Looking for the Game in Learning

Betha Gutsche /
Teaching with video games
Photo from the Quest to Learn school video: Games, Learning,
and New Media

Gamification is the integration of game strategies or game mechanics into other activities. With all the hype about gamification of education, I am on the lookout for evidence that it is more substance than fad. It is true that education needs a makeover from its traditional and now-stale format to one that aligns with 21st century realities. In the world of gamers, it is true that players avidly (obsessively?) seek to increase their skills and advance to ever higher levels, often in collaborative teams—a behavior that educators would love to bottle and release on their students.

A middle school in New York City has taken a full plunge into the gamification experiment. Billing themselves as a “school for digital kids,” they have developed the Quest to Learn program for grades 6-12. The teachers and curriculum developers leverage how games work as learning systems, designing a 10-week structure that is mission and quest based. Kids are dropped into challenge-based contexts, which they have no ability to solve at the beginning. They are still learning core subjects but under new wrappers; math is called Code World; science is The Way Things Work. As with games, the “leveling and achievement” approach requires that kids master each quest before they can move on to the next one, acquiring the knowledge and tools along the way that they’ll need to reach the end goal. Kids are put in charge of their own learning, which is seen as vital preparation for a rapidly changing world, where they will have to learn new things continually.

If you are intrigued by the idea of gamification and want to learn more, you can dig as deep as you’d like into the videos by Extra Credits. This team of game designers and artists has created 130 short (10 minutes or less), fast-paced, cartooned presentations that bring the many facets of game design into colorful focus. For a basic introduction, start with these:

  • Gamification discusses the good, bad and the ugly of integration of game elements into other areas of life
  • The Skinner Box explains the reference in Gamification to B. F. Skinner’s theories of learning and their influence on game development.
  • Gamifying Education looks at some specific ways to apply game techniques to education.

Libraries are also experimenting with gamification. The following are some good resources:

  • In Using Gamification to Enhance the Library Experience, Scott Nicholson, author of Everyone Plays at the Library, shares ideas about increasing patron participation. “Since libraries are already a playground for the mind, one concept is for libraries to use game elements such as narratives, quests or challenges to help participants explore that playground through new perspectives.”
  • In Gamifying Your Library, Roy Tennant presents some more patron-focused examples for how to make using the library a game itself.
  • In Badging the Library, Ahniwa Ferrari describes badgification and offers suggestions for its application to patron and library staff training.

Examples of using game techniques for library staff learning are sparse. If you’re gamifying your staff training or know of programs that are, please share in the comments below.