Is Gamification THE Answer?

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Imagine standing at the front of a large lecture hall. Half the students are missing. Moreover, half of those in attendance are hunched over their smartphones furiously typing with both thumbs and a large smattering are still half asleep in their pajamas even though it’s sometime in the middle of the afternoon. Does it really have to be this way?

You might be thinking the search for solution is not your problem; over the course of the next ten years the significance of that classroom will probably dissolve. The higher education industry will travel down the same path as many other professions disrupted by technological innovation. A few superstars at the top will effectively deliver their courses to worldwide audiences. The rest of us will be marginalized and just play supporting roles.

While a distinct possibility, the truth is that it really doesn’t have to end this way. The answer, however, is not found in the development of a more rigorous curriculum, a slew of new degree requirements, or a rejuvenated athletic program capable of generating winning teams. Rather the answer lies in a place where many haven’t looked, yet can be found in a familiar setting that gets introduced in childhood and stays with us as adults. It resides in the power of games.

Games after all are nothing more than healthy competitions that prompt us to become the best that we can be. They are fun, but they can also be important building blocks for establishing self-esteem and a sense of purpose.

What if the entire student experience could be as fun as some of the more popular games while simultaneously helping students figure out who they are, what they want to do, and to develop the skills needed to empower them to take control over what they learn and do with the knowledge they accumulate? However, something does not have to be a “game” to utilize game mechanics in order to motivate students and more effectively engage them in the learning process. In fact, gamification embodies just that: game mechanics applied to non-game situations.

To understand the power of gamification, it is important to understand why people play games. While it is certainly about amusement, it is also about feeling good about one self. Most people enjoy a healthy competition where intelligent obstacles can be overcome, favorable comparison is possible, and some resolution is reached in the end with hopefully a win. Games are therefore an important vehicle for generating self-esteem; they are also driven by story.

Perhaps the most powerful illustration of this is found in the classic tale The Wizard of Oz. There’s much more to the story than a young girl travels to a new world, follows a predefined path and ends up at a destination that helps her achieve her goal. Instead, as she travels along the Yellow Brick Road, Dorothy makes friends, becomes part of a team, overcomes several challenges, and finally, attains what her heart desires most. The story itself revolves around a developmental process where the shy, uncertain, and insecure girl becomes an assertive, knowledgeable, and empowered young woman. Hence, The Wizard of Oz becomes a metaphor for the power each of us has to uncover our untapped potential, and to develop those qualities that we most admire.

Drawing from this ostensible power of story and the allure of games, we have developed In an effort to use game design principles to create a radically different learning experience, we use Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and our own coaching model to help students create characters, undergo a series of challenges and prevail as they use economic concepts to save the day.

By empowering students to become co-creators of their own learning experiences, they are given more responsibility for their education. The process itself additionally ensures that the problems students are trying to solve are those that are meaningful to them. As their heroes overcome obstacles and successfully complete challenges, students’ mindsets change; they begin to see that success for their heroes can mirror success in their own lives. By establishing a greater sense of self, students are more willing to take risks and strive for academic achievement.

For those of us with a stake in preserving the residential collegiate experience, we must create new sources for adding value. It is time to view a physical campus as a giant game space where students can enjoy a certain amount of freedom as they explore and experience new things. However, it is one where their choices are given meaning and a sense of purpose. If we are able to combine what happens inside the classroom with what happens outside the classroom, we can magnify the impact of the learning experience. Reaching this level of cohesion has the power to create an educational system where the sum is truly greater than the individual parts.