If you're a reader of this blog, you're no doubt aware that I'm something of a sucker for gamified learning. In the past, we covered some fairly specific topics, such using my favorite game, Kerbal Space Program, in your classroom, or how to conduct an "Hour of Code" event. Today, we'll get a bit broader and talk about gamifying your entire classroom.
What is Gamification and Why Do I Need to Know About It?
Gamification is exactly what it sounds like: adding a structured element of fun to enhance learning. It's no secret that it works wonders, and it's been a part of the modern teaching curriculum for some time now. Educational board games have been around since...well, since forever, and who hasn't had the singular joy of using flash cards to learn vocabulary, multiplication, or even higher-ed topics like business finance and engineering.
In short, gamification has two goals: make learning fun, and as a result, make learning stick. Students who learn via gamified methods retain that knowledge at an incredible rate: studies show that adults taught via gamification retain information 9% better, on average. That is, more or less, an entire letter grade better, if you want to put it into strictly educational terms.
What's more, gamification of classrooms is becoming a bigger deal in all aspects of education. 80% of learners polled have stated that they'd be more productive and motivated in the classroom if some game-like elements were introduced. So finding a way to add an element of gaming to your classroom is something that can benefit not only students, but teachers, by making everyone's job easier.
The Basics of Gamification
"What makes a game?" is a question that can garner different answers, depending on who you ask. There's an entire field of study devoted to exactly what makes a game, how games work, and what games can teach us, but for the premise of this blog, we'll keep it simple. So what are the basic elements of a game? What can we say, for the purposes of the classroom, are the things that make a game, and that make a game fun?
- Rules/Structure - Arguably, these are probably the most important elements in a classroom. To define a game, we have to define what constitutes acceptable behavior within that game, and what doesn't. By doing so, we also define the structure of the game, ie who goes first, how points are counted, and things like that.
- Objective - Okay, this might be just as important. You need a goal at the end of your game, a finish line. Even though a recent poll shows that a competititve structure is one of the least effective ways to structure educational games, students still need a goal to aspire to.
- Progression - If you look at one of the most basic structures of popular mobile games, you'll recognize something fairly quick: almost all have some sort of leveling system, or at the very least a point tally. Every game has a way to illustrate your progress through the game, and educational games should be no different.
- Mechanics - Don't mistake this for rules and structure...mechanics is how the game actually works, and how players progress toward the objective. While the mechanics of a game can be defined by the rules and structure, the mechanics are the element that actually lends fun to the process of following the rules.
So, how do we take these elements and translate them into a game?
Step One: Define Your Objective
When we say "define the objective", we don't just mean the objective of the game itself, but what you intend to teach with the game. After all, gamifying a history class might look extremely different than gamifying a math class. Both subjects are inherently different based, so the games we make with them should look comepletely different as well.
This is where your objective statement comes in. Remember in college, when you had to preface every paper you turned in with a brief summary in the first paragraph? We're going to do something similar here, but what we'll do is define both what we want our students to learn, as well as how students will win the game.
A very barebone sample objective statement might look like this:
By the end of this game, students should be able to X.
The first student/group to Y will win the game.
Obviously, X is what you want your students to learn, and Y is what will motivate them toward learning it. An objective statement might look a little more complicated than this, depending on your subject, but that's the basic idea.
Step Two: Design Your Mechanics and Integrate Progression
Now that we've figured out exactly what we want to achieve, we can set out figuring out how best to do so. We need to not only add in the elements that will make the game fun for players, but we need to integrate the things that will give them a sense of forward movement within the structure we're creating. In some cases, you may want to establish progression first ("Our game will have levels similar to a role-playing game, with advancement unlocking other useful mechanics and advantages.") and then use that as a question to answer how the mechanics will work ("Players will gain levels by completing tasks such as trivia competitions or debates on the subject matter, as well as through the submission of homework/classwork.")
Other times, the mechanics may come first ("We'll just do a trivia game for this test review.") and then progression can just be added in afterward ("Correct answers give points, the team with the most points wins.") A lot of this depends on both the complexity and the length of your game, as well as how it will be played. Longer games tend to be more complex and have more mechanical advantages available to players, in order to provide a more dynamic "feel" when the class is playing them. Shorter games have far less complex mechanics, since there is less time to learn and use those mechanical advantages.
These concepts are typified in any other game, be it a game show, a board game, or a video game. Shorter games typically have less to them, and longer games tend to get more complicated the longer they go on. Don't over-engineer a game that will only last for a single class session...your students will be confused by the complexity. Alternately, students will grow bored with simple game mechanics over a longer period of time, causing them to lose interest.
Step Three: Institute Rules and Structure Around Your Mechanics and Objective
This one will be easy enough. As you design your game, there will be moments where obvious rules will be needed to prevent, for lack of a better word, "cheating". The rules should preserve a feeling of fairness and competition within the game, while at the same time allowing momentary advantages in progression. While you might not want to have a sense of head-to-head competition (as we discussed earlier), you might still want to preserve the feeling of inching toward the finish line.
Without knowing the specifics of your gamified lesson, it'd be hard to tell you which rules to institute. And to be perfectly blunt about it, the first few times you try this lesson out, you're going to find places where your rules fall short. That's fine. Playtesting is a part of designing any game. Just remember that your game rules shouldn't be fixed from session-to-session. Fluidity and improvement, as with any aspect of teaching, is most important.
Step Four: Repeat and Document
As you try to gamify your classroom, you're inevitably going to discover that some things work better than others, and that's alright. It's also totally normal to find that the things that work for one group don't necessarily work for another, and that's also okay. Again, this is all part of playtesting. Improving your game by recognizing the deficiencies from one playthru to the next is one of the major components of game design. It allows improvements based on player reaction...so if you're not getting the player buy-in that you'd like with one group, you'll be able to explore that after you're finished. Take notes, think honestly about what went wrong, and consider what improvements you could make to the rules, mechanics, or progression of the game to increase the amount of learning you're able to bestow upon your office.
If you're interested, in continuing the conversation about gamification in the active learning classroom, think about hitting up our social media accounts. We're always willing to hear your stories about what worked and what didn't, and I feel like as an avid gamer, I could really give you and your endeavors a heads start toward excellence. We'll continue the conversation later on with some specifics, including some talk about existing gamification platforms, so stay tuned here to read more about the subject.