Missing the Points: Let’s talk Gamification

One topic I’ve been seeing come up more and more at conferences is gamification. Despite sitting in on a few of these sessions they’ve all been very introductory and they’ve left out 3 key points to think about if you’re considering using game design thinking in your courses.

1. Points, Badges, and Leaderboards aren’t gamification on their own

Usually gamification gets described as using game elements in a course context using tools like points, badges, and leaderboards, but for as often as points, badges, and leaderboards come up in these sessions they’re nothing new for education.

Points are usually some sort of accumulating numerical representation to show progress. Isn’t that what we’re using grades for? How about badges? A marker of achievement, recognition of competency or mastery condensed into a displayable form. Isn’t that credits, degrees, and diplomas? And leaderboards? Scholarships, dean’s lists, etc. I’m not trying to say that these things can’t be used in engaging and interesting ways, we just need to be clear that these elements aren’t enough on their own.

Instead of focusing on the aesthetics of games, the shallow look and feel of games, gamification should be about the spirit game design: freedom to fail, feedback, displaying progression, player choice, and participation in a narrative.

2. Competition doesn’t have to mean pitting students against each other

Competition is often a key element in a lot of these introductory sessions, but so many important factors about using competition don’t get brought up at all.

First let’s talk about some types of competition: Player vs. Player, Player vs. Environment, Player vs. Self.

Player vs. Player is usually the default style of competition for this setup. In a very basic example players accumulate points, most points “wins”. You have this with basketball, soccer, or that phone game thing that happens before a movie. This type of competition is mostly fine, but you should think deeply about the implications of turning your classroom, or even a single assessment, into a competition that pits students against each other.

Player vs. Environment is one way that you can have a competitive element while not setting students against each other. Player vs. Environment is your typical set up for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (I’m a nerd and I’m not sorry). Players collaborate with each other against challenges orchestrated by a storyteller or game master. A lot of single player games are set up this way. This can be helpful because it can help take off the competitive pressure that students might feel and could let you point that towards a constructed narrative, a real problem, or even you as the instructor.

The last set up that I want to put out there is Player vs. Self. This is about setting up players to better themselves. With this case you might want to focus on feedback elements and incentivize development rather than strict achievement. While incentivized competition might be placed on self development this might push player vs. player competition out of the classroom.

3. Who are we gamifying for?

It’s important to think about whether the use of game elements will bring in more engagement or whether it may alienate students, especially if you decide to use competitive elements. Evaluation is a key part of any course/activity design process and gamification is no exception. Make sure that avenues for feedback and evaluation are designed hand-in-hand with any attempt at gamifying your course. It’s also important to note which students are benefitting from your design as game elements.

When building game elements into a course it is easy to be carried away and it’s important not to make assumptions about what students find engaging. Often our ideas of average students don’t actually fit the students who actually in our class. While gamification may add new ways for student to engage it can very easily become a massive barrier in your course.

If you would like to talk more about gamification or are interested in finding new ways to engage students, feel free to reach out to us at the E-Learning Office.