Gamification is hot, but many attempts at educational games fall flat. Designers, parents and teachers should keep these three success factors in mind.
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Gamification promises good things for everyone: fun for students; a way for teachers to get and keep students' attention; a cheap and easy source of material for administrators; profits for educational software companies; and a better way to engage, teach and test for everyone. It might even develop more common sense.
But gamification can easily be oversold and done badly, so remember that a successful game depends on three factors:
-- Good content.
-- A game joined seamlessly to content.
-- A good game.
If any of these three factors is not present, gamification fails, so you need to keep them in mind whether you're trying to take advantage of gamification's strengths as a designer, teacher, administrator or parent.
Requirement #1: Good Content.
Too many "games" are plain old quiz-and-review multiple choice questions, with results displayed in a supposedly fun visual overlay. This is wrong both as motivation and as pedagogy.
Motivationally, all that happens is that for each question answered or guessed correctly, the knight takes another whack at the dragon, or the rocket gets a bit closer to the moon, or the lost princess moves one step closer through the maze. The only real difference from the old gold stars and stickers is that dragon whacking, rocket landing and maze running are a livelier visual bribe. Students see through that almost instantly.
Pedagogically, it's much worse. The important things about any academic content are only rarely the sort of regurgitatable facts that are easy to write multiple-choice questions about. Choosing the question that is easy to ask and score will nearly always lead you away from the question that is important. Such structures teach that the trivial facts, not the deeper overall principles, are important. So a game about American presidents is much more apt to include Teddy Roosevelt's having a bear named after him, Lincoln's height or Washington's wooden teeth than it is about how any of them shaped their office and their nation.
Requirement #2: A Game Joined Seamlessly To
Whatever the game is supposed to be teaching must be essential to the game; the power of gamification is exactly that you can't play without learning or learn without playing. A game that could be used to teach any content, like Jeopardy, bingo, or charades, has a great big seam. Students can (and will) avoid the content either by trying to figure out how to game the system, or by just accepting their low scores and agreeing that they're "not good at this." Either way, the game loses its point.
This can be a subtle difference. An addition-and-subtraction flash-card deck could be used to play any simple "racetrack" game, with players advancing a number of steps equal to the highest number on each card they get right, but the kids who hate math can treat it as a gambling/guessing game, memorizing facts in isolation. The same kids will learn far more math skills (and have much more fun) playing Monopoly, where addition and subtraction are not the point of the game but essential to measuring your progress.
If you have to spell a word correctly to unlock a door in a dungeon, but the game is just to see how many doors you can get through by spelling randomly chosen words, that's a seam. But if the word is vital to whatever you must do beyond the door, so that winning depends on understanding those words better, that's seamless.
Requirement #3: A Good Game.
Here's where we cross from programming and pedagogy to art. Ultimately, who can say why a gym teacher's invention of a game that began with throwing a soccer ball into an overhead peach basket would develop into the global institution of basketball, while speedball, dodgeball and kickball stayed back in gym class? There were plenty of attempts at quest/adventure card games before Magic: the Gathering, and many attempts at parody of that genre before Munchkin, but ever since both games seized their market niches there has been little serious rivalry. Play testing helps, but some player suggestions have ruined games.
Some general principles work sometimes -- but many successful games violate them. Noise and special effects are part of the attraction to Call of Duty but not to Tetris; social interaction is essential to World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons, optional in Risk or poker, and a nuisance in Go or chess.
So when it comes to the last criterion, the best you can do might be to keep in mind the key lesson of any game: Always try again.
This column was originally published on UBM's Educational IT site.
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