Making the “Game” a Game!

Like most kids my six year old LOVES to play games, he loves to explore life in order to feed his insatiable curiosity of everything around him. I wonder when his natural drive to learn might end? As he looked at my wife and I with a flash of trepidation when we were discussing when we needed to buy his first grade school supplies, I wondered when he might “lose” his joy of learning and learn to play “the game”? After teaching for the past 13 years in a high school science classroom I have seen this happen time and time again. The “game” is the learned behavior to hoop jump to get the grade and then data dump, real meaningful learning virtually stops. At some point we have all fallen victim to the “game” and understand that hoop jumping is an important skill to get through life.

Teachers are often surprised at the end of the semester or year when their students who earned an “A” can’t remember the basics of what was taught a few weeks or months ago. Students might remember various facts but fail to make connections from isolated lessons that the curriculum and state standards require to the big picture of their subject, problem solving, or life in general. I don’t believe that the end goal for teachers is to create walking zombie students who learn that all they need to do to get by and succeed is to upload the information and data dump after the test or unit. So how do we make the information stick in a powerful and meaningful way?

Gamification is a term that is becoming more commonplace in the education system. Joey Lee & Jessica Hammer in their study “Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?define Gamification as the use of game mechanics, dynamics, and frameworks to promote desired behaviors. In this case increased student motivation and meaningful academic achievement are the desired behaviors. Many of us use games in our daily life to check-in for points, badges, and virtual mayorships in apps like Foursquare, Yelp, Nike+ Running, and many more. Most of the time these points, badges, etc. are meaningless except to the individual playing the game. Those extrinsic motivators keep the end-user playing their games and providing meta-data for the companies behind them.

From my own learning experiences the lessons and experiences I remember the best came from games or simulations that I could connect with real life. I remember one particular unit from middle school where my social studies teacher set up an entire simulated game like experience for the entire class where we learned about the colonization of America. Not only did I learn the facts that needed to be uploaded to my brain from the State Learning Standards but other powerful connections such as resource management, economics, and human nature.

I am excited to be part of another gamification experience by bringing SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge to my school district. Right now we are one of 65 schools around the country Beta Testing the game for student learning. We have two very different classes going through the game looking at it from different lenses. Our new Gaming class and an AP Environmental Science class are both working through the Beta version. Comments such as “This is way more interesting than normal reading, because I have to think about the connections to the game”, “I need to redo the lesson because I only earned 2 stars instead of 3” or “how did you get a higher score than me?” are commonplace throughout the period. Student engagement is extremely high and the teacher can track real time progress and work with those who are lagging behind individually. Students who are blasting through the game, readings, and the many formative assessment checkpoints throughout the experience are helping their peers work through problems. The experience is built in a way that making mistakes is part of the game and problem solving through those mistakes is rewarded. There is a leader-board for students to measure their progress compared to their peers. Teachers can work with students to develop a rubric for grading if an end grade is required.

As for my 6 year old, he had the chance to watch the high school students play this game and wanted to play it at home himself! He saw them having fun in school and is excited to know more about what they are doing. While the reading and content are a bit above his current ability level he understands the basic “fun” that the older students are experiencing. While gamification by itself might not be the silver bullet to increase student motivation and achievement it is a great tool to understand and embrace in the education system.

Researcher James Paul Gee tells us that for the most part schools are about learning facts, not solving problems.  We know that if we concentrate on teaching facts we can get kids to past tests but that doesn’t correlate to actually useing that knowledge to problem solve.  If we focus on problem solving using facts, information, formulas, and tools students retain information and learn how to problem solve.  Games are just interesting problem spaces with good tools for problem solving where you feel true engagement, are given a lot of feedback, and you know when you have successfully accomplished the challenge.

Other Gamification Articles:

A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool

Gaming improves  multitasking skills



3 responses to “Making the “Game” a Game!

  1. Pingback: Post 4 – “Gamification” | Carmel·

  2. Hi there! This article couldn’t be written any better! Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept preaching about this. I will forward this
    information to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

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