“The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression” Brian Sutton-Smith
Most students would agree that school is a game and that it’s a poorly designed game. Think about it – school has all the core components of games: points, levels, and rewards, just to name a few. Each level presents challenges in the forms of tests, quizzes, and papers that students must master to successfully prepare for future levels. That said, why is school not nearly as engaging as a game?
Video games are all about engagement. Players are constantly getting feedback, both positive and negative, allowing them to make complex decisions in meaningful ways. Players often get rewarded and given new abilities or powers. The payout or impact from their successes and failures in school don’t come fast enough to be motivational or corrective. We simply move at a snail’s pace, treating students as empty vessels to fill with knowledge, and not as players who want to explore, create and be challenged.
Gamification is the idea of using the motivational aspects of gaming into a task. This is not an educational term. The idea or word comes from industry, and has flourished in the business world. Everyday examples include smart dashboards helping drivers to be more ecofriendly’ coffee shop rewards programs, and credit card levels from bronze all the way to the coveted platinum card. Yet this idea has not taken hold in education. Maybe it is all the Alfie Kohn supporters out there?
Alfie Kohn, American author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, thinks that students should learn without external motivation. While that sounds nice, I don’t find his view of kids’ intrinsic altruistic nature incredibly realistic. Almost all tasks in life are done with a goal or reward in mind. Whether we clean a dinner plate to get dessert or show up to work for pay, we are all motivated by outside forces.
Last year I started to experiment with gamification. Beginning slowly, I thought of ways to gamify my Greek unit. The concept was simple – I broke students into five city-states competing for glory and fame in the ancient Olympic games. On top of earning medals in the Olympics, students were trying to earn Olympic Points (OP) for their city-state. The city-state with the highest amount of points would be declared the winner. I used Moodle, an online course management system, to create a virtual Greek city-state filled with a forum, gymnasium, oracle, and (of course) the Acropolis. Students loved exploring their virtual village. They would frequent the site to see opportunities to earn Olympic Points (OP).
Once the unit started, I was blown away by the explosion of student-generated materials. For example, our “virtual Acropolis”, a student created digital encyclopedia, had 25 entries within the first couple of days. Sixth graders were researching, writing, and finalizing work for no grade, inspired only by Olympic points and the glory of the games. Students were doing all of this because they were swept up in the story and motivated by the challenge of it all. By week’s end, the Acropolis was filled with 41 entries on various Greek topics; all entries had 2 – 5 paragraphs, pictures, and links for further information. Students did this work independently. Students wanted more ways to earn points. Let’s say that again – students wanted more work!
I challenged students to create their own projects on ancient Greece. Once again, the students did not disappoint. They brought in hand-woven flags, created and painted Spartan shields, crafted a hand-made Greek trireme from popsicle sticks, and wrote a modern-day version of the Odyssey set in the Midwest. Needless to say, I was impressed and sold on gamification.
My first unit didn’t incorporate all the facets of gamification. Like anything, it takes time to master this new approach. Since then, I have sailed into the deeper waters of gamification. Now I am using it throughout my entire class, not just one unit. The response from students and parents has been very good. My next post will be a continuation of how gamification is used in my classroom today.
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