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.”