Gamification in Higher Education

Gamification has enjoyed a reasonably long time in the spotlight in the quest to find new ways to foster student engagement. Like so many other things in the field, the meaning of gamification itself is somewhat contentious, and variants abound. It could refer to the game-based learning associated with James Gee or the more general gamification used to describe nearly any use of a badge or other game-based element. It extends to things like gameful design or gameful pedagogy. There’s no shortage of nuanced ideas about the best application of these concepts. 

Our friends at the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation describe the concepts: 

  • Gamification “refers to adding game elements to a course such as leaderboards, badges, trophies, and achievements, without making underlying changes to the design of the course.” 
  • Gameful pedagogy “goes farther building game elements into the design of the course, such as building up points from zero, user choice, immediate feedback, learning from failure, and transparency.”

Likewise, research around the efficacy of these approaches has been a bit mixed. In Gamification in education: Real benefits or edutainment?, the authors describe the situation:

On the one hand, proponents of gamification claim that gamification leads to learning gains. They assert that gamification reinforces essential skills in education, such as problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. Furthermore, they maintain that the need for interaction in a gamified approach to teaching encourages students to play an active role in the learning process, thereby increasing student engagement in online forums, projects, and other learning activities. Detractors of gamification, meanwhile, argue that it derails learning with aimless distractions, adds unnecessary competition stress, and fails to take into account specific learners’ pedagogical needs.

recent literature review points to the efficacy of the “adaptive gamification” variation of the approach, while other articles examine what the investigators call “The Dark Side of Gamification.”

Fortunately, several valuable resources help sort through the techniques involved and make pedagogical considerations before implementing them. The Gameful Pedagogy site is a good starting point. Likewise, Bell’s Game On: Gamification, Gameful Design and the Rise of the Gamer Educator provides an excellent synthesis of the various approaches and their respective issues. Check out his Inside Higher Ed interview to sense his outlook and what the work covers. 

Bell’s observation, “I actually don’t see gameful design as a technology at all — more a concept and a means of looking at one’s own practices in the light of intrinsic (student) motivators and assessing how one’s teaching could be made more engaging” embodies our “teaching first, technology second” approach. You could usefully apply Bell’s last piece of advice to nearly any new teaching approach, “… ignore the hype, explore the concepts. Skepticism is fine, but so is giving it a go, reducing your own fear of failure and hopefully, in the process, that of your students.”