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While gamification might seem a relatively new educational concept, it was first recognized four decades ago.

In 1980, Thomas Malone published a study on “intrinsically motivating computer games.” This study focused on how the reward structure of game-play could be used to help people to engage with businesses or brands. Fast-forward to the 2020s. Many teachers are committed to implementing the technique in schools. That’s right – gamification in education: bring games into your classroom.

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Understanding gamification

Gamification uses game design/mechanics in a non-gaming context to help increase participation in education. Methods often include awarding prizes and using competitive elements to encourage learning. The idea behind the concept is that games give students a sense of agency. Having agency over their choices (and the information they learn) implores students to perform better.

The concept has already been widely used in commerce for several years – think receiving a free weekly coffee for attending your local coffee house every day with a punch card or a discount for checking in at your favorite restaurant on social media. While these examples are designed to increase brand loyalty, the principle is much the same in the education sector: by rewarding students, gamification helps to increase learning.

Gamification and education

Regardless of their format, all games increase motivation via engagement. Engagement is particularly important in schools and colleges – one needs to only look at the increasing dropout rates to understand why. A 2010 study suggests that approximately 1.2 million American students fail to graduate high school every year, and in the digital age, techniques like gamification can help to increase interest in education.

In theory, this makes sense. Many arguments around why so many students fail to graduate are based on the systemic flaws in how we teach our children. In recent years, so much has changed in how we interact with the modern world, and it’s about time the education system caught up.

How to introduce gamification in the classroom

With gamification, the possibilities are near limitless. The good news is that regardless of how educators implement this technique, they’ll be almost certain to witness positive results. Below are just a handful of ways gamification can foster a more positive learning environment:

1. Grading gamification

Lee Sheldon, an Indiana University professor with extensive experience in computer game writing, recently abandoned grades on his course. In their place, he implemented an XP (experience points) system. At the end of the semester, students’ letter grades are calculated based on the number of points they have accumulated over the course. This effect is that students are more willing to get the small things right to secure handfuls of points, which helps them gain a deeper understanding of the larger core course materials.

Ultimately, the course elements are served to students in terms they can understand. In an age where young persons are used to routinely picking up experience points in games like Fortnite and Rocket League, it’s unsurprising that the system is a resounding success. Each assignment or test feels like an opportunity to be rewarded, and the apprehension or nervousness around handing in a paper is reduced. Experience points allow educators to highlight the value of education via a medium that students understand.

2. Awarding badges

Another way to increase participation is to award students badges for each assignment they complete. While this may seem patronizing at first (think back to giving Kindergarten children gold stickers), all evidence points to the system working well.

When students complete tasks (such as watching an instructional video or completing course materials), educators can award them with points or badges. This helps to track progress and encourages progression. It might even be worthwhile assigning specific awards to different badges (such as getting to “chill” in class for ten minutes after completing a problem), thereby adding some inherent value to gamification tasks.

3. Adding a competitive element

Young people who play online video games are more than used to competing. By introducing a “tournament” feel to an assignment or module, educators can expect to give their students an incentive to study and take in more course materials than before. There are lots of online apps that allow teachers to create interactive, multiple-choice quizzes complete with leader boards, and the results can:

  • Increase class morale (particularly when students are competing with one another on friendly terms).
  • Get students excited about demonstrating what they have learned.
  • Help students engage more with course materials.
  • Help more introverted students participate without raising their hands or speaking in class.
  • Increase the overall energy of the class (useful in the early morning/late afternoon sessions!)

4. Integrate video games into the curriculum

Computer gaming doesn’t simply have to be about escapism. Many educational and informative titles are available across various platforms that require mental arithmetic or cognitive thinking to solve puzzles. One of Nintendo’s biggest sellers of the 21st century – Brain Training – is an example of how video games can be fantastic educational tools.

Many gaming titles allow for the creation of custom levels/quizzes, which can be delivered in a format that students are familiar with (such as the Nintendo Switch or via a laptop computer).

5. Robotics

Automation is likely to play a large role in our global economic future, which means we will need a generation of programmers and designers to lead in implementing AI. Several companies already offer programmable robots that can also learn and participate in everything from simple numbers games with students to offering insights into remote programming. These devices can help students learn to code while offering an interactive, exciting experience.

Is gamification the future?

Some educators might argue that gamification improperly rewards and motivates – that the prime motivation for education should be education itself and that a reliance on games could be detrimental to normal motivation.

However, nobody suggests that games must completely take over the curriculum. Instead, they can be used intelligently to help enhance the overall educational experience, and several studies have already suggested that the technique works across all academic levels. In short, gamification is here to stay and makes a welcome addition to the school experience.