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Gamification in the New Semester

2013 October 2

I’m starting back to the blog a little later than usual this academic year.  You see, this is the dreaded final tenure push, so most of my time has been redirected toward pushing studies out the door (for publication) that I’ve been sitting on.  You might wonder why I’ve been sitting on data.  The reason is that as an academic, once you have analyzed a dataset, most of the fun is gone.  You know the answer.  The next step is to prepare the answer that you’ve learned from that analysis for publication, that others might learn from your work, and that part is just honestly substantially less interesting.  If only there was a way to communicate your results without writing them all down and waiting anywhere between three months and two years to get through peer review, I think I’d be a lot more motivated!

In any case, regular reviews of academic research will start next week (lots of interesting research out this summer), but now, I wanted to share a guest post I wrote for MediaCommons, which is an online scholarly community.  Each month, a big and vague but interesting question is posed, and guest writers contribute their answer for discussion.  It’s an ambitious project.  September was the month of gamification, asking the question: How does gamification affect learning?

The first bit of my response is below.  For the rest, check out my guest post at MediaCommons, and while you’re there, read the rest of the very interesting set of responses found there, which includes some neutral-to-positive considerations of gamification and some quite negative.

One of the problems that educators face when considering gamification for their courses is that gamification is a quite imprecise umbrella term which can refer to several different specific “applications” of games to education.  That creates several sources of disagreement when none are necessarily present.   When someone says “I would like to gamify my course,” they might be thinking:

  1. I’d like to add some games to my course.
  2. I’d like to teach my students using games.
  3. I’d like to make assignments more fun.
  4. I’d like to motivate my students to do more work.

These all represent somewhat different models of “gamification” but have quite different implications for success.  So when asked to comment on how gamification affects learning, my first response was that it depends on what you mean by gamification.

Despite common usage, the first two items in my list above are not what I would refer to as “gamification.”  Instead, this is the application of “educational/instructional games” or “edugaming”.  This is not at all a new concept.  Games with learning as their purpose have been around for millennia, back at least to the invention of competitive sports (be faster and stronger than your competitors to be judged as superior by your peers!).  Even digital games for learning have been around for decades – the first blockbuster of this genre was Oregon Trail, which was created in the early 1970s.  Such games are intended to teach through play within a narrative framework.  In the very best edugames, we learn by being pulled into a story that we find compelling, where it is necessary to understand complex relationships within that narrative in order to effect change as an agent operating within it.  One cannot win at Oregon Trail by running at a breakneck pace across the American West with inadequate supplies.  One only wins by understanding resource rationing, caution, and risk management.  And the ability to shoot wildlife doesn’t hurt.

(continued at MediaCommons)

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