Games, Gamification, and DIY

One of my good friends (also COETAIL instructor and 2015 Vietnam Tech Conf keynote presenter) Rob Appino is focusing his PhD in education on the subject of game-based learning and gamification. He was the first to point out to me the differences between game-based learning and gamification. This distinction appears again in Elizabeth Corcoran’s article, The Gamification of Education. Corcoran also talks about student created games as an additional, and highly important, aspect of games and education.

Game Based Learning

This refers to the use of games to teach educational skills and knowledge. Although, as blogger Scott McLeod points out, many educational games have woefully poor gaming mechanics and graphics, the realm of game based learning is larger than ‘drill to kill’ flashcard games. It also includes games like Civilization, SimCity and other fairly sophisticated strategy games. Even if these sorts of games often fail to teach history directly, they familiarize students with many historical elements that then can be developed.  I once had a student who knew who the Chinese female pirate (and badass) Ching Shih was because he had played her in a strategy game.

Although most game-based learning has a fairly static set of game-play rules, this is not always the case. When I was teaching economics seven years ago, I used the classic game Monopoly to teach macro-economic principles. Specifically, I as we studied various elements of the world of finances, I had my students design corresponding gaming elements for Monopoly.


Although the specific formulation of this is relatively new, gamification has been around a long time. It is used by kids to teach each other how to run, used by elementary teachers when they reward good behavior with gold stars, and is used by high school teachers when we do Jeopardy style quiz nights.

The difference is that now gamification is more intentionally based on ideas from the video game world.  Experience points, levels, badges, and scoreboards all began in offline games, were adopted and popularized by video games, and are now entering back into the world of education.

In addition to using these sorts of game mechanics, building a compelling narrative is also critical in gamification. In Monopoly you are imagining yourself to be a capitalist tycoon.  In a role playing video game like World of Warcraft you create an actual character that has history, depth, strengths and weaknesses. In gamified education settings, teachers are adding both narrative and gaming mechanics to build student engagement.

One of the first examples of a gamified lesson that I encountered was last year at ASB Unplugged. I met Eric Nelson and learned about a game he had built to teach about infectious disease that was modeled on zombie movies. When I got back from the conference, I worked with Kelsey Giroux, a humanities teacher at UNIS, on gamifying her unit on the industrial revolution (which happened to be her Course 5 project for COETAIL).

She had already added gaming mechanics to the lessons, but after we talked she went back and added narrative elements as well. She set the story in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have been forced to abandon the Earth and are establishing a colony on Mars. As we develop the beginnings of a new industrial age, the leaders of the colony are hiring historians to research the first industrial revolution and report back on the causes, issues, and consequences of it.

According to the University of Minnesota Hype Cycle predictions, gamification is slowly rising up the “Slope of enlightenment”, although mainstream adoption is still 5+ years away. I think that it can be an incredible tool in the hands of a good game-maker, but building games like these is a skill that most teachers were never taught.

DIY: Student Created Games

Scratch ( Licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

These are also games, but come more from the DIY and maker-space movements than from that of gaming.  The most notable example of this is Scratch, but one could argue that building robots with Legos, Arduinos, and other tools also counts as a type of gaming.  As others have noted, these games, for the most part, attract students who are already interested and motivated. However, in looking at the rise of movements like Hour of Code I wonder if these sorts of games will become more main-stream in the near future.

As should be clear by now, I believe game-based learning, gamification, and student-created games have all been around for longer than typically understood and will continue to be around for the foreseeable future. The bottom line is that we all learn better when we are interested in a subject, when we care about it. In order to find ways to build engagement, it makes sense to study phenomena that many kids find utterly engrossing, like video games. Not every teacher who seeks to incorporate this will be successful – just as there are plenty of unsuccessful video games. However, once the hype has settled we’ll see which games are left and how they can make a difference for kids.