Think:games blog #3: gamification and games in education

I want to use this blog post to distinguish my project with Think:Games from the more widely known phenomenon of gamification. Since gamification is rising in education quickly, I thought it would be useful to emphasize the similarities and differences between the two, and give some thoughts on how they can support and complement each other.



The video game America’s Army is a long-running gamification of the US army’s recruitment process.

Gamification is getting much attention already, but you still might not have heard of it. Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. On his gamification blog, Yu-Kai Chou explains it as follows:

Most systems are “function-focused” designed to get the job done quickly. This is like a factory that assumes that the workers within WILL do their jobs. However, Human-Focused Design remembers that people in the system have feelings, insecurities, and reasons why they want or do not want to do things, and therefore optimizes for their feelings, motivations, and engagement.

The reason we call it gamification is because the gaming industry was the first to master human-focused design. Games have no other purpose than to please the human inside. There are “objectives” in the games, such as killing the dragon or saving the princess, but those are all excuses to simply keep the player happily entertained inside. Since games have spent decades learning how to master motivation and engagement, we are now learning from games, and that is why we call it Gamification.

Basic examples like making a contest out of a chore (who cleans their room the fastest gets a candy) are long known to be effective, but gamification (itself a marketing catchphrase) has gotten more professional, and more and more is being gamified, including businesses, marketing, public policy and teaching. See for example this list of organizations that have succesfully implemented gamification elements into their structure. Organizations look to how games run on intrinsic motivation to use it for their own purposes.

If you want to know more about gamification, Yu-Kai Chou (Twitter) is the guy to go to. He has some interesting talks, a book and the Gamification Daily, a feed of new and interesting articles in the field.

Games in education

So gamification can make nearly anything a game, including a lesson. And in fact more and more teachers are using gamification practices. So what’s the difference between gamification in education, and the use of games in education?

Basically, my plea with Think:games is for more games in education, in general. In concrete terms:

  1. First of all, gamification has a specific function (at least in education): to increase students’ intrinsic motivation. Existing games can be used to appeal to or even create intrinsic motivation too, and in this way the two are similar. However, there are more roles games can play in education.
  2. candy_crush_saga_game_setup_example

    There is a difference between Candy Crush…

    Gaming is a large and growing industry, and increasing numbers of students consume video games in some way. If you count mobile games, nearly every student will regularly play at least one game. In the past teachers have decided that with books,  movies and in some cases music and theatre too, it is up to schools to expose students to “the greats” and works that might provoke or expand students’ thinking. In my own school, I was taken to a Shakespeare play, I was shown Apt Pupil and Good Bye Lenin!, and I read the great Dutch writer Mulisch. It is time the same is done with video games. When students know only Plants vs. Zombies and Candy Crush, shouldn’t teachers show them that games can appeal to higher forms of intelligence, that they can be sophisticated, and that they can even “hit” you like a good movie or book can? Last year saw The Witcher 3 have an astounding amount of freedom and quality narrative, aside from a stunning graphic and musical style. To some people, and I count myself among them, games like these mean more than a movie or a book ever will.

  3. witcher_3_cover_art

    …and The Witcher III.

    And thirdly, the fact that gaming is a large and growing industry means that more and more people will come to work in this or a related industry. Schools have the objective to prepare students for their professional lives. So it is up to them to give them a clear picture of what games are, what they can be, and also how they are made. In other words: this is a plea for classes like IT/information sciences, but also language and arts classes to acknowledge that games are a serious and legitimate medium, and taking such a class out of a motivation related to gaming is to be taken seriously.

Now, here and there some of this is already happening. But none of it on the scale (or with the coverage) of gamification right now. However, you can already find interesting things by the hashtag #games4ed (because ‘games for education’ takes up half a tweet). On this blog, I have already covered several games that were not designed for educational purposes, but can be used as such nonetheless!

And while my angle for these games has been mostly philosophy, there are many more subjects about which there are games with educational potential:

How can games4ed and gamification support each other?

Gamification is not just a tool for increasing intrinsic motivation. Behind it lies a search for the things that make games so compelling (or even addictive). In other words: gamification is in a sense a study of games. As such, it can be used to analyse existing games before using them in education. It can be used to find out which elements of the game will work and which will not.

The other way around, using games in education could give insight into the motivations and drives of students, which then can be aimed for with gamification techniques. With a game, a teacher could study students’ teamwork strategies and design teamwork in class in a similar way.

Do you use gamification or games in education? What worked for you and what didn’t? Let me know in the comments!


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