Gameful Education: Playing School as a Game

Gameful education structures the learning experience from the perspective of game design. It isn't about educational games, or about playing games in school, but playing school as a game.
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Gameful education structures the learning experience from the perspective of game design. It isn't about educational games, or about playing games in school, but playing school as a game. A gameful school would treat grade promotion like a game treats leveling up: you complete the objectives (assignments), beat the level boss (an assessment), and you earn a trip to the next level (grade), regardless of how long you've played (age). Gameful students are motivated to gain new abilities (skills) and bonus items (special opportunities), all the while being engrossed by the plot (subject content). In games, students are experiencing the most motivating system for individualizing learning there currently is... education has a lot to learn from game design.

Gameful is a term coined by Jane McGonigal. She describes it as "to have the spirit, or mindset, of a gamer: someone who is optimistic, curious, motivated, and always up for a tough challenge. It's like the word "playful" -- but gamier!"

Last week, at the Microsoft US Innovative Education Forum, I saw Jane speak about how games make us better and how they can change the world. In addition to being a world-renown game designer and researcher, she happened to write a book about that called Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. So I think she knows what she is talking about. I had the opportunity to talk with her, interview her, and even do an impromptu game design session with her. Through it all, I was inspired to think about what a gameful approach to school would look like in practice. Many game designers have already offered their perspectives on gamifying education. Here is my contribution, a teacher's point of view on gamifying reassessments.

The idea behind reassessment is to give a student another chance at success. A student takes a test, doesn't do well, goes back to the teacher to relearn the material, and takes a reassessment that will replace the previous attempt. The teacher has to create two versions of a test and a kid has to take the whole test over again. Kind of reminds me of the early video game era when if you lost a life, you had to start from the beginning of the level. If I play a level for 15 minutes, make one mistake, and then have to go through everything again just to rectify my mistake, I am liable to turn the game off. Likewise, some students study a long time, fail certain parts of a test, feel dejected, and just can't muster the motivation to go through the same process again.

One day, implementing checkpoints became a standard game design practice. A checkpoint allows a player to start at a specific point rather than the beginning of the level. What if teachers build checkpoints into assessments? If a student fails an assessment checkpoint, they don't redo the entire assessment, just the parts that they need to. This will help teachers pinpoint conceptual problems and the skills that need to be improved. Students will learn that it is not that they are just bad at Geometry as a whole, but that they just need to review when and how to apply the Pythaogorean Theorem. Reassessments become shorter, more meaningful, and less daunting for educators to create and students to take. By creating checkpoints, every student can feel a measure of success and be rewarded for their past achievements when they come to retake certain parts.

Gamifying education is not a panacea, but it is definitely something to consider. Jane said that the time a student spends playing video games is comparable to the time they spend in a classroom. Video games are designed to interest, motivate, and retain players. They have the power to engage us, increase our feelings of significance, strengthen our relationships, and ultimately, some would say, make us happier people. Our students could use some of that in their education.

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