Can Games and Badges Motivate College Students to Learn?


At what point does an educator turn to games? K-12 educators have a good track record of using games to engage children, but when it comes to higher education, students are largely on their own. As these digital natives make their way through college, professors are looking to use games and digital media to help students learn. The use of games by educators is often motivated by the desire to better engage students and align instructional practices. Some educators are turning to game-based learning, but gamification is also serving a purpose.

Engagement and games, however, is not without controversy. At the heart of the issue is gamification, a term commonly defined as the addition of reward systems to non-game settings and contexts. This can take the form of airline loyalty points or gold stars. Many game designers and scholars believe that these extrinsic motivators are not games at all. Rather, they feel that good games should rely on stories, quests and intrinsic challenges. These are characteristics of gameful design or game-based learning, as opposed to the mere badging and points that characterize gamification.

If a class runs exactly as it always has, except that students receive badges and points in lieu of marks and grades, is it really a game? Does this question matter if student performance improves due to the draw of extrinsic lures? How does student behaviour change in a strictly gamified class?

These are the questions professor David Leach set out to answer with an experiment he conducted at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. As a prize-winning magazine writer, editor and creative writing teacher, he understands the value of narrative, but he also has an interest in games. “Further reading led me into the discussion—and controversy— around gamification in education. I read a lot of pros versus cons but not a lot of real experimental evidence for the effectiveness of these tools. The Systems CIO at our university gave me research money to run an experiment on the effectiveness of gamification.”


To test the advantages and disadvantages of gamification, Leach ran two parallel sections of his Human Uses of Technology course. One was taught as a regular class, while the other section used leaderboards, badges and points and, to a lesser degree, quests. “The stages of various assignments were also described as 'quests' but this was a very superficial narrative element. Mostly, the experiment’s focus was on the crudest use of popular gamification tools,” said Leach.

In the end, the gamification group visited the online course site twice as often and spent double the amount of time as the regular class. Their blog posts were submitted earlier and they were significantly more active on the online class forum. A post-game survey revealed that 82% of the students believed that gamification was an effective motivational tool. Surprisingly, despite their higher activity on the class site, the gamified group demonstrated no improved learning outcomes in their academic performance in the course.

Leach’s research paper on the experiment concludes that “gamification can offer incentives for online activity and socializing but, on its own, may have little impact on quantifiable learning outcomes.” These results might change with alterations to badge criteria and/or how points are awarded, which might impact how students distribute their efforts.

Fortunately, gamified and gameful designs are not mutually exclusive, and combining both may cast the widest motivational net, significantly improving chances to capture hearts and minds.

A Playbor of Love

Recasting college level classes as games can be enormously rewarding and beneficial for students and instructors but, as all genuine innovation, hurdles must be cleared.

“Story, I think, is the real power of game-based learning,” said Leach, but he underscores a structural challenge to implementation when he adds that “the modular set-up of most university programs — 1.5 hour classes twice per week, students taking four or five different courses at a time — undermine developing that sense of narrative engagement in a university setting.” Can multiple courses be integrated into a single game? Can schedules be abolished to make way for more sophisticated asynchronous gameplay? Time will tell.

Leach also believes that universities could look to the K-12 system, where the emphasis is on pedagogy rather than research. “Mostly, I think university instructors have a lot to learn from K-12 teachers, where there is far more innovation in the fields of game-based learning. The lack of communication between the K-12 and post-secondary realms is a huge barrier to innovation.”

Implementing a game-based class also means an increased workload for already busy professors. Bob De Schutter, a game design professor at Miami University, writes that it can be a “long and laborious process to get it right.” However, tools like 3D Gamelab, and the benefit of tried and established models from pioneers like Lee Sheldon and Chris Haskell, will all prove helpful to reduce the time commitment for educators who want to jump into the fray.

Ultimately, it might be more accurate to frame the extra work as playbor rather than labor. “Truth of the matter is that I love doing the gameful course,” said De Schutter. “It is fun to ambush students, to bring their heroes in the conversation and to basically game-master a class, and it is just as fun for students to battle each other or slay vampire kitties. That does not necessarily make an already engaging teaching style any more engaging, but it does make your class significantly more awesome.”