Why (and How) does Gamification Work?

Woman sitting at computer

© 2013 Jupiter Images

By Molly Wright Starkweather

Recently, Kaplan University was featured in an article in Information Week’s Education section for its expansion of gamification in online courses across the curriculum. The two main aspects of the gamification pilot program included badges and challenge assignments using an embedded platform from Badgeville. According to Badgeville’s product descriptions, badging can involve instant point credits when students complete tasks, leader boards for a student to see the highest achievement levels in the class, and missions that personalize the order of tasks based on a student’s progress and desired learning goals. With the current buzz about gamification among educators, composition and writing center professionals might find themselves asking whether writing instruction lends itself to a game-like atmosphere. What can games offer students involved in the hard work of academic writing? What kind of expertise must writing teachers and coaches have in order to bring gamification into the classroom?

 Gamification for educational design happens when a course, a learning activity, or a writing exercise is situated in a game-like or playful atmosphere, encouraging students to enjoy the process of becoming educated, to have fun.

It might seem strange to think about being playful in higher education; after all, aren’t songs and games better suited to teaching children? Still, if we take a moment to look around, we can see many adult learning settings where games are used. English Language Learners of all ages learn the same “ABC” song that children learn to memorize the alphabet. Online courses often include a polling feature so that students can vote on which part of a reading they should review first during seminar. Recently on a flight home, I noticed the in-flight shopping catalog featured a board game designed to help law students pass the bar exam. The substance behind the hype about gamification is that games naturally increase the levels of interactivity, personalization, and satisfaction in a student’s learning experience. In short, gamification leads to better student engagement.

Increasing engagement in a course, particularly in an online setting, is a goal all educators share, but how does a writing instructor begin to bring gamification in without expertise in game design? A reassuring point to make is that all writing instructors have some level of experience in gamification, whether they know it or not. A few thought-provoking questions can show how easy it has been (or could be) to introduce a game-like environment to any classroom. Have you ever used templates for students to practice rhetorical moves, as modeled in Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst’s (2012) book They Say/I Say? In discussing visual and digital rhetoric, have you ever encouraged students to use a meme generator? (Memes are also a fun way to teach conciseness.) How many of us in looking at example essays with a class have broken out into a game of “Find the thesis statement” complete with students teaming up behind that first sentence in the second paragraph versus the last sentence of the paper?

Of course there is more complicated technology out there for those who want to embed multimedia content, badge leader boards, or social media plugins. The best part about this educational trend of gamification is that any of us in writing instruction and support can (and should) direct students to the intersection of work and play, since that very intersection is what brought us to the career of education in the first place.

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