Games and sports, in general, teach us invaluable soft skills. For example, they teach us teamwork, communication, delegation, and collaboration. Most of the learning in a school today is focused on crystallized learning objectives. Crystallized learning consists of facts, figures, formulas, and so on. The real untapped benefit of gamification in education is in the area of fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence is more about problem solving and emotional intelligence.
The primary purpose of an educational system is to prepare a society for the future. Our current educational system is preparing a society for a reality that no longer exists. It is trying to catch up in the areas that games excel.
There is already over 50 years of research that suggests that games enhance the learning experience in certain areas. Unfortunately, it's not in areas that we traditionally measure. Since we don't measure areas such as communication ability, emotional restraint, and leadership on a report card, we haven't put much attention on ensuring that students learn these skills. However, these are the types of skills that we are discovering, which matter most in society.
Games have shown these types of skills uniquely well. They are also very good vehicles for showing a learner why an action or behavior is incorrect. For example, when a player makes a mistake in a video game, he/she loses a turn or loses a man. It is through safely failing that we ultimately learn. Games allow for safe failure. Most lessons in a traditional school environment are learned only after an irreversible failure, such as the failure of an exam.
Games generally build in failure. When we consider video games, it's commonly understood that every player has a certain number of players to experiment with. If a mistake is made, the player is destroyed in the game, but generally has another opportunity to try again with another game token.
This immediate feedback is very important in the learning process. Learners need a system that lets them know when they are progressing. Unfortunately, via our traditional educational system, learners need to wait as long as 12 years to find out if they really learned what they need to be a productive citizen. This prolonged delay leads the feedback loop failure to give the learner adequate feedback on time.
Despite all the excitement about gamification in the classroom, there are several skeptics. The first obvious question is how scalable is gamification in education, whether online or not. A few examples of success are not cause enough to revamp our entire educational system.
It's safe to assume that gamification in an educational setting doesn't always work. As a matter-of-fact, according to a 2013 Gartner report, over 80 percent of gamification projects will fail to reach their objectives. Of course they are referring to gamification projects in particular, but many of these will be education related.
According to Gartner, most will fail due to:
Lack of planning and strategy
Even Professor Graham, who attempted to model the game Civilization in his classroom, admits to it being a dismal failure. He attributes his failure to the game mechanics not being voluntary. He, in this instance, required all students to participate in the game, which seems to have affected students' ability to have fun with the course. This, however, would be a real problem in most schools. The whole purpose of a state board of education is to set a standard and decide what's required from a student. This is completely contradictory to the concept of giving a student a level of autonomy in the process.
Another fundamental question to ask before attempting to apply gamification in an educational environment is, "Should school be fun?" Many education proponents suggest that giving a student a pleasurable experience is not the goal of school, the acquisition of skills is necessary to be a productive citizen.
The real questions from my vantage point are:
What are the skills necessary to be a productive citizen in the future?
Can game mechanics be used to teach those skills necessary to be a productive citizen?
Are students being motivated and incentivized to learn these skills to be productive citizens?
Proponents of gamifying the educational experience argue that games and game elements are not replacements for teachers. Good game design in accordance with passionate teachers lead to a vibrant learning environment. Furthermore, the traditional education system has proven to be very adequate in delivering critical literacy-oriented skills. It has, however, done a poor job of teaching thinking skills, soft skills, and experiential learning. It appears that the role of gamification education is not to replace or disrupt. Its role is more about enhancing and extending the current process.
The success or failure of gamifying the learning environment will boil down to a good gamification design. We see a plethora of sites adding points, badges, and leaderboards (PBLs) and calling it gamification. Good design implies a framework and a structure. A framework results in clear, measureable objectives. A design framework includes a clear understanding of the audience and what makes them do what they do. And it gives a process to follow. When these things happen in a learning setting, students will be motivated to learn. At that moment, when there is a clear understandable reward and it's in the proper context, there will be motivation. These moments become fertile opportunities for learning.
When we develop a learning environment correctly, students should not even realize they are learning. They should simply participate in a game and have fun. Learning is the by-product of that environment.
Traditionally, when we think about school, a lot of words come to mind, but fun is not one of them. As a matter of fact, to date schools penalize learners for things that games consider normal play. For example, learners are penalized for not keeping up and learning at a prescribed pace. This pressure to learn is counterproductive. Pressure makes the process no fun. A regularly used game element is the concept of progression. When students learn and progress at their own pace, they have considerably more fun.
The F-word (fun) is frowned upon in some gamification circles, such as gamification for education. We tend to dodge the main game element, fun, in lieu of striving for engagement and motivation. Engagement and motivation are definitely results of a good gamification application, but they are not a replacement for fun; rather, they are a result of the designer-targeted-fun experience.
We must, however, keep in mind that fun is not a "one size fits all" proposition. What's fun for one person is not fun for another. This is one of the critics of trying to gamify the classroom setting. One set of game elements that translate into fun for one student simply does not and will not translate into fun for another.