Gamification of Learning: From Theory to Practice
“Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems,” Karl M. Kapp, professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University, defined in his foundational 2012 book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.
Following previous blogs on handy tools and practical benefits of gamification in learning, we are taking a closer look into the practice with an academic literature review. Keep reading for research-informed answers to the history, significance, and effectiveness of gamified education.
Tracing the Roots and Development of Gamification in Education
The Smithsonian Science Education Center tracked down the first game-like practice in learning to the 19th century when Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian scientist and educator, created the Periodic Table of Elements. Inspired by the game solitaire, Mendeleev listed each element along with relevant properties on a card and arranged the table.
For the particular term of gamification–the use of game design elements in non-game contexts, researchers found its first documented uses in 2008 and widespread adoption in the second half of 2010.
As the term entered public discourse, gamification of education had also become a mainstream and structured practice.
The Institute of Play (IoP) was founded in 2007 in New York City, signaling a growing interest in gamifying education. “There was a golden era for funding games and learning from the mid-2000’s to the mid-2010’s…Our goal was to develop toolkits, frameworks and resources and share our work,” Katie Salen Tekinbaş, co-founder of IoP, told EdSurge.
Meanwhile in 2007, James Paul Lee, emeritus professor at Arizona State University, published his classic book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Soon in 2013, academia witnessed a steep rise in the number of publications on gamification in education.
Most recently, gamification strategies were naturally integrated into online learning environments during the pandemic, in an effort to boost engagement and connection.
How Does Gamification Benefit Learning?
Scot Osterweil, research scientist and creative consultant to the Education Arcade and Game Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), laid down guiding principles for gamification with the Four Freedoms of Play. In cooperation with Oxford Analytica, the World Government Summit further explained that
The Freedom to Fail: Games are predicated on the assumption that mistakes and failures will repeatedly happen but with little consequence, which mitigates the natural human tendency to avoid failure in learning.
The Freedom to Experiment: Games encourage exploration and discoveries of different strategies. With gamification, students are better prepared for self-directed learning.
The Freedom to Assume Different Identities: Taking on new roles and perspectives, students open their eyes to diverse viewpoints and develop language skills as well as empathy.
The Freedom of Effort: The internal rhythm of games allows students to shift between highly focused learning sessions and relaxing breaks. Students will have the chance to refresh their attention spans and efficiently carry on long-term tasks.
Outside of pedagogical transformation, gamification is most commonly associated with improving engagement in class. Researchers from Spain summarized that game elements, including leaderboards, points, simulation, and quizzes, led to reports of “an increase of and/or motivation”.
What Are the Pitfalls of Gamification in Practice?
Is it gamification, or is it mandatory fun? Taking one of the most successful educational games, Math Blaster, as an example, MIT professor Eric Klopfer observed that “It's also what others have referred to as chocolate-covered broccoli…one of the problems with this methodology is it's actually teaching kids that math isn't any fun.”
“It's also what others have referred to as chocolate-covered broccoli…one of the problems with this methodology is it's actually teaching kids that math isn't any fun.”--- MIT professor Eric Klopfer on educational games
On top of reflecting on the underlying messages of the game design, the World Government Summit cautioned that when misused in education, gamification can end up hindering learning outcomes.
Specifically, the report Gamification and the Future of Education published by the World Government Summit pointed out that poorly designed gamification courses will distract students from intended teaching objectives. In addition, while games take into account social dynamics, group assignments with inadequate execution may give rise to social tension. For instance, when there are freeloaders in a project, the entire team could still get the same grade.
Taking a deeper look into the impact of gamification, researchers in Turkey conducted learning activities with elementary school kids for three weeks to examine the effect of awarding badges. Establishing a positive relationship between rewards and extrinsic motivation, the study found little increase in intrinsic motivation.
How to Shape Gamification Strategies for Better Learning Outcomes?
“Understanding the role of gamification in education, therefore, means understanding under what circumstances game elements can drive learning behavior,” scholars at Teachers College Columbia University suggested.
Similarly, in his book, Kapp debunked gamification as simply incorporating points and badges. He encouraged approaching the learning experience in its entirety, where game mechanics have to work well with storytelling, motivation, and more.
Mindful course design also means taking into consideration individual differences of students, especially as education shifts toward personalized learning. Conducting an empirical study with 40 college students, researchers discovered that “gamification in general and, especially the ranking element, is more beneficial to introverts.”
Looking beyond gamification designs and student characteristics, educators face implementation in different capacities.
On a micro-scale, which is often the case for gamifying learning, individual teachers make ad hoc introductions of gamification to class activities and lesson plans. It may be as small as incentivizing a reading assignment or something grander like taking a novel approach to a college class. However, researchers at the University of Almería warned that improvising a gamified environment is often associated with unclear guidelines, and therefore little participation from students.
On rare occasions, gamification is integrated on an institutional level. Quest to Learn (Q2L), a fully gamified middle and high school operated by the New York City Department of Education, was made possible with the support of donations and IoP’s game theory-based curriculums.
“In practice, few people will ever get the opportunity to design a school from scratch,” scholars at Teachers College Columbia University recognized. “However, we believe there is an important role for gamification projects that stretch beyond single classes.”
At last, researchers believed gamification of education can transcend beyond any particular learning environment, whether it is in-person or online learning. Reviewing gamification practices during COVID-19, researchers not only found that the approach can be effectively integrated with traditional teaching methods, but they also expressed great optimism for the role gamification will play in a technology-enhanced future of education.
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