Gamifying Education

So this is the first in a series of reflections on how I’m conducting this gamified experiment…

I need to insert some more info here about the background for this experiment. I’ll do that later.

I’m watching a great set of videos on gamification. It’s part of a gamification course that was suggested by Annette Whitby on the Adobe Ed Exchange, and it is helping me benefit from the experience of others that have been down this road and learned some things already. Since we’re “building it as we fly it” when it comes to the plug-in… I DID want to at least be sure that I was thinking about the focus, intention, and design of the game itself… even if the presentation and actual gameplay mechanics were being developed.


Insight From the University of Wisconsin-madison Course:

The first thing I’ve learned is that great games have structure and balanced progression. This occurs in a single session of play (class period) AND in the game “questlines” themselves (a learning “stream” i.e: a chapter or semester).  Both of these should be directing the game/learning into a planned, well progressed direction.

This has been a great set of concepts for myself personally is that I have a personal innate need to understand the shape and form of something before I can grasp any of it’s parts in my mind. I personally am more of a “forest” than “trees” kind of learner. I have the opposite problem of (what seems to be) the vast majority of people- I need to understand the big idea before all of the details. And though for me, that’s a need as a learner… I believe that almost every experienced teacher would tell you that the best way to approach learning is like every other form of human development- start small and ramp it up in a fairly even progression. Crawl before you run as the old saying goes.

At the beginning of the gamified experiment, for me, I’ve realized that not having this very concept implemented was causing problems for myself and the students… the gamified classroom I was trying to run felt like learning in “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” where [wp_lightbox_fancybox_anchor_text_youtube_video link=”” text=”the points don’t matter”]. Yet, the points were the currency of the “reward system” for the class. (Note: XP and Gold in a gamified curriculum should NOT relate to grades… then you’re back to carrots and sticks as [wp_lightbox_fancybox_anchor_text_youtube_video link=””  text=”Dan Pink Explains”].


Lately, on the Adobe Education Exchange boards for our little experiment, I have solicited some feedback on the progressions… both for quests (how big, what rewards attached, etc..) and the player in terms of “leveling up”. When I first started my gamified classroom, it was pretty haphazard- there was no consistency, no planned progression. This led to the Whose Line Is It Anyway (WHIIA) syndrome. Kids wanted to level up. They wanted to get Gold (we didn’t even have a store yet!). They wanted to progress and “win” but the points were so haphazard and meaningless that they didn’t know how to play well.

And it was all my fault.

(Now, since we’re at the beginning of this little documentary on my experiments with gamification- you should know something about me. It might help you understand my personal questions and obsessions within the frame of this experiment. I’m exceptionally hard on myself. I take the blame for any failure or shortcoming I’m connected to. If something isn’t perfect because of something I did, I really take it hard. Even if it was something someone else did, but I was involved and could have maybe made a suggestion or acted differently and that could have solved a (real or perceived) problem… I beat myself up for not seeing it ahead of time.)


So, since the problem was all my fault (and really was this time…), I set out to simplify and organize the game. I tell the kids to think and plan things out before working (where are your sketches? is commonly heard in my classroom), and yet I hadn’t done the very thing I was suggesting. As a [wp_lightbox_anchor_text_display_external_page link=””  text=”good friend and mentor”] always tells me… “you teach what you most need to learn.” I had to learn to treat the game like any design experiment- with the required first steps of the design process. Understand the problem, research and investigate, pick and plan.

I hadn’t done a single part of that. I just built a prototype and tested it. And it didn’t fare so well in the testing. I needed myself to come up behind me and say “where are your sketches?”


Defining the problem clearly

The next video for the MOOC was about the problem solving process and discussed defining the problem clearly.  Ironically I had typed the previous couple paragraphs on the problem solving process before watching that video. I’ll take that as confirmation I’m on the right track! It’s not just what we want them to learn, but their experience learning it as well that counts. Just like we need to define what it means to design a “good” course.. the learner has to define what it means to be a “good” player in our game. Without defining the parts of the structure WE are responsible for well- the students can’t define THEIR parts well. They can’t be aggressively attacking the problems we present for them if there is no clearly defined problem and progression. If they struggle, it’s not because they’re failing, but they’re flailing… but we haven’t given them a structure to be successful in- no clear path of progress.


Developing learners by designing learning

The next video was about how the social space and the cooperative development of the space in learning is critical. That’s the ultimate buy in!

Here’s the progression I took away that we need to incorporate into our learning areas to make them more engaging:

  1. Clearly define the learning space– Having the player/student not only understand how it works, but also how to progress, how to strategize, how to predict and think clearly about their progress and make wise choices about how they want to play the game. We want them to have autonomy- it’s critical for engaging gameplay- but how can they have autonomy if they can’t understand the game? We create a dependence on us as the “guides” if we don’t give them a structure appropriate for their level of gameplay learning. There is no freedom to wander around if there is no clearly defined learning space- it’s too easy to get lost.This is why most teachers don’t allow freedom- they don’t want to do the work of organizing the space. It’s much easier to just “guide” the students and make them all move the same direction, the same speed, down a path that they know will work.
  2. Ability to cooperate with others in learning– I imagine more on this later- but the reason for gaming is a social context where there ARE very clearly defined rules. Many students/gamers who are not as proficient at the delicate and ever-changing rules of social interactions gravitate to games because they DO define that structure. Schools have a rule structure for behavior, but it’s inconsistently enforced. It varies from class to class… but also from location to location (classroom and courtyard are VERY different places). And many players “cheat” or don’t play fair.Developing a clear structure and ability to cooperate under safe and equitable rules is paramount. Enable and encourage social interactions under the rules… but don’t FORCE it if you can’t control the player’s behavior in your game.
  3. Clearly defined rules for the game and the social interactions allow players to develop learning– Which is covered in depth in the next section


Learners as Instructors

We have all done this or seen it done-  a student explains on the board how they solve the problem. Students get together for homework help. A student work is used as an example piece. These different ways of participating in a game allow the unique strengths of ALL the students to be capitalized on for learning. [wp_lightbox_prettyPhoto_anchor_text_image link=”” text=”Click here to open the image” description=”This image”] shows how it might work in a classroom. Think long term for the student. Our class and instruction might call students to lead others in this area (become teachers themselves), they may modify existing content in our subject (be actively involved in developing the field), or even become designers themselves (inventors, creators, innovators, world-changers). Isn’t this what we want with our curriculum? It’s the goal of every good teacher to see their students surpass them.


Next- check out the principles of Game Based Learning by Gee.



Leave a Comment