the autonomy benefit above, one can imagine the benefit to young adults and teenagers who usually place disproportionate importance on how their peers see them.
In an e-learning environment, enhanced by gamification, a student's mistakes are private. Players can improve their skills without the attendant embarrassment of a real-word scenario of failing in front of their friends.
Gamification in an e-learning environment ranges from the superficial to the material.
As course designers and teachers become more adept at designing courses that include gamification as a fundamental, students are becoming more sophisticated in their needs and expectations.