What is gamified learning?

Gamified learning integrates game mechanics into the process of learning. Examples of game mechanics are (high) scores, levels, achievements, immediate feedback loops and time pressure. These elements are what makes a game a game, and if applied correctly they make it fun to play the game. Our current technology enables educators to implement game dyanmics in their work. For example creating a history battle between students or a training quiz for professionals.

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Integrating game mechanics (and dynamics) has huge promise to transform education, because they address powerful intrinsic motivators. And learning becomes a lot easier when you’re intrinsically motivated. What are these intrinsic motivators, and how can we use gamification to get people intrinsically motivated to learn?

At Easy LMS we consider three intrinsic motivators as defined in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. These motivators are autonomy, mastery and purpose.Let’s take a look at them one by one in the context of education and see how gamifying education can help in unlocking intrinsic motivators to learn.

Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives.

A common feeling among teenage students is that they are not learning for themselves but “because they have to”. This is due to a lack of feeling of autonomy, and is difficult to solve completely, but applying gamification in education can help.

Giving students complete freedom in what they want to learn probably won’t give them the feeling of autonomy. What they’ll probably feel is panic because they won’t know what to do. To be able to experience a feeling of autonomy people need boundaries and a clear goal.

For example, even for a course that is mandatory (not a very high level of autonomy there), if you implement game mechanics correctly you can still create a feeling of autonomy. One good way to do this is using ‘surprise rewards’ as an element (for example give a bonus to people attending 3 lectures in a row). An unexpected reward can create a very personal relation with an activity, after receiving the award people will feel that they choose to attend the lecture instead of being forced to. A person starts feeling that they actually earned the reward just by attending the lecture, increasing sense of automony and self-determination.

Note: an unexpected information reward (like praise) also creates a feeling of mastery.

Mastery: the urge to get better and better

Mastering and the feeling of lack of progress

In essence learning is mastering. Just imagine you solve that difficult math problem for the first time. The moment when you’ve just done something that you couldn’t do before. That’s mastering something, and it feels pretty great! 

However, learning can be a non-linear process that can feel pretty demotivating at times. I probably misspelled the word “accommodation” more than a 100 times. And then suddenly I spelled it correctly, and have been doing so ever since. There was no intermediate time that I spelled it right 50% of the time. I didn’t know how to spell it and then suddenly I did. And all that time I wasn’t feeling like I was learning or mastering the spelling at all. I just felt disappointment when I misspelled it again, a bit ashamed for my mistake. Learning it felt great, but there was no sense of progress while learning.

Game-mechanics can solve this feeling of lack of progress. When you gamifiy the learning,  let the  student receive a small reward when he misspells something. Reward the attempt to spell correctly, not only the act of correct spelling (the mastering). This gives the student the feeling that even though he made a mistake, he made progress. Just by trying again the student can make more progress and receive a reward instead of failing. This is very similar to video games, you almost never get punished in a video game when you try and fail or make a mistake. Even if you fail to rescue the princess the first time, you’ll receive some experience (you make progress) and you can try again immediately. You’re just on your way mastering.

Next to solving the feeling of lack of progress, rewarding an attempt has another benefit; it helps creates growth mindsets. When in a growth mindset, people believe they can develop their abilities with dedication and work. Research shows that most “great and famous people” have a growth mindset. They take their current abilities (even if they’re hopelessly underdeveloped) as the starting point and start trying to develop them. They try and they’re not afraid about getting punished for failure. If we want to stimulate growth mindsets, we’ll have to start rewarding ‘trying and failing’ instead of only handing out rewards at the point of mastering. Watch a great video on growth mindsets here.

Difficulty levels and flow

Also a lot depends on the level of the student. As most teachers know, you have to find a very tight balance between presenting something challenging to a student without making it too difficult. Without the challenge it’s too boring for the student, but if it’s too difficult the student will get demotivated. The paradox is that people try to avoid boredom but are also afraid for new things. We want to get out of our comfort zone, but just by a little.

At this point our current education system can get in the way. Our education system uses age to group students and pre-selects exactly what is taught at what point of time. Teachers are presented with varying skill levels in one grade and have to follow the same curriculum for every student.  It’s very difficult for a teacher to present students with individualized difficulty levels.

Gamified learning can solve this problem. Within one game, simultaneously multiple students can learn at their own difficulty level. And when they improve, a good game will adjust the difficulty level for them so they stay challenged.

If you apply game mechanics correctly students can experience flow: a full focus, involvement and enjoyment in the process of learning. It is a mental state where someone is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus. Flow is completely focused motivation and alignment of emotions , and represents the ultimate experience in learning. We should want our students to be in the flow as much as possible. We'll write a more about flow in learning in a few weeks.

Purpose: yearning to contribute to something larger than ourselves.

Apparently people feel the intrinsic need to contribute to something that is larger than ourselves. At first glance this fact is quite surprising if you link this to video games: how does playing a video game for hours contribute to something larger than ourselves? Most games solve this by adding an transcendent story to the game: you either have to save the world or the girl. And we need the player to help out.

Stories can really make a difference here. And adding a transcendent story to education doesn’t have to be difficult. The story doesn’t even need to have basic elements as characters, a plot, tension and resolution (standard story stuff). You don’t need a novel. It needs to relate to your audience and give them a feeling that doing the activity they’re doing (practicing math, taking foreign language quizzes) contributes to the goal set in the story. You have to transform and integrate the learning activity into the story. Mario needs to collect 5 stones (math quizzes), and 1 hammer (history essay) before he can create a bridge to enter the castle and save the princess. Ideally the story unfolds as people progress in their journey to mastering.  

Applying gamified learning

By addressing these intrinsic motivators, educators can improve the learning of their students and have fun at the same time. So why wait? Start today with gamifying your curriculum!

If you need help, we at Easy LMS specialize in gamified learning tools like our quiztool. But we also create extensive gamified learning management systems for our clients. Contacting us is your first step in saving the world from the alien invasion.

Useful resources

Johns Hopkins University

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