Bringing games into the classroom: how gamification and learning go hand-in-hand

Attendees line up to ask questions at a panel at PAX East Friday. The panelists touched on the different ways gamification, or the use of gaming elements in non-gaming situations, can be applied to learning. Photo by Paige Colley / BU News Service

By Paige Colley
BU News Service

BOSTON – Leila, a native of the planet Io, has come to Earth for help. By traveling to exotic realms through the magic of fiction and completing quests, a group of travelers can explore the galaxy and help explain to Leila what it means to be human.

This adventure, called Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans, is not the newest fantasy game, however; it’s an English class taught at Brown University.

At PAX East, an annual gaming convention held in Boston, a crowd made largely of teachers of all education levels gathered Friday to listen to a panel of experts talk about the ways games can help assist learning.

“Fun is combined with a genuine sense of learning and accomplishment. That really, I think, is the secret to success of these courses,” said James Egan, a professor at Brown University who teaches the course Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans.

Egan has applied what is known as gamification to his English classes to help develop the curriculum.

“There’s a lot of different ways that different people use the term gamification,” said Naomi Pariseault, an instructional designer at Brown University who helped Egan develop the class, “but I like to define it as using game elements and game mechanics in a non-game context.”

In the case of Egan’s class, game-like elements were incorporated into the structure of the course, such as the narrative about Leila and the different realms they would be visiting.

“The longer you want to sustain the learner the more important the story becomes,” Pariseault said.

Narrative is only one of many on the spectrum of game types. Others include simulations, puzzles, role-playing and serious games.

“A serious game overall is one that is developed from the ground up to be used for learning,” said Dave Eng, a clinical professor and educational technologist at New York University. The most famous example of a serious game is The Oregon Trail, in which the player creates a 19th century American pioneer who travels west, Eng said.

“Some of the most prolific and effective serious games still have elements of narrative in it,” Eng explained. But serious games also establish well-defined rules and set an objective or goal for the player.

“You really want to make your rules look like these are the things I’m going to empower you to accomplish this objective,” he said.

To help encourage students, Pariseault emphasizes the importance of finding motivators.

“We all have different core desires and things that we enjoy and like and motivate us to do different things,” she said. “Extrinsic rewards are tangible things, and often in game design and gamification design that can be gimmicky … If you want to really move someone, you’re also going to want to pair that with intrinsic rewards.”

In addition to narrative and rewards, another element that makes gamification successful is that it is conducive to an effective learning environment.

“Games are the perfect environment to learn by doing because you’re actually learning experientially through this practice,” said Eng. In a game, players have to learn the rules of the world and apply those rules to their actions, allowing them to either progress or fail.

“In the game, we want our players to feel comfortable that you can make mistakes,” Eng said.

Ultimately, however, the true marker of success, according to Pariseault, is making sure the game is appealing to the target audience.

“It’s so important with gamification design to really think thoughtfully and carefully about who your learners are,” she said.

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