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Games and Gamification

There are two adjoining concepts in this article, games and Gamification.  Gamification is now a proper noun and specifically refers to a teaching methodology intended to motivate students to learn content by using elements of games in the learning environment.  The Gamification concept is based on the idea that if students are having fun, they are likely to play the “learning game” more often and for increased periods of time and will therefore, by extension, learn more material; ideally, quicker and easier than in the variety of “non-gamified” teaching methods.  As you start looking a games and Gamification, I highly recommend any books on gaming by Sivasailan Thiagarajan.  Thiagi (as he is commonly referred to) is considered a leader in games and game development in the training world.  He has multiple books and games readily available on the common book seller sites. 


Let’s begin with a short section on “games” and then go into more detail with “Gamification”. 


Using games for learning is an age old technique to help children learn.  In America, we’ve used songs to learn our ABCs, blocks to learn the shapes of letters and even our fingers and toes to learn to count.  We’ve used games extensively after World War II to get the baby boomers up to speed quickly as a way of preparing children to quickly enter the post WWII new industrial age.  We’ve used everything from Playskool’s Scrabble® to learn to spell, to Battleship to learn the art of strategy.  So games can be just about anything that we can call “play” as long as there is an objective to learn something that we can use in a later, productive manner (my definition).  Many children today learn on the “Leap Frog” game system.  One more time:  games are a fun activity with a goal of learning a concept or principle that we can use latter in some productive endeavor. 


OK, so we know what “games” are, what is “Gamification”?


Gamification is a teaching technique intended to motivate students to learn by using game elements in a learning environment.  The goal is to maximize enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning.   I like to define Gamification as the process of employing the elements of familiar games to motivate players to continue playing, and therefore learning, toward the achievement of a specific lesson objective.  Using the classic game of TV’s Jeopardy show to teach a lesson on a given subject is just one example. 


There is considerable debate among the “Gamification intelligencia” about what actually constitutes Gamification.  Since I like to keep things simple and useful on this site, I’ll use my own definitions.  (Hey, I have a Ph.D., I’m allowed to make up definitions!)  However, as a point of information, some authors say that Gamification requires an “eGame” to be a real Gamification, while others feel that any use of a “traditional” game such as Jeopardy, constitutes Gamification.  I think both of these are basically correct.  Most any use of a game like environment aids in learning.  I remember my days in the military and we often played war games, as they were referred to.  The objective was to “play war” and see if we could meet our objectives, kill the bad guys.  I add the caveat that Gamification must have a lesson objective and be based on some form of Instructional Systems Design (ISD) model.  To me, as long as those two critical attributes are met, we have Gamification, regardless if they are “board games”  or “eGames”.  And speaking of critical attributes, there are multiple “variable attributes” involved in Gamification including, to name a few:  type of game platform (board game, eGame, manipulative game, physical participation game, etc.), length of game, levels of game, number of players (or single player), awards, points, badges, degree of structure, impact of results on learning, and motivation factors.  There are also eGames readily available that even help one get fit by entertaining one during physical exercise workouts.  While these are great and have a place in our modern “eLife” I do not consider them as learning games. 


So if you want to develop a learning game, what do you actually do to create this wonder of learning?  Here is my basic checklist.  I also have a more detailed presentation on Gamification on my Sample Products page.  But for starters, let’s looks at this checklist of basic items to consider.



1.   Develop game purpose and initial plan

2.  Identify stakeholders and resources

3.  Develop learning goal

4.  Conduct prospective student analysis and likely receptivity to game

5.  Match game format to prospective students

6.  Develop game platform (board game, eGame, participatory, etc.)

7.  Determine how students will access the game

8.  Determine how to assess student progress/success (levels, etc.)

9.  Develop “winner” reward system

10.  Trial run multiple iterations

11.  Assess progress and student interest/participation

12.  Evolve game into advanced levels based on Level 1 feedback


Let’s talk about Gamification as a tool for a minute.  If you play video games such as the very popular Angry Birds, Candy Crush or some such similar popular game, remember that no one “taught” you how to play the game the first time you played.  You might have breezed through some brief tutorial but probably only watched part of that at best.  Most of these types of games “teach” you how to play the game as you play.  The games start out simple enough so that you can get “hooked” on the game early on and as you advance, your skills also advance.  Many of these types of games interject tips or “skill builders” between levels or after you successfully complete a given level or task.  These games use a sound education principle of starting with a known skill and advancing into an unknown skill through successive approximations.  Each level gets more difficult as the “student” advances.  Imagine starting at level 20 rather than level 1 on any game.  Or how about starting “World of Warcraft” at level 50 or 60, or maybe try jumping in to “Call of Duty” at the higher levels.  Most people would be seriously lost without learning the game at the lower levels.  Most likely, you would become so frustrated; you would simply not want to play the game and promptly abandon it.  Fortunately, a couple of things happen with these egames.  That is, the first levels use simple, readily recognizable variations of user commands.  For example, an arrow to the right and left of the screen indicates to move forward on the right side arrow and back on the left side arrow.  Second, the games actually “teach” a player how to successfully play the game.  Only the most dedicated game player would actually read the “user manual”, which is why user manuals are no longer printed, but are available in digital format for the hard core user.  I have a 7 year old niece who taught herself to produce movies on her iPad by playing movie making games.  And her movies are quite remarkable, for an adult, let alone a 7 year old.  The point here is for advanced egames, they tend to “teach” the player how to play the game as the user develops skills and moves to the more complex outcomes.  In learning terms, the lesson objectives become more complex as the player advances. 


Some things to remember as you put together your first game effort. 

  • What is your lesson objective?

  • What type of game will be most likely well received by your students (board game, eGame, participatory game)?

  • What ISD model will you follow as you develop the game?

  • How will students “learn” to play the game?

  • How will you reward successful game play?

  • What does success look like when a player does good?


So try a game the next time you have a somewhat boring topic or are just looking for something different in a training situation.  It will likely enliven your training effort and increase student engagement and participation, and that’s a good thing.  One caveat, be aware that some “adult learners” will still only want to know what they have to know to “pass the test”.  These recalcitrant players usually end up being the biggest advocates for game play as learning tools when they actually experience the game.  One last note to remember, games can be used for BOTH learning and evaluation of student success.  Especially popular in this vein are the various “jeopardy” type games available as PowerPoint plugins that work well for evaluation tools.  Their is a PDF  of a  PPT slide deck I use to teach people about the value of games in learning on the SAMPLE PRODUCTS page. 


Remember, learning can be fun and the proper use of games can help with that.


Good luck with your gaming and gamification!   

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