Would They Play? Would They Learn? Finding the Sweet Spot between Games and Learning

What began as a routine summer workshop on incorporating games and game-like elements into instruction turned into the surprise of the summer; two weeks of fun and intense online game play by an engaged and committed cadre of faculty and staff who were working to apply the principles of gaming to their courses and student activities. I had planned to end the workshop with a two-week follow-up online game for participants, but I didn’t seriously think anyone would do it.

Deep engagement in an educational topic is rare on a small campus where faculty and staff wear many hats and are pulled in different directions. I started out being surprised when at the end of the workshop there was a lot of buzz about actually playing the game. OK, I thought, we’ll play but activity will fall off in a few days. Nope, surprised again. Well, week two will surely see a drop-off. No again. They pushed through to the end. Seven players visited the game site 1,350 times, posted 256 comments, and fought hard to an exciting photo finish!

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve had my doubts about the educational value of “gaming” in college classrooms. In my mind, there’s an uneasy relationship between entertainment and education. Could gaming really be about learning, or is it just another example of pandering to student interests? After my experience with this faculty group I have fewer doubts. And the games don’t have to be highly technical, expensive, or time-consuming to create. I’m pretty well convinced now that game-like elements (rather than full-blown games) can be powerful motivators and learning tools.

The previous summer, I had begun exploring gaming in education and had even created a game for an information sciences and technology class that turned out to be a huge disaster. I was incredibly energized creating the game, in which students earned points by exploring different emerging technologies. The deeper the exploration, the more points earned. If a student teamed up with another student and explored collaboratively, they earned bonus points. I was sure my students would jump right in, but they didn’t! Why?

The question dogged me and got me digging deeper into the underlying elements of games. What makes them compelling? It turns out I hadn’t properly considered the power of fun and play for the player! Because clearly what had been fun for me in designing the game wasn’t all that much fun when students played the game. Back to the drawing board and answering some big essential questions: What makes something fun or playful? Can something fun and playful still be challenging and academic? Can being like a game be as good as a game?

During the face-to-face workshop with faculty, we explored the notions of fun and playfulness and how they intersect with game design. We did a play “history” during which we discussed experiences of play at ages five, 10, 20, and now. We used the National Institute for Play’s patterns of play as a framework for exploring play: Attunement, Body, Object, Social, Imaginative, Storytelling.

I ended the workshop by orienting participants to the game we were about to play. Using a blog as our game site, those playing would get a daily challenge that involved applying a different gaming principle to one of the courses they taught. I used James Gee’s principles of learning (from his text What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy) to devise these daily challenges. Players received points for completing the challenge, helping a peer, adding a resource, finishing first, and so on. As they earned points, they could level up and win small prizes (e-cards and other free or inexpensive tokens).

Here’s an example of a daily challenge.

Gee’s Psychosocial Moratorium learning principle states that learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered.

Step 1: Name the course concept to which you’ll apply this principle.

Step 2: Connect your course concept to the learning principle—share your ideas about risks inherent in learning (could be specific to your concept/course or in general) and one idea that you have that could help to reduce the risks involved.

Step 3: Take this idea one step further to gamify it—add a playful element plus problem solving—and connect this to a game-like element/activity that you would do in class. This is taken from Jesse Schell’s text The Art of the Game Design.

PLAY is a manipulation that indulges curiosity.

A GAME is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude (Schell).

During the second week I changed the challenges to keep the element of surprise in play. Now participants earned bonus points for testing their gaming application ideas out on a family member. Next they earned points for revisiting their activities and identifying insights from the process. A leaderboard marked their progress through the last day, when at high noon the winner was announced on the blog!

By the end I actually think we all felt the power of finding the sweet spot between games and learning. We met one last time to debrief the game and talk about lessons learned. Everyone agreed: It felt good to be engaged in an activity that promoted reflection and application. Everybody also agreed that game-like elements could prompt engagement and learning in the classroom. We talked about some of the challenges, such as finding time for a game-like activity in an already full course, incorporating enough elements to motivate students, and finding efficient ways to keep track of who’s getting points for what.

I learned a lot from this experience. Most important, I saw firsthand just how simple the gamification of our existing ideas can be. Teachers can use already existing activities and gamify them! Simply add a challenging problem-solving aspect to the activity, add surprises, and make it more playful and you’ve gone from active to game-like! You are welcome to check out our game framework, challenges, resources, and lessons learned at http://psyorkgamesite.wordpress.com/.
Suzanne C. Shaffer, instructional designer, college reading/ESL instructor. Penn State York.

Reprinted from Would They Play? Would They Learn? The Teaching Professor, 27.3 (2013): 1,6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.