Gameful Design in Online Education

Gamification of learning has become a hot topic in education as of late. But instructors are understandably puzzled about how to gamify their courses. Should they just add a Jeopardy PowerPoint to one of their modules, or do something else?

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Kevin Bell, executive director of Curriculum Development and Deployment at Northeastern University, believes that much of the confusion arises from the difference between adding games to a course and gamifying the course itself. The real benefit of gaming comes not from adding games to a preexisting course, but rather from incorporating “gameful design” into the fabric of the course itself. 

“Gameful design is about applying the principles behind what makes games engaging. It is fundamentally about using hooks to keep students fixated and encouraged to persist. The rewards are intrinsic as part of the experience, not tacked on at the end.” Ask kids to run up and down a soccer field to get healthy and they will quickly get bored. Throw a ball in the middle and ask them to try to kick it into a goal and they will run all day getting exercise without any prodding.”

Bell suggests a number of principles for incorporating gameful design in your courses:

Short-term achievable goals. Much of what we assign students is delivered in the far-off future, such as a term paper due in 10 weeks. Students have a hard time working up the motivation to pursue such goals. By contrast, games provide the player with short-term achievable goals. The goal might be to get into the next room or climb the next building. Short-term achievable goals keep the player's interest because success is within reach. 

Instructors can incorporate this principle into their courses by breaking up longer assignments or modules into shorter chunks that are completed in sequence. Instead of reading a long work and writing a paper on it, the student can be asked to write short pieces on each section of the work. This has the additional benefit of focusing their attention. A student may miss some points when asked to read a work on multiple points and report on all of them. Instead, the student could read a section on a single point, then be asked to do a reflection on that point before moving on. The student learns one thing at a time, sequentially, which improves both motivation and learning.

Level-up challenges. Games provide the user with a sense of moving up through different levels. A user might start the day at level 17 and end the day at level 21. Each time users play they see progress. By contrast, students often do not see their learning trajectory while in a course when the major measure of progress is the final grade.

One method of creating level up challenges is through accumulation of incremental points or credits towards a larger task. In games this is often represented with progress bars or meters where amount of work needed to clear a bar or reach a level is visually represented. In order to keep student interest, the LMS can be designed to send serendipitous “well done” messages and a “congratulations” message to the student when they level up. Some instructors experiment by correlating levels to final grades, which can provide interesting incentives so long as students and instructors are very clear on what levels map to which grades.

One principle of gaming is that the difficulty increases at each level, and instructors might do the same in their courses. Whereas students often see the next assignment in their course as just new work, a gamified course can make each new assignment more difficult than the former. One benefit of this method is that students at higher levels are often more motivated to justify their level and thus apply greater effort as they move through the course. 

 Low fear of failure. What happens when you get killed in a game? You respawn and do it again, learning from what got you killed to try a new method. What happens when you get a bad grade on an exam? Normally, it gets carried through the course and factored into the final grade. Traditional grading methods preserve student error, whereas games allow students to use errors as learning devices to improve without fear. 

Here, online education is ideal for gamification. Assessments such as quizzes can be set to allow multiple attempts, though there should be a limit to eliminate guessing. Instructors can also set a minimum threshold for passing, requiring students to score above a certain level in order to receive full credit. By allowing students to keep trying until they demonstrate mastery, instructors lower the fear of failure and allow the students to focus on learning.

 Immediate feedback. Games keep a running tally of the player's score. Each hit or obstacle cleared immediately registers in the player's score. Similarly, failure might lead to a quick death and respawning. Students immediately learn when they have done something right or wrong, and can adjust accordingly. By contrast, students often need to wait days or weeks before getting feedback on their class performance, and by the time they get it they have forgotten the performance itself. 

Instructors can also create challenges for students that provide immediate feedback. Online quizzes can be set to provide scores and information on why each answer is right or wrong immediately upon submission. You have the student's attention right now, and his or her mind focused on the question, so now is the time to clarify the answer, not days or weeks from now. Plus, students can be encouraged to offer simple “likes” of particularly good postings from other students on discussion boards. 

 Narrative. All games revolve around a story. Stories grab our attention, and a course can be similarly set up around a story. Bell says that “while instructor narrative can be engaging,” quoting the example of a Dungeons and Discourse class that he reviewed, “there is value in allowing students themselves to create mnemonic narratives that allow them to recall knowledge aspects of the course by setting them in their own context. There are precedents for this in studies of memory experts who align elements with visual cues to help them memorize hundreds of discrete items.” 

Peer collaboration. Games today are fundamentally social. Many will put players into groups to collaborate in reaching a goal. These players will help one another by sharing strategies or advice during the game. 

Online instructors can facilitate the same collaboration using discussion boards or wikis. Students can help one another succeed by creating webcam videos that explain difficult concepts. Groups might also be in competition with one another to reach a goal first. This feeling of being part of a team not only increases engagement and motivation, but also reduces the isolation that can come with online education.

 Try applying gameful design principles to your courses to see how they increase student engagement and learning.