How to weave video game principles into the classroom

The integration of gaming mechanics into educational content offers a promising avenue to enhance student engagement and learning

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Student engagement is vital for any educator throughout the length of a course. The unfortunate reality is that a great teacher only has control of a student’s environment for a short period of time. When a student goes home, they are inundated with many other potentially more engaging activities. In the last few decades, the main attractor for many students have been video games. Video games have become so mainstream over the years that children are just as engaged watching the games on streaming services like Twitch as playing them. The challenge posed to educators is how to gamify coursework that students can play, enjoy, and learn.

The most successful video games have a stratified reward system that rewards players at spaced intervals while the player works towards a goal. The best way to explain this is by looking at a successful game–let’s use World of Warcraft as an example. Players progress through levels toward the end objective while, along the way, completing objectives and earning in-game equipment. At the same time, the player can work and collaborate with other players to defeat more difficult challenges. This is analogous to the education system on a much more condensed time scale. There is an end goal in mind, achieving the maximum level or graduation. This is completed by working through objectives that, in education, are various courses: algebra, history, English, etc. Students earn grades as they complete objectives and even collaborate with classmates on projects. Understanding how the education system is similar to games is vital to redesigning an education-based learning system that would be more engaging for students.

People enjoy video games mainly because the games offer a sense of accomplishment that is often not achievable in the real world. The game gives them strong dopamine rushes that are not as easily achieved in real life. That is not to say that players don’t learn skills like students. For example, some of the best surgeons have impeccable hand-eye coordination and hand dexterity–this same skill is often present in video game enthusiasts. If a developer were to design an educational video game that students would want to play, one of the most important factors would be consistent dopamine hits to the students, i.e. a steady and tangible reward system. Students would want to see that the time put into the game is worth the effort in terms of achievement. Frustration in the classroom by learning a difficult topic is the same in a video game when a player is trying to complete a difficult level. The difference is that the player knows that after completion, there is a reward, but the same is not true when attempting to master the limit definition of a derivative. One of the best examples is the Reading Counts system. Students read books, pass quizzes, and get a certain number of points attributed to their profile.  The number of reading counts points serves as bragging rights among students. This is a tangible reward seen after completing a challenge, reading, and comprehending a novel.

Another difficulty in designing educational games is the need for students to complete cognitive processes like reading and answering questions instead of virtual activities like killing an orc. Reading and answering a question is not usually as engaging as learning how to defeat an enemy. Map out what objective you want the student to master and create the objective in terms of video game mechanics. Let’s continue the limit definition of a derivative as an example. To understand this concept students, need to know what a limit is, the notation of a derivative f’(x) = dy/dx, i.e., the change of y over the change of x, and the meaning of the notation within the limit. More is needed to fully master the topic, but not much more is necessary to apply this concept on practice problems.

In video games, there are various objectives that tend to build to a larger contest. Typically, there will be around five gathering/fetching quests prior to a player being able to attempt a final challenge. These are simple quests that require the player to talk to a non-player character (NPC) who explains some situation; the player then helps the NPC by collecting in-game items and returning them to the NPC for a reward. This serves as a means of improving the player’s status prior to attempting a final challenge. In terms of an educational game, it would be structured so that the NPC provides the necessary snippet of information–say, what a limit is, and the student would run around the virtual environment applying this concept. Rinse and repeat until all the prerequisite information is mastered and the student will be able to attempt the final challenge: an objective that requires the completion of multiple practice problems to complete. At the end of the challenge the student would receive some sort of reward for their accomplishment. Ideally this objective can either be mastered faster this way than in a traditional setting or be more engaging. One potential reward is a badge or another sort of microcredential that the student can use to display their progress towards mastery.

The integration of gaming mechanics into educational content offers a promising avenue to enhance student engagement and learning. The key lies in understanding the compelling elements of video games, such as a stratified reward system, collaborative challenges, and a sense of achievement, and effectively weaving them into educational frameworks. By creating an educational environment that mimics these aspects, educators can provide students with a learning experience that is educational, enjoyable, and rewarding. This approach can help bridge the gap between the engaging world of video games and the educational objectives of the classroom.

The goal is not just to compete with the allure of video games, but to harness their power to foster a deeper, more meaningful educational experience. By carefully designing these educational games to reward cognitive achievements and promote collaborative learning, educators can create a more dynamic and effective learning environment that resonates with the digital generation, ultimately leading to greater student success and development.

Limit definition of a derivative:

eSchool Media Contributors