Depending on how old you may happen to be, when you hear the term ‘gamification’, you may think it is a wonderful idea or a childish distraction.
Amongst education professionals, there are similar reactions, with some seeing gamification as the essential way forward for education.
Others worry that gamification will lead to the dilution of standards and possibly the end of education as we have understood it!
Gamification in education
It seems inevitable that many aspects of gamification will be widely adopted over the next decade and that educational institutions will need to find the middle way that engages students while ensuring that core standards are maintained.
However, it also seems apparent the full implications of gamification have not been fully recognised even by its strongest advocates.
Once the process of gamification begins to be implemented, the changes it triggers could lead to a series of very significant changes in the ways that we organise and deliver education at all levels.
Beyond points and memory retention
At its simplest level, gamification is the introduction of game-playing principles to something that is not actually a game.
For many educators, gamification is considered to be giving students immediate and simple motivators, usually in the form of points, badges, and leader board rankings.
These techniques have the potential to be extremely powerful to improve learning because we know that it is possible to improve retention in memory using several simple techniques that can easily gamified.
We can ask questions and reward correct answers, we can encourage students to develop their own questions, we can practise simple retrieval, and we can use spaced learning and recall to contain information in long-term memory.
Such techniques are effective ways of boosting memorisation and mastering large amounts of information quickly.
However, these approaches are clearly limited by the fact that they only encourage learning by rote, which is the most basic level in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. That is generally more suited to primary schools than higher educational levels.
What about higher-order thinking skills?
In secondary schools, colleges, and universities, besides learning key facts, we also want students to start developing higher cognitive functions by demonstrating their understanding and capacity to apply information to solve problems.
This requires more than simple memorisation.
If learning activities are correctly structured using gamification techniques, then students can be guided to use what they know to tackle practical challenges.
Some educators argue that gamification can also be used to develop the highest thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, and creativity by developing scenarios in which students may reach their goals through any number of different but pre-structured routes in exactly the same way that computer gamers may complete numerous levels of a game in different ways.
It could even be argued that the capacity to complete independent research and earn a doctorate is essentially a game that requires the student to move up the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning to create an original and significant contribution to human knowledge, while receiving points and badges in the form of constant feedback, encouragement, and direction from supervisors.
Does this mean that gamification can be applied to every stage of the educational journey?
Although gamification may have the capacity to support learning at every level of cognitive skill, it seems that it may become less effective as the complexity of the mental tasks required increases.
The challenge for gamification is whether it can teach general principles and encourage the development of multiple patterns of original thought, because solving a problem once does not necessarily teach the best way.
And even if a game provides the structure that presents many different ways to complete a challenge, once a particular approach has been shown to be effective, how many learners will grasp the bigger principles or try to develop new ways?
The higher-level cognitive skills of evaluation and creativity require synthesis, that is the bringing together of diverse streams of knowledge in new ways.
Synthesis is a difficult thing to describe. It can only be learnt through practice and personalised feedback, which is why university lecturers spend so much time marking student papers and explaining how to develop critical arguments.
It is unlikely that any pre-programmed gamified learning activity could hope to include all possible options that students might generate when operating at higher cognitive levels.
However, the principles of gamification should be applied to make such learning interesting, as well as to encourage, reward, and publicly acknowledge improvement and increasing creativity as students progress towards becoming independent thinkers.
There is a potential difficulty with gamification though. Paradoxically, it stems from one of the features that is usually considered a strength – immediate feedback.
Most things in life take persistence and require the capacity to defer gratification, that is, the ability to work today for a prize that may only be received tomorrow or in the future.
The psychological evidence appears to be unambiguous in showing that children who are able to defer gratification – those who don’t eat the sweet in front of them now and who are able to wait, knowing they will be rewarded with two sweets later – are more successful later in life.
This capacity to defer gratification appears to be uniquely human – chimps can’t do it!
I have argued elsewhere that this ability is the basis of humanity’s success because it is this self-control that prevented our ancestors from eating the seed corn and imbued them with the patience to plant, wait and harvest the ripened crops – the basis of any settled community, and ultimately of our civilisation.
In many respects, gamification is about immediate gratification and reward, yet much of real life is not like that and the work that we do now may be unappreciated even though it contributes to a bigger life goal.
Great game, greater story
So are there any principles of gamification that we could apply to such situations?
Any great game is actually a story and the truly greatest games tell us something about ourselves and our societies.
Take, for example, chess, which teaches us many lessons about how a complete society consists of many different types of people with their own functions, strengths, and limitations.
It teaches us how by mutual support, we can overcome challenges; how sometimes sacrifice is necessary for the greater good; and how by working together, the weakest can not only defeat the strongest but can even topple the ruler.
This is the overarching story of the game, and this principle of gamification can also be applied to our lives and our learning.
Most of us want to live a life that is worth living, filled with contentment and the achievement of our personal goals.
Once we understand that each episode of our lives fits into the bigger journey towards whatever our objectives may be, then we can view them like the levels of a computer game and enjoy the sense of achievement that comes with finishing the current level and progressing to the next.
In effect, we can internalise the principles of gamification and mentally reward ourselves for doing the right thing, taking pleasure in knowing that a small achievement today is part of the bigger story in the game of life.
This should also help us to realise that the game is continuous and that the best players keep enhancing their skills through life-long learning.
If we can internalise our own rewards, then the principles of gamification can be great for memorising a new word, comprehending its meaning, and learning how to apply it in a sentence.
Then through appreciating the many levels in the greater game of life, we harness the motivational power of gamification to complete the stages of a degree.
Gamification may also have implications for the ways in which students approach higher education.
There are many ways to win, and in the future, many students will apply this principle to their education, choosing to gamify their degrees by personalising the content and route of their programme of study.
At the moment, an undergraduate student enrols in a university where the curriculum, pace of study, mode of delivery, and form of assessment are all set by the institution’s faculty.
At the end of three or four years, the student has completed the curriculum and is assessed, and is then presented with a certificate validated by the university to attest to the fact that the student has met the required standards to graduate.
This traditional model is already beginning to fray with the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that make it possible for students to study what they want remotely, when they wish and at their own pace.
The Malaysian government has recently published guidelines that allow up to one third of a degree programme to be delivered using MOOCs, and many institutions are already experimenting with them.
However, it is possible to discern a gamified future where students will choose their own routes to qualification by registering in one institution while studying MOOCs from others.
It will be a short logical step to students studying courses at several institutions, gamifying their own unique degree programmes and choosing to study what is relevant to them.
Universities will still validate assessments and award degree certificates, but the days of mass participation in single discipline degrees may be ending.
Very few graduates will expect to spend their working life devoted to a single academic discipline.
Hence, it seems likely that gamified degrees will be broad-based and general in character, blurring the artificial distinction between ‘arts’ or ‘science’ qualifications.
Reinventing education for the future
This will also have implications for the academy.
Universities may come to resemble online gaming teams assembled not by discipline but on the basis of valuable complementary skills.
If businesses succeed through multi-disciplinary teams, why not educational institutions?
The last aspect of gamification to consider is the student experience, explicitly the student campus experience.
With the rise of the MOOCs, some people have predicted the decline of university campuses as students seek to minimise costs and complete degrees quickly from home.
However, this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of a true university education.
The university does not only exist to deliver lectures and grade assessments, it is also about maturing the whole person by providing the social, personal, and developmental experiences that can only be gained alongside thousands of other bright young people under the guidance of minds that are already seasoned and wise.
Universities are crucibles of creativity where the future is invented, and part of their mission is to guide young people to create themselves, shaping and ripening the adolescent into the future adult, using techniques honed to perfection over many centuries.
Modern technology offers the exciting possibility of gamifying many aspects of the student’s voyage of self-discovery, enabling universities to guide each individual along a personalised expedition of social and emotional development to find who they want to be.
Bringing things into perspective
The Malaysian higher education system already recognises the importance of developing “individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and physically balanced and harmonious”.
Students are now being taught and assessed in all the non-academic areas that implies.
These vital skills will be essential to success in the 21st century and can only be learnt on campus.
Although we are in the early stages of using modern technology to gamify them, gamification will ultimately give us better ways to enhance students’ individual and group experience, to align self-development with the greater game of life.
Professor Hew Gill is the Associate Provost of Sunway University and joined the University after a successful multi-track career as an entrepreneur, public servant, banker, senior business leader, and media pundit. He is a frequent broadcaster and sought-after public speaker on a range of educational, business, and psychological subjects, and is always happy to discuss research and consultancy projects. To share your thoughts with the professor on this article, email us at email@example.com.