Embracing the Power of Gaming in Education

Substance, Engagement and Flow

By Chi Nwogu

Fortnite mania has taken over America. Parents can’t seem to keep their kids off of this addictive game, and you’ve probably seen students busting out popular dance moves such as the Floss or Orange Justice. Don’t believe me? Go out and ask 10 random students whether they play Fortnite and how many hours per day they spend doing so. The data you collect might frighten you or make you question what we are doing wrong to have students spending more time playing video games than doing homework.

This is the world we live in. A 2011 study by The NPD Group found that 91% of U.S. children ages 2–17 play video games (digitaltrends.com/computing/91-percent-of-kids-play-video-games-says-study). Eight years later, and that number is probably in the high 90s. This trend is not going to change.

Time for another exercise. Close your eyes and imagine who the typical gamer is. I’m guessing an image of a kid or a teenager flashed in your mind. This is the perception of gamers that most people have: young boys who sit in front of the TV screen for hours guzzling soda and yelling things into a headset. The reality is that the typical gamer is 34 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA; www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/EF2018_FINAL.pdf). Playing digital games has been part of our culture since the days of Tetris and Super Smash Bros. Who can forget the 2010 hysteria created by Angry Birds or the 2012 craze that was Candy Crush? These games weren’t just made for kids.

The numbers are staggering: The ESA says that 60% of Americans play video games daily, and 45% of U.S. gamers are women. And The NPD Group says, “Gaming takes up about 16% of U.S. gamers’ weekly leisure time, totaling an average of 12 hours per week” (npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2018/over-half-of-the-211-2-million-video-gamers-in-the-u-s—play-games-across-multiple-platforms—according-to-npd). Quite simply, video games are fun. We all want to have fun, and given the trends I’ve just laid out, this isn’t a short-lived craze. So I have a proposal. It’s time we embraced gaming as a part of learning.

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Gaming or Gamification

A question that I often get asked is “What’s the difference between gaming and gamification?” Oxford Dictionaries defines gaming as the “action or practice of playing video games.” Not all video games are made the same. The term “video game genre” is used to differentiate underlying objectives of the game. These genres are action, action-adventure, adventure, role-playing, simulation, strategy, sports, puzzle, and idle (idtech.com/blog/different-types-of-video-game-genres). Video game genres have subgenres, which makes the variety of games even larger in scope.

Research has shown that video games can have positive effects on students’ academic performance:

  • Video games can improve teamwork skills when played cooperatively (Badatala, Ankit, et al., 2017; see sidebar for full citation).
  • Video games improve one’s ability to follow directions and solve problems (Gee, James Paul; see sidebar).
  • Video games increase student motivation and improve technology skills (Rosas, Ricardo, et al., 2003; see sidebar)

Gamification is broadly defined as using game elements in nongame contexts. Oxford Dictionaries defines gamification as the application of typical elements of game playing (rules of play, point scoring, competition with others) to other areas of activity, specifically to engage users in problem solving.

The field of learning theory has continued to dig deeper into the value of gamification. Gamification incorporates game elements to motivate learners, and its benefits include the following (learning-theories.com/gamification-in-education.html):

  • Students feel ownership over their learning.
  • Students may uncover intrinsic motivation.
  • Students are often more comfortable in gaming environments.

A popular permutation of gamification is the use of badges to recognize certain accomplishments. Earning badges is not a new concept (think scouting merit badges), but its effectiveness in engaging participants has allowed it to be a staple of most gamified experiences. A well-known example of the use of badges is Khan Academy (khanacademy.org). Another popular permutation of gamification is the use of a leaderboard. Numerous research studies have shown that leaderboards are an effective way to motivate learning through competition. However, personality types (introvert versus extrovert) influence people’s perceived preference for leaderboards, and people are motivated differently by leaderboards when they are applied in different domains (Codish and Ravid, 2014; see sidebar).

Final Thoughts

Gamification is a step in the right direction, but just applying any game design element into a nongame context is not the solution. It is important to assess the needs and motivations of the users before deciding how to incorporate elements of gaming. I highly recommend reading the book Learning as Fun by Lauri Järvilehto. For now, I’ll summarize the author by saying that learning is the intersection of substance and engagement (Kindle location 136).

Substance is the full spectrum of skills and knowledge we come to possess in school, in work, and in life. Engagement arises most efficiently from passion, intrinsic motivation, and flow. We all have something we are passionate about, whether it is music, dance, sports, fashion, or something else. When we encounter a new substance that stimulates that passion, no further motivator is required (Kindle location 654).

Flow, the final piece of this puzzle, is the optimal state between boredom and anxiety. Flow is that feeling you get when you’re reading a book you can’t put down or binge-watching a show on Netflix. It is also the state kids are in when they spend hours upon hours playing a video game.

We can transform how people learn if we enable them to enter this state of flow. Games, designed correctly, provide the perfect canvas for learning.