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Gamification in Education: Should We Play?

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Gamification has come under some fire from gamers recently, specifically since this post from Ian Bogost (since republished in The Atlantic). It could be the beginning of a backlash against the use of video games and game culture in a wide variety of spaces. Bogost is ruthless in his attack on the corporate world's foray into gaming, but what of serious games and the broader concepts around gamification and game-based learning in education? Where does this leave the push by schools and educators who have been exploring the use of games and game-based learning as a way of engaging students, teaching twenty-first century skills and finding ways to make the technologically-saturated lives of our children relevant in the classroom?

Well, those critiqued by Ian Bogost may have thought a little bit more about games than just how they support brands, and I was keen to hear their thoughts on gaming in an education context. Dr. Michael Wu, principal scientist at Lithium, a digital studio, is very clear that this isn't all about video games:

Gamification does not necessarily involve the use of high technology. In fact, I've seen some very effective gamification that has been implemented using trading cards. A great example is the Teachers College at Columbia University, where they designed gamification for K-12 and higher education. Because many K-12 students don't have access to a computer, they implemented the whole gamification strategy based on "action cards." Gamification is certainly easier with the help of technology since it can help track a wider range of actions and interactions with a much higher fidelity than humans. However, the fundamental game mechanics and dynamics do not change -- they are all based on behavioral psychology, not technology.

Games align very well with our understanding of the importance of play to human development, while play-based learning is well recognized as a crucial element of the development of children during the early years, increasingly we see the value of play in the development of adults, as well. Or, as Dr. Stuart Brown from the National Institute For Play puts it, "Play is not just joyful and energizing -- it's deeply involved with human development and intelligence." And, while this may mean that marketers are butchering the essence of play by aligning it to sales targets, anyone who games should not become too insular for fear of limiting their engagement with schools and educators who see value in fostering the future generations of gamers and players.

However, in an education system and learning culture so entrenched in standardized testing, the role and value of play and games is still finding a place, which is why the backlash against gamification is problematic, not just in the backlash, but in the way it is reported and then read by those who'd prefer the way we teach our children remains the same. Over at Lithium, they have developed an online community called We are Teachers. It is a community where teachers can collaborate on the best ways to teach, share best practices and trade tips and ideas with colleagues and special education experts. As Michael Wu explains:

Gamification is a great way to motivate teachers to share and participate in the community. Because Lithium tracks all activities on its platform, we can reward any activity and motivate the teachers to do more of the things that are beneficial to the community. This is done through a combination of ranks and reputations, leader boards, categorical experts within our platform and among other game mechanics and dynamics infused throughout our platform.

Other game developers see the education system as a game itself, like Rajat Paharia from Bunchball, who told me, "The education system already is a game -- just not one that is well designed. Several educators and researchers are trying interesting things. For example, Lee Sheldon has been building game thinking into his classes. Additionally, although Roland Fryer Jr. isn't thinking explicitly about games, he is thinking about incentives."

It is an idea that has merit, we play all sorts of games in the development of institutions and policies to establish barriers, expectations and shape the way people engage with and experience learning in our education system. But, Paharia also points out that edu-gaming is still having a big impact that we should probably not disregard.

The first kind of gamification -- taking existing educational content and wrapping it in game mechanics to drive consumption, engagement and retention, works. Khan Academy is doing it, Code School is doing it...

I'd also point to the work of Motion Math Games in the mobile device area and Australia's Mathletics program.

Games and video games are as engrained in popular culture as movies or books, and there will be those who get frustrated at the exploitation and butchering of what they see as a more purist and important pursuit, but that is the nature of becoming what video games and gaming has become. What we shouldn't do is deny that games and game-based learning should have a place in our schools and curriculum, now and in the future.