Is gamification the solution to student engagement? Gamification – the addition of game elements such as points and badges to non-games like ad campaigns, household chores, or public education – would seem to offer schools the perfect blend of engagement, entertainment, and education.
The idea behind gamification is that playing games is fun, therefore, adding elements of games to non-game situations can make those non-game situations fun too (see, for example, the fantasy roleplaying/housekeeping game Chore Wars at www.chorewars.com). But not all games are fun. Game stores, the internet, more than a few attics overflow with games that are too easy, too hard, badly designed, or just plain boring.
Consider the social networking site Foursquare, where users earn points and badges by “checking in” at locations such as movie theaters or restaurants. The site boasts over 20 million users – but many users become inactive after a few weeks. For a much simpler example, try playing Jakob Skjerning’s “Progress Wars” (www.progresswars.com – go ahead, try it!). You earn points, you can see your progress, and you gain levels. Its mechanics are similar to those of popular Facebook games such as “Mafia Wars.” So why isn’t Progress Wars fun (besides the fact that it was created as a parody of poorly-designed games)?
Part of the problem is the elusive nature of “funness.” As game designer Tracy Fullerton notes, “fun is subjective, contextual, and entirely up to personal taste.” Well-designed games make good use of mechanics such as challenge, competition, story, and dilemma but ultimately what one player finds fun another finds uninteresting. Consider Monopoly – it seems that people either love it or hate it. Of the vast variety of games that exist, what kinds do you prefer: Cooperative or competitive? Solitary or team-based? Strategy? Simulation? First person action? Third person action? Role playing?
Player preferences are no afterthought to game design. Game companies devote research and development budgets to studying gamers – specifically, player’s psychographic profiles. Based on the use of psychographic profiles in marketing, the makers of “Magic: the Gathering” identified four psychographic profiles that are specific to their players, such as players who obsess over statistics and strategy and others who just want to power through a game and win big. They found that few players fall into only one psychographic category but, like a personality test, psychographic categories can tell them what motivates an individual player, what encourages them to keep playing, what will captivate them and what will frustrate them.
There’s no comprehensive field guide to player psychographic profiles (not yet, anyway). Fortunately or unfortunately, this means that the best games are designed the old-fashioned way – with careful consideration of players and a lot of play-testing. Fullerton, in Game Design Workshop (Morgan Kaufmann 2008), advocates what she calls “playcentric” game design, which she defines as “involving the player in your design process from conception through completion. By that we mean continually keeping the player experience in mind and testing the gameplay with target players through every phase of development.”
Will one type of game design fit all students? Play-testing can give you an answer, but my bet is “no” based on the vast variety of experiences players seek out when they choose to play a game. I applaud teachers that have pioneered game-based classroom curricula – teachers like Kate Fanelli, creator of “MathLand” and Paul Andersen, who turned his AP Biology class into a game where students have flexibility to work through course material and earn points (that ultimately become their grades). Teachers like Andersen have laid the groundwork for others to improve and build on what they’ve started. It would be wonderful (or at least convenient) if there was a simple “gamification recipe” that could be easily applied to any given content. There isn’t. Educators need to be prepared to move beyond simple ideas of “gamification” and dive into game design and player psychology. It won’t be easy, fast, or cheap. But it could be amazing.