The Game Revolution: How Gamified Education Could Change the Face of Education

By Joshua Charat-Collins

If you’re a student in present-day America, there’s no doubt you have something to say about our education system. Whether that criticism is positive or negative, gamification has the potential to reinvent the educational process, to the benefit of students and teachers alike.

First, however, comes some sorely-needed background on gamification, its history and uses, and then how it will change our educational system in the future.

Gamification is the process of adding game elements or mechanics to an otherwise non-game-like task. When we say “game elements,” we can mean points, levels, customization--a myriad of options limited only by the creativity of the designer. Mechanics are similar, but are more akin to the “rules” of the game. They govern what the player (you) is able to do and conversely, not do, within the game. With those basics out of the way, we can begin talking about the more interesting parts. Gamification has long been researched as a way to improve the engagingness of otherwise menial tasks, like, for example, sorting letters in a post office. If a jingle played when you sorted a letter correctly, you’d be receiving positive reinforcement from the game, and would be more likely to sort letters correctly in the future--and stay engaged in the task. That is the most basic of gamified elements--basic positive reinforcers--but there are many more. Add in streaks of letters sorted correctly, points earned for each letter sorted correctly and subtracted for those sorted incorrectly, and you’ve got yourself a more involved game. It’s relatively easy to apply this to everyday work, but education is a little more tricky--which is where the research comes in.

Chances are that if you’ve ever had trouble in a class, you’ve turned to gamified education to help you out. KhanAcademy, Kahoot, and Quizlet are all examples of gamified education. Even NitroType (remember that?) has game elements to it beyond those that seem obvious. However, you’ll notice one important factor--while all of these may at some point have been used in a class, none of them comprised the body of the class entirely (at least not in public schools). The goal of gamified education is to bring adaptive, lifelong learning to students everywhere, and to do that, we need to start with public schools. The kind of gamified educational program that most resembles the program that schools use is called the MOOC--short for massive online open course. KhanAcademy is one example of a MOOC. Coursera is another. CodeAcademy is a more focused MOOC. If we are to truly gamify education, we need to understand how these programs work to keep students involved and eager to learn.

An important part of that is intrinsic motivation. Students need to want to learn for themselves, not for the sake of advancing in the game--and that is a complex problem. Most motivating factors that these MOOCs use to keep students learning are external motivators that more often than not harm the student’s intrinsic motivation to keep learning. To remedy this problem, we have to turn to psychology.

Motivation theory teaches that while external rewards more often than not undermine intrinsic motivation, the manner of delivery matters in how great this undermining effect is and whether or not it occurs at all. Verbal praise generally doesn’t do much to intrinsic motivation. Neither do unexpected rewards. In short, using specific mechanics can reduce or even nullify and reverse the impact on a student’s intrinsic motivation. Combined with effective, proven teacher techniques, like hints, we can begin to design a more effective (in more than just test scores) gamified education program for students in public schools to use. Personalize it by using informatic techniques, like machine learning, to predict based on student performance what they’ll want to learn next, and you have a recipe for lifelong learning, all through gamified education.