by Lindsay Simmons

Breaking the Rules to Explore Games in Learning

I’m a rule follower. I always have been. When I was a kid, I would get so nervous I would sweat when I thought someone wasn’t following the rules, and I would be lying if I said I don’t get a bit nervous to this day (I’m working on it). So, when I started researching gamification in order to write an article and a webinar that I’m doing in April, I looked for the rules. I looked for all of the “right” answers to what gamification is and how to implement it the correct way. I looked for consensus among the authors who had already published gamified learning articles and books. I dug to find specific examples that helped illustrate and support what gamification looked like in the classroom and how it enhanced student learning. 

And I found some great research from a lot of people. I also found that there are different names that researchers use for this type of instruction. In fact, many differentiate “gamification” from “game-based learning.” To briefly synthesize and simplify the definitions, many say that game-based learning utilizes specific games to achieve learning goals and that gamification involves using game elements, such as badges and rewards, to engage students in non-game content. Some even said that gamification solely lived in the digital world, and don’t get me started on those who focused only on gamification as a marketing tactic (think airline and credit card reward points). 

All of these distinctions were slightly confusing for me as I thought about all of the unique ways I tried to engage students with a variety of games and game-based activities in the classroom. For example, when I thought about the Winter Olympics group project I ran in my classroom that included a research-based project where students earned points for completing different elements, and culminated with an actual day of Olympic-like events, I was a little unsure about whether that was technically game-based or gamified learning. What about when educators take entire game structures like Bingo or Jeopardy and apply their own content in order to review concepts in a more exciting way? It felt like every author applied a different lens and depending on who I was reading, the term used to describe what these would fall under changed. 

So, I did what every rule follower would do—I started writing out a T-chart to explore the minute and argued differences between gamified learning and game-based learning. I thought there had to be black-and-white rules somewhere, I just must not be understanding them correctly. Then, as I was crossing out my Winter Olympics project from the gamified column and moving it back into the game-based column for the second (or third) time based on the author I was reading, it hit me—I am 100% missing the point. The purpose of gamified and game-based learning is not to explore the differences between the two and only employ one and not the other. Rather, the most important element is to teach in ways that engage students to support them in learning more deeply; to switch up instructional methods to keep students motivated and even allow students to have a more positive experience with learning content through game play. And not every game, or game-based element, that you infuse into your classroom will work for every student. But I guarantee that if we can intentionally think of ways to incorporate some of these strategies to support student learning, it will spark more joy in the classroom that doesn’t come through lecture and other traditional methods of instruction. There are a lot of other reasons why weaving in games can be beneficial as well, and I want to talk about three today. And, instead of exploring what gamification is and what it is not, and outlining the nuanced and argued differences between gamification and gamified learning, I want to keep it simple. I am going to cover the broader idea of any game-based element or game play that connects to content in the classroom. 

Gamification gives students choice.

Wendy Ostroff says in Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, “Autonomy is one of the most pleasurable experiences for a developing child.” Kids need choices. When students are presented with choice, they take ownership of their learning. Providing students with gamified elements in the classroom, such as badges or points for completing different challenges, can give them autonomy to pursue the challenge they are most interested in and passionate about, rather than making the whole class complete the same assignment. It gives room for more than one right path to success in the classroom.  Game play also supports autonomy as there are often many paths to winning and choices that students practice. Instead of teaching students the correct answers and strategies for winning, game play provides opportunities for students to take risks and fail in a fun, safe environment. 

Students learn through experience.

Gamified learning requires active participation. Students experience the lesson and content rather than passively taking it in. Therefore it can empower students to participate and be drivers of their own learning. Gamified learning can serve as a type of constructivist approach, where students make meaning through their own exploration and teachers play a facilitator role. Educators can guide students, but the ownership of the learning process lies on student exploration and experimentation. As mentioned above, it also gives students a safe space to try new things. Then, students discover content through the often instantaneous feedback that game play and gamification provides. They are able to track their understanding and progress. This can make learning more exciting for students.

Gamification can cultivate community and collaboration.

There are many ways that you can gamify content to cultivate community and collaboration in your classroom. Sharing a common goal can place students on the same team and give them an opportunity to practice collaboration. In my experience with facilitating the Winter Olympics project, it helped students get to know each other better and helped create a collaborative culture. Students were excited for each other when they had successes. They helped their teammates when needed. They cheered each other on when they participated in the Winter Olympics games. In addition, when students are given a chance to practice new skills in a safe space and can feel comfortable failing in front of others, deeper learning is possible. In the case of the Winter Olympics, it also made the learning experience more fun. It’s important to note that this environment does need to be carefully crafted as there can be negative sides to competition if not done responsibly. Be sure to teach what positive competition looks like and reinforce it in your classroom.

After all of this research, I wondered, why didn’t I intentionally weave in more game experiences? Even adding in some Quizlet Live or Kahoot games can be a good place to start. And, rather than making sure you are doing it the right way like me, do it in a way that is right for you and your classroom. In addition to many other important skills and memories that will be made, you might just spark some joy or a new passion in your students. And, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Lindsay Simmons
AboutLindsay Simmons
Lindsay Simmons, M.A., Professional Learning Specialist, has several years of experience working as an upper elementary school teacher and has most recently served as the STEM Education Programming Manager for a science center in Pennsylvania. She has her master’s degree in Art History with a Museum Studies Certificate and has a passion for learning about most effective engagement strategies, in both design and learning. She enjoys utilizing STEM and Maker Education processes and tools to enhance her students’ learning.
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