Games as motivation: What can teachers learn from game design?

The worlds of game design and teaching might appear, at first sight, to be miles apart. However, when you start to consider education as a whole, isn’t it actually more than a little game-like? After all, it involves being tested, sometimes on your own and sometimes collaboratively, learning how to solve problems and (of course) memory.

Pål Luthman is an educator in Sweden who has taken this idea a step further. Pål claims there are four key elements of game design that educators can bring into the classroom: scoring (for tasks); levels (as in character level); trophies/badges/achievements; world maps (to conclude and explain where the student is).

He explained further: “I participated in a project by the city of Stockholm called Inkubator (or Incubator) to design pedagogical ideas for the local schools. In this project, we decided to try these four elements in our classes. There are several other game design elements one can make use of in education. However, these four are the basic principles every teacher can use in the classroom. Other elements are more difficult to incorporate in class, due to a greater need for technical prowess.”

The inspiration for these ideas came from a TED talk given by game designer and author Jane McGonigal. As Pål puts it, “her message is that the skills gamers learn are directly useful and crucial for the future. Games teach people a great deal of knowledge, but gaming is rarely perceived as productive hobby. I’ve played games for 26 years, and I learn new things every time I play. I believe the game medium is at a new dawn to become an accepted pastime for adults and cultivated avocation.”

Implementing these ideas in the classroom, though, has been another thing entirely. “I started out with grand ideas about bringing my conception of games into my classroom. It’s been technically challenging to embody my vision in my pedagogical design” said Pål. “Some sacrifices and compromises have been inevitable. One needs to start with the curriculum, to find a suitable area of the subject one teaches. I’m a Swedish teacher, and I’ve chosen subject matters that don’t require greater analysis capabilities. The first game is about the neighbouring Nordic languages, and the students need to show that they comprehend parts of this subject. They work independently on our learning platform (Fronter), which scores their work automatically and guides them through this part of the course. It’s basically a matter of learning on demand, whilst trying to cater to their individual needs.”

Motivation, in particular, has been an area where using game elements has paid off. “Games are all about motivation. There is a huge load of work put into every game released. I tried to achieve external motivation and clarity through my four game design elements. Using maps and gauges, one can simplify the information given in a graphical way to stimulate the sense of success. With scoring, levels and trophies, you bestow the feedback needed to feel motivated and pleased with your effort. If there are a few things one should mention about games in education and gamification, that would be feedback and graphical representation of learning outcomes.”

The results, so far, have been very positive. “My school has an orientation towards students with special needs. Many pupils are low in motivation and spirit, which generally affects their school results. While playing my games, I noticed new characteristics in my students. They would take on my game in a spirited way, and tried their best with tasks they couldn’t handle before. They were more engaged in the tasks, and spent more time trying to get things right. Last, but not least, they had a good time while learning. It was a great way for them to commit to the subject. They felt pride and satisfaction with what they accomplished.”

Pål Luthman is speaking at the Intel Education Summit 2015 on 2 December.

This is an independent article from the Alphr editorial team. This content was produced to the same impartial standards as the main content on our site but paid for by Intel because they like people who like this topic. Thank you, Intel!

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