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A Look at Gamification: The Shape of Things to Come


Video games get a pretty bad rep here in the US. Parents tend to view video games for their kids as a benign digital babysitter at bestor, at worst, a distraction that borders on addiction. But that’s beginning to change.

As the enduring nature of gamesamong kids and adults alikebecomes harder and harder to ignore, many are looking to harness what makes gaming so compelling. This movement and the science behind it is known as gamification, and it’s the process of using the elements that make games so compelling, in other fields like schools and workplaces. The people pioneering gamification believe it’s possible to quantify what makes a person spend 12 hours a day playing World of Warcraft and use it improve lives.

Gamification works by breaking down the mechanics and reward structures of recreational gameplay, and applying them to any other subject. Achievements, level-ups and quests are introduced to classrooms. Lectures are supplemented by the incremental progression and one-on-one interactivity of challenge modes. The overall sense of progression can be changedrather than starting students at an A like most classrooms, where they have nowhere to go but down and have to work really hard just to keep from slipping, gamified classrooms start grades at zero points, from which point a student can only go up. The end result is the same, but the sense of achievement a student gets by seeing their “score” go up rather than down makes them work harder.

This blend of game elements, both reward and interactivity, seems to work: In every instance where a job or task has been gamified, results, productivity and involvement have improved. A special-ed teacher gamified her classroom, and now attendance and both state and national test scores are up by double digits. Researchers, unable to decipher a protein in a virus that affected monkeys, developed a game called Foldit that allowed users to decipher through play. The answer had eluded trained biologists for 15 years; players of Foldit deciphered it in just 10 days. And the really crazy thing is, three-quarters of them had only a high-school level of education in biology. A father even used gamification to teach his son to lift the toilet seat before tinkling, with a 44% rate of improvement. 

Check out the video below of Zoran Popovic, gamification researcher at the University of Washington, giving a presentation on the subject at the country’s highest-profile education convention, Education Nation.

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We caught up with Dr. Popovic, a gamification researcher, after the Education Nation conference to ask him some questions about this trend in learning, its possible downsides, and where it goes from here.

How or why are video games beneficial for students?

I see games as a immersible medium, like a book or a film or TV program. It can be beneficial but also possibly harmful. It holds enormous promise as a learning tool because learners can learn directly from their interactions with the game world, they can create, collaborate, and in general have fun solving problems. It can also inspire long-term interest, and possibly change perceptions by making math and science "cool," for example.

Are there any downsides to using video games for learning? Parents hold a huge stigma against gamesare their fears justified?

Parents have every right to be skeptical. Almost all learning games today are not designed to optimize student learning. We are trying to change that by creating adaptive games that automatically assess student knowledge, and create customized challenges specifically crafted for each learner. Once the game-based learning starts showing direct effect on school tests, and more importantly on the ability to solve hard real-life problems, the learning game stigma will disappear.

Which video games would you recommend for children learning basic elements of math or writing?

Naturally, I like our games aimed at learning fractions that can be played from first grade (Treefrog Treasure) to about sixth grade (Refraction). My favorite algebra game is Dragonbox.

How old should a child be in order to use video games as learning tools?

I think very young children should be playing outside and learning about the world rather than playing video games. However, as they start going to school, and start frequently taking away your iPhone to play games until the battery runs out, there should be appropriate learning games that can demonstrate their effectiveness both in terms of learning and engagement. Truly effective learning games would not cause your child to ask for a different non-learning games.   

How can parents help bring this technology into their children's schools?

I think this will happen naturally once the learning game potential is fully realized. If in 2 hours of game play at home a third grader can "solve for x" in a complex linear equation (something that may take about a year to accomplish in a school setting), I am sure that teachers will be hearing from parents about it regularly. At that point, I'm sure teachers will also gladly adopt these tools in schools as well. We expect to be able to report such results in 2013.

Do you incorporate video games in your child's learning? Leave a comment and let us know.