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Gamification and Higher Education


In September I will be delivering a plenary address at the American College of Greece in Athens about active learning and gamification in higher education. I'm immersing myself in as much on this topic as possible and would love to hear others' thoughts on the issue.

I have been "gaming" since 2007, when I first started using the pedagogy Reacting to the Past. Just about anyone who knows me also knows that I am committed to the Reacting pedagogy. Reacting consists of highly immersive role-playing games, set in a historical period. Each student has his or her own role that comes with a  character sheet with victory objectives, strategy, and key ideas. Students must read primary texts from the time period (for instance Plato's Republic for Athens game set in 403 BCE and Rosseau's Social Contract for the French Revolution game) and use references from those works in speeches to persuade people to their side of the issues in order to WIN. And students really do want to win; their competitive natures come out. Because reading and writing can help you to win, students realize that doing "work" can lead to something worthwhile - and even fun.

This is what the gamification movement seems to promise, but it appears to be mostly tied to the realm of video games. Reacting seems to be on the fringe or the edge of this movement, because it's not a video game. Although Reacting games can be played online, and have been used that way successfully by some of my colleagues, the pedagogy essentially is a face-to-face active learning technique and is one of my favorite options when I incorporate the flipped classroom paradigm.

I need to learn more about gamification in other arenas beyond Reacting. From what I have learned so far, it seems to me that students will see right through the idea of "levels" and "badges." I am concerned that adding those particular elements as part of a course won't really make it any more "fun." I was watching a video of Gabe Zichermann talking about gamification (October 26, 2010), and the speaker had this image up:

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 3.09.07 PM

He was suggesting that the bottom words are not associated very much with fun - but the words above in color are associated more often with fun. It seems that the move towards gamification in higher education is an effort to make school more fun.

This gets to the heart of what I think about day in and day out: I teach because I want my students to learn. But I also want my classes to be engaging places where students are active. I wish I had more evidence to back this up (does anyone out there have such studies?), but I do think that students who are engaged in classes also learn more. I think the flipped classroom has allowed my students to be more engaged, and yes, have more fun. I know that I have a lot of fun right alongside them when they are involved in the class. And I am learning from them, too.

I know I need to do more research, reading and study to better understand this arena of gamification in higher education. I am hoping that some wise sages out there can point me in some directions about what to read, and tell me whether or not the levels and badges really lead to deeper learning. Maybe I am just cynical, but if I were to call "learning about the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial" a "Quest" I would get some eye-rolls. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by (October 29, 2015) seems to suggest that we should not give in to where students are. But I wonder, is the alternative to leave them behind if they don't ever learn like they are "supposed" to?

I am planning to incorporate some "leveled" quizzes and will incorporate the idea of adaptive release in my hybrid class History of Western Art this coming fall semester. Students will have a randomly selected set of images that are fairly easy to identify for art history survey in each module. After that, a second quiz will include more difficult images. Is that gamification? Somehow I think the Reacting games, case studies and peer review sessions that I am planning for the face-to-face portions of that class are going to make more of an impact, but I am set to give it a try.

Readers: what else should I read and learn about as I work through this new area of teaching?


2 thoughts on “Gamification and Higher Education

  1. Victoria Russell

    Hi Gretchen!

    This is the world I'm in right now---I'm studying 'serious games' as a part of course design and pedagogy but am definitely not in the digital camp. Have you looked at anything by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman? They don't require digital frameworks to use gamification or serious games in pedagogy. The K-12 literature is definitely richer than what is out there for higher ed.

    For what it's worth, a lot of critics limit gamification to leader boards, badges, or levels when it is really about selecting those mechanics that best support the objectives/standards of the course. The course's purpose comes before the selected mechanic. For example, I never use leaderboards because the emphasis in my particular course is collaborative practice--the leaderboards inspire competition, but not in the vein I need to see to support the course.

    Would love to chat more and curious to see what responses you get!

    Victoria Russell

  2. Bob

    Some keywords come to mind:
    1) Co-opting. Games are fun spaces, sometimes social spaces. Making them educational sucks the fun out. The same thing happened with social media. When educational institutions invaded social media platforms, high school and college students found other places to play. It's like sugar coating a pill that everyone knows still tastes bad. The cold hard truth is that learning is a struggle. It is a process of mindful effortful change. People are highly resistant to change, and are often satisfied with a lesser outcome if a greater outcome is perceived as requiring too much effort. In games, some people grind in order to gain experience and ability, but not everyone. In school, some people put in the drudgery to master a foreign language or to read a really lengthy, slow paced novel.
    2) The emphasis in gamification seems to be on motivation. It builds on B. F. Skinner's mastery learning concept from back in the 1960's. Master things in increasingly difficult steps and eventually you will have achieved greatness. I guess in obedience training, this works. I guess a badge, a public display of achievement, is sufficient motivation for some people. Maybe like if you had been a Girl Scout or something and hadn't gotten over the whole badge thing.
    3) I want to like gamification, since I am a gamer. But, honestly, I like games to relax, not to invest in myself and my future. I like games because I can quit them if they get too odious. But, how can one quit a college course? We are kind of stuck there and gamification doesn't change this reality.
    4) There is substantial research on active learning that provides validation for its value as a pedagogical strategy. The challenge is that it has to be meaningful in the minds of the participants. Of course, this is true for any learning endeavor. I guess the real question is then how to make games meaningful, and this, I believe, requires reliance on participants' meta cognition. There needs to be large amounts of reflection and feedback, and the topic needs to be important.


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