Back in 2010—right as I was beginning my career transition into instructional design—games emerged as the educational topic du jour. They commanded the attention of millions by way of social media apps like FarmVille, and touch-screen tablets made it possible for designers to reach audiences ranging much younger and older than ever before.
James Paul Gee’s (2007), What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, had caught the eyes of experts in psychology, linguistics, communications, and digital media, and a new generation of games researchers began work to explain how and why games were so successful at capturing our attention (as well as the ways in which educators, business owners, medical professionals, politicians, and others could make use of said information). A lot has happened in the intervening years. Gamification, once hyped as a potential panacea for engagement and instruction, now comes with a big asterisk. My colleagues and I warned of this possibility in our (2012) game-based learning meta-review, suggesting that games and the situations in which we use them are too complex to suit a “one-game-fits-all” mentality.
Individual learners inherently carry individual experiences that shape their behavior, so two people (or the same player returning later) playing the same game toward the same instructional end (e.g., “How to defeat the dragon,” “How to think like a scientist,” “How to cook paella”) will inherently yield individual interpretations of the game’s meaning and value. No game—past or present—can guarantee the learning outcomes we want for our audiences (see: Think Games on the Fly, Not Gamify).However, this issue has not doomed gamification (or as I prefer to call it, game-based instruction) as a whole. It’s simply reinforced the need to define theory-grounded frameworks for instructional game design before rushing to develop an end product.
This requires a bit of familiarity with games and game mechanics, and as those of us specializing in the field know, it’s easy to be confused by the foreignness of digital games if you aren’t a gamer yourself. Just remember two things: first, digital games aren’t the be-all end-all of instruction, despite what their high-end graphics, celebrity endorsements, or professional studio support might suggest—analog games (i.e., board and card games) have significant instructional value, too; and second, games are, at their core, the same performative educational tool humans have relied on for centuries. Consequently, we should not treat games differently than we would any other educational technology or tool, and we should look to learning theory for implementation guidance.
It may be helpful to think of this theory-driven approach to gamification as a set of three distinct frameworks:
- Behavioral Gamification
As the name implies, behavioral gamification is best-suited for reinforcing specific behaviors through the use of points, tokens, or badges. Whenever players perform certain tagged/designed actions in the game, they earn an artifact that codifies the experience and tracks related information (e.g., date, time, location). Note that behavioral gamification for proficiency and behavioral gamification for score-keeping are not the same thing. Proficiency gamification is akin to badging in the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America (denoting mastery of a specific skill), while gamification for score-keeping is more like earning runs in a baseball game (tracking the number of times a particular action was performed by way of a point, token, or badge). Either can be useful for enhancing otherwise straightforward or mundane tasks, but a user’s willingness to participate and perform the task with enthusiasm depends on how valuable they perceive the reinforcer (point, token, badge) to be. Examples of behavioral gamification tools include Credly and Open Badges.
- Gamification for Memorization
The second instructional game design approach, gamification for memorization, involves building content around ‘remember’ and ‘repeat’ mechanics. Information taught through gameplay—for instance, a friendly character telling the player an important fact—is akin to direct instruction, and performance is measured using in-game challenges or out-of-game tests. It’s a very common strategy among educational game designers, but it rests on some problematic assumptions about the way we think and learn (i.e., the “one-game-fits-all” framework). One particularly good example of gamification for memorization is iCivics, a free resource that hosts educational online games and lesson plans to promote civics education.
- Gamification in Character
Finally, gamification in character consists of developing materials such that all game and learning objectives exist at a 1:1 ratio. This means treating user performance not as a behavior to be reinforced or something to be memorized and tested, but as the demonstration of proficiency through “doing.” Players participate by adopting specific roles in the game and showcasing their growth via learning artifacts (e.g., writings, pictures, reflection statements, in-game actions). This stands in stark contrast to having players learn from in-game characters and repeat what they remember on tests or other assessment tasks. Gamification in character really does mean "in character"—putting players in a meaningfully authentic context to develop the skills we want them to develop, be they “Think like a scientist” or “Cook paella.” The Pericles Group, an educational design company I co-manage, features several examples of gamification in character on its website, including an educational game for language instruction and another that explores color theory.
As much as I’d like to say that these frameworks capture the full breadth of instructional game design, our understanding of gamification relies on our still-developing understanding of cognition. We just don’t have all the answers yet.
But, for the time being, we can make reasonably good predictions about design outcomes based on how each of the above frameworks tend to play out in different kinds of learning environments. It’s my hope that impressing the value of theory-driven gamification will help you power up your own projects as we look ahead to the next seven years of instructional game design research and development.
I’m thankful to have you along for the journey ahead. Good luck, fellow designers, and game on.