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Gamification, or how playing helps us learn

Gamification, or how playing helps us learn

When we were toddlers our parents gave us toys to help us learn new skills and knowledge, and played games that would help with planning, behavioural enforcement and motor skills—why should adulthood be any different?

Gamification has been bandied around as the 'next big thing' in education for some time but has yet to cross the threshold into the mainstream. While some training developers recognise the potential of gamification to reinforce lessons and reward desirable behaviour, others have put it into the 'too hard' basket, or don't actually understand how to use it.

What is gamification?

Gamification is not about making lessons into a game, although that may be the result of a gamification process. Rather, it is the broader concept of using a game mentality or game mechanics in a non-game context. The purpose of this in education is usually to improve engagement and retention and establish positive behaviour.

Gamification achieves these purposes in a number of ways. To be successful, gamification needs to trigger a game-playing mentality, namely those related to competition, achievement and a desire for closure.

The elements of a game most suitable to a learning environment are the focus on a goal, a challenge that prevents the student from achieving that goal, and the resources to help the student progress towards the goal. The student needs to develop a strategy and execute the tactics required to progress, exhibiting behaviour that the games designer deems favourable. Progress needs to be rewarded to reinforce the game mentality and the desirable behaviour.

The best part about gamification is that this technique is not limited to training and assessment professionals or course developers; students can use gamification on themselves. While it may not be a masterpiece, it could assist in improving lesson retention and incentivise study.

How to use gamification in education

Establish the learning goals
Do you want students to retain certain types of knowledge, or exhibit certain kinds of behaviour? Is the aim of the lesson to improve team building and cooperation? The learning goals are the most important part of gamification. If you do nothing else right, you have at least set out a path to follow and you can use this to approach the lesson in way other than through gamification.

Introduce a challenge or obstacle to the goal
When people face a challenge and then conquer it, the memory of the method or techniques they used to do so is more deeply ingrained than if they were simply told to do something, or shown something.

A 'challenges' can be very simple depending on the goal; for example, a student may be able to reach a knowledge-based goal by correctly answering a quiz on that knowledge. Other challenges may be more complex, involving more elaborate planning and action and/or interaction with others, who may be team members or competitors.

Provide access to resources to achieve the goal/s
Imagine trying to stick a poster on the wall without access to any stationery. Frustrating, yes? Very simply, in order to complete a knowledge quiz, a student has to have the knowledge available to them, either prior to taking the quiz or during the process. In more complex scenarios, students need to have the resources or the means to acquire resources that will help them achieve the goal/s. You may even choose to reward resourcefulness or inventiveness.

Provide incentives to achieve the goal through rewards
For gamification to work in education, students need to be motivated to achieve the goal. The incentive should also be linked to specific parts of the goal: for example if you want to motivate students to value knowledge, make sure the quiz score becomes the measure of their achievement or progress; if you want to reward students for certain kinds of behaviour, make sure the tangible outcomes of that behaviour is acknowledged.

It pays to note that that knowledge quiz is not quite 'gamified' without awarding the participant something in return for his or her efforts. While self-satisfaction may seem like a reward, it's actions like posting scores to promote competition and set benchmarks, or giving incentives to achieve above a certain score or a perfect score that provide a higher level of motivation to do well. It may also provide an incentive to improve, for example, retaking the quiz and achieving a better score could result in a reward.

It's also worthwhile noting that gamification comes in many forms and may not work for everyone as a learning tool because some people simply don't respond to a game mentality or don't value the incentives offered. For the most part, however, gamification in education can boost lesson retention, sharpen skills and improve collaboration and knowledge sharing—a valuable asset for any teacher or trainer.

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