Gamification in education typically refers to systems of incentives, experiences, competition, or other means to induce students to engage in learning. Gamification comes in many forms. It can be as soft a touch as providing rewards and badges for accomplishing a task or demonstrating mastery of a concept, or as extensive as a full-fledged game where separate rules, scoring, and other aspect of competition dictate how participants will engage and prevail.
On one side of the debate, advocates argue that it’s a great way for students to learn and have fun at the same time. Many educators see it as a way to convince students to engage in learning they might otherwise find unattractive and want to avoid. Without question, students can find gamification of learning to be enjoyable and motivating. Meanwhile, students are learning academic content and skills to compete and be rewarded.
On the other side of the parley, many educators fear students will become so preoccupied with succeeding in the game that little attention will be paid to the purpose and value of what they’re learning. While they may be able to show progress, it may be in the context of the game, not in response to purposeful engagement with academic content and skills.
Also of concern is how well students retain what they learn beyond the context of the game. We know that when the perceived purpose for learning has been met, such as learning to pass an exam or win points in a game, retention can quickly drop. On the other hand, when learning serves a deeper and longer purpose connected to life opportunities and goals, it’s more likely to remain accessible to students farther into the future.
Other questions regarding the role and value of gamification in learning include:
- Might gamification be used as a strategy to gain initial engagement with a specific aspect of academic learning?
- Can gamification be beneficial for learning that has no clear, life or learning goal connection, such as memorizing required technical information?
- Should gamification be avoided when what we are asking students to learn has an important purpose, needs to be retained beyond immediate assessment, and holds the potential to be engaging for students without additional structure or rewards?
- Does gamification detract from the development of key academic learning skills, strategies, and habits?
It might be argued that much of what is found in traditional academic curricula does not present a clear purpose for students. This problem is with the framing, presentation, and positioning of the content of the curricula, not the students who are being asked to learn it. After all, just about every student is interested in learning. They do it all the time.
Our challenge is to help students see the purpose and value of the learning we present to them. Whether framing learning in the context of real-life benefits, value, and purpose, or embedding learning in the context of an artificial game, contest, or adventure, it is the ability to acquire, retain, and apply what students learn that matters most.