Perhaps the best way to think about games in education is not to automatically call everything that looks like fun a “learning game.” Lumping all digital game approaches together makes no more sense than a toddler’s inclination to call every four-legged animal a “doggie.”
Game interest is definitely on the upswing in K-12 and higher education. It seems almost cyclical: every several years, almost in sync with the acceptance of new technologies (such as multimedia CD-ROM, then online, then mobile), there’s a surge of activity with games in education.
But everything game-like is not a game. And while game purists may wince at this simplification, it helps to consider games in education in terms of gamification, simulation and (simply) games. The three approaches aren’t always exclusive – they’re more of a continuum, or a Venn diagram’s overlapping circles – but they are notably different.
Gamification is the current bright-shiny of the three terms – and, as a result, is the most used and frequently misused. But the cleanest definition is straightforward: gamification is adding game elements and mechanics to things that aren’t designed to be games.
Providing feelings of competence, of being in control and that the outcome matters is critical, “and marketers (and frankly most people) don’t really have a clue.”
Outside of education, some call these “reward, recognition and motivation programs.” And Alex Chisholm, executive director of the Learning Games Network, a spin-off from the MIT Education Arcade and University of Wisconsin, shared an equivalent perspective recently when he noted that saying you’re going to “gamify” something in education means you’re applying game design principles to motivate and inspire learners.
In apps and software, this is commonly interpreted as adding point systems (sometimes with competitive student leaderboards), badges for accomplishments and levels of progression. One of the highest profile examples of this approach is the Khan Academy, which layers avatars, energy points and badges on top of completing traditional math activities.
But gamification can be done well or poorly.