In 2016, there were 31.6 million people playing games in the UK. Whether it’s on console, PC, or mobile, the vast majority of HE students will play video games. This likely doesn’t come as a surprise; games are good to whittle away time, they improve reflexes and spatial awareness, they are a story-telling medium with unique features a book or film can’t mimic. On the flipside, they can also be addictive. Many students can describe falling prey to the lure of playing games with their friends when they should have been studying.
Games’ popularity has many wondering how they could be put to more productive (or profitable) use. When I created my LinkedIn profile, a little meter at the top of the screen constantly encouraged me to add more information to reach the next level. It never asked for too much at once and that tantalising bar promised me a quick dopamine hit if I could just add the small bits of information it wanted. Eventually, I was finished, and it crowned me with the title All Star. I’d won the profile game. I wasn’t sure if my satisfaction came from winning or the relief that LinkedIn could no longer badger me, but it was there.
The implications of gamification for learning have been debated for a while now. Duolingo, for example, has wholly embraced learning through games. The app arranges your language-learning into levels and you fill up a bar as you answer correctly. Duo, the app’s owl mascot, celebrates with you as you complete levels and rise up in the rankings. You earn Lingots for in-app purchases by completing levels. You can even compete against friends and strangers to learn the most.
In short, Duolingo is a game about learning languages. This is not a criticism: using Duolingo (and supplementing with various other materials), I learned more Italian in a year than I managed with five years of traditional German lessons at school. Duolingo made memorisation fun and encouraged a competitive need to hit my level targets every day.
Gamification has been picked up by enthusiastic policy-makers and innovators in the education sector. Minecraft, the mind-bogglingly popular crafting, creating and surviving game, now has an Education Edition. This blends the benefits of game-based learning with Minecraft’s treasured place in many children’s hearts. It’s not the only one, though: plenty of apps, games and software promise to engage pupils and improve their memory, teamwork, critical thinking, special awareness, and enthusiasm for learning.
But what about higher education? When I remember university learning, I think of two hundred students in a lecture theatre, listening to a experienced academic. I think of long nights navigating the VLE and library database. In short, HE never seemed like the place for games, or a place that really wanted to encourage students to think otherwise.
However, gamification is happening in higher education. Aaron Langille, writing for The Conversation, describes borrowing achievement systems from video games, offering digital badges to reward positive behaviour. Overall, the results were promising; students reported enjoying the system and felt it had a beneficial impact on their learning. However, using the same system again with the same students reduced its effects. Langille also points out that games can’t replace the knowledge and mentoring of an experienced academic or HE environment, which isn’t a surprise.
Games are not a panacea. If a student is unmotivated, reluctant to utilise their library (and other resources available to them), or content to do the barest minimum, introducing gamification is unlikely to completely reverse this. It also carries certain risks, like switching off students who dislike competition, or trivialising important issues that may be studied during higher education.
However, we shouldn’t ignore that a huge number of people like games, or that games have proven cognitive benefits. To my mind, the question is less ‘Does gamification belong in HE?’ and more ‘Why are games so appealing and how can we apply this to HE?’ The answer to this is, unfortunately, fairly complicated. Some gamers may play for the social component, some because they like competition, others because they simply like a challenge, and others still because they like the story. Achievement systems are a nice bonus, but any gamer will tell you they can’t redeem a bad game.
All games, however, utilise choice, critical thinking, and challenge. Rather than trying to make higher education a game, borrowing elements of games and applying them to higher education is a way to better student engagement without trivialising the topics at hand or need for students to self-motivate.
This article was originally publishing in the Winter 2018 CITE Forum Magazine, which can be found here.