Gamification in the classroom: educating by playing
Playing has formed part of human nature since the species was born. One can play alone or in a group, seated around a board or standing, at home or outdoors. No matter the format, children and adults learn, experiment and hone their understanding of the world around them through playing.
Gamification takes advantage of this natural educational tool by applying gaming dynamics to activities whose objectives go beyond entertainment. In other words, gamification leverages everything that surrounds the game (its workings, the players´ roles, the challenges and rewards, etc.) and moves it into a non-recreational space, such as the workplace or the classroom. Where previously there was a task to be resolved, now there is a challenge to be tackled; where before there was a delivery to be made, now there is a reward to be gained.
This kind of gamification primarily targets the user experience, whether student or worker. The idea behind this type of initiative is that people learn better when something is enjoyable. In the educational realm, engaging students through games boosts their motivation and improves their attention span. Unlike traditional methods (lectures, questions, dictation, etc.), the student is not treated like a passive and merely reactive element. Rewards, elevated statuses (reaching a higher wizardry status, for example) and achievements (reaching level "x" of the game) are some of the most common ways in which activities are gamified.
One example is Flipped Playground, an initiative promoted by the elementary school teacher Michael T. Bennett at the Humanitas Bilingual School in Tres Cantos (Spain), who is reinterpreting traditional children´s games as educational tools. Bennett teaches with the help of games like hopscotch, scavenger hunts and a giant piano.
This teacher has converted the classic game of Twister, amongst others, into an adaptable, educational stage. Bennett has modified the elements of the game, like the colored circles on the Twister board, by transforming them into a series of geometrical shapes. The instructions are given in English ("Put your left hand on the brown pentagon") and the number of body parts has been increased. This format allows children to work with a simple, psychomotricity game, geometry and a second language (English). The schoolyard is now an open air playroom where students and teachers can have fun while learning.
"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing" Bernard Shaw
From Analog to Digital
During the 1980s, educational games made the leap from schoolyards to personal computers. At first, these were limited to digital versions of traditional card and board games, like solitaire and chess. But the real revolution began in 1985 with Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, developed by Brøderbund Software. This was the first videogame envisaged as an interactive experience designed to teach geography, history and culture. The success of this game took the world by storm and the concept extended to other mediums, like television, with programs and game shows which were versioned in many countries. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was even included in the lesson plans of over 300,000 schools in the United States, and today Netflix is working on a new, televised adaptation of the game.
This kind of gamification has evolved alongside new technologies. GlassLab is a non-profit organization which develops educational games which are used in over 6,000 classrooms in the U.S., according to data from SRI International. Some of this company´s games, like SimCity EDU, are educational versions of already famous games, whereas others, like Ratio Ranchel, are based on original concepts. Teachers receive instant updates on the progress of their students, as well as suggestions as to which topics need more work. These evaluations quantify the progress achieved in different skills: spatial vision, mathematics, strategic thinking and reasoning.
The Kahoot gaming platform offers another success story. With over 50 million active monthly users in over 180 countries, according to the company, Kahoot represents one of the fastest growing platforms around. One of the competitive advantages of this Norwegian platform is the fact that it not only allows users to play, but also allows them to create their own activities.
Educating and Playing, with Adults
Teaching children through games can sometimes be challenging: a simple distraction or even fatigue can divert their attention. But this becomes much more complicated when the user to be engaged in the dynamic is an adult. As we grow, we tend to abandon this natural way of learning and relegate games entirely to the leisure and entertainment category.
Tools targeting adult education therefore need to adapt to this group and look for sources of motivation in order to capture and maintain their attention. The videogame design and development professor at the Design, Innovation and Technology School of Madrid (Spain) Juan P. Ordóñez presented his gamification project, developed in collaboration with his students, at the 2015 Gamification World Conference. Ordóñez´s project is based on cards similar to those used in role-playing games, which are designed in such a way that each one represents a role or action that can be performed during class. For example, there is an "innovation" card, with which one can call on a classmate for help with a presentation. Other cards designate a working group leader or allow one to pass a question off to a classmate. There are three ways to obtain cards: through routine classwork, voluntary assignments and random assignments.
Students use these cards throughout the academic course, and each year aspects of the game are tweaked according to previous results. "At first, the [students´] response was nonexistent, but little by little they started getting into it until they were fully engaged," recalls Ordóñez, who has spent four years on this ongoing project. "It works pretty well, but it is still evolving."
Movies Can Also Educate
Another successful gamification program is being carried out at the University of Granada (Spain), where the physical education professor Isaac J. Pérez has been applying this kind of technique to the classes he teaches for several years.
Specifically, Pérez uses popular television programs and movies as a learning tool. He started with Game of Thrones, where the objective of the course was to win the Iron Throne. To achieve this, the class was divided into kingdoms, each of which was associated with a block of course content: Físicor (Physical Condition and Health), Deporticia (Games and Sports), Expresanto (Bodily Expression) and Naturalia (Outdoor Activities). In 2016, Pérez repeated this experience using the Matrix trilogy as the guiding theme, and expresses great satisfaction with the results obtained. "The students, in addition to having learned the course content, have improved their physical fitness by running from the guards," he explains.
For the next course, Pérez has not given up and is preparing a program inspired by the movie In Time. This activity as based on a mobile app developed at the University of Granada that offers a continuous time reference which allows each player to continue participating in the game. Students, who have class time allocated to the game, face educational and creative challenges in order to win points, and with these points win over other students, the minuteros (timers), who survive by stealing time. Whether the format be cards, minutes or videogames, it seems clear that gamification is here to stay.
By María C. Sánchez