Education Opinion

School is a Game: Can We Make It a Good Game?

By Justin Reich — February 16, 2017 6 min read
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This guest post is from Prof. Barry Fishman, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Learning Technologies in the University of Michigan School of Information and School of Education, and Dr. Rachel Niemer, Director of the Gameful Learning Lab within the Office of Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan. Together, they are the developers of University of Michigan’s Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning massive open online course on the edX platform.

Does the title of this post bother you? Is it trivializing to refer to school as a game? Education is one of the most important functions of a society. Why would we equate it with something pursued for amusement? We can assure you that this comparison is anything but trivializing. In fact, viewing school through the lens of games might help us understand some important shortcomings in the way we currently organize formal schooling, as well as a path towards re-framing school to make it more engaging and, therefore, more effective.

Consider this definition of games from two highly-regarded game designers, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in their 2003 book Rules of Play: “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” Now replace the word “players” with “students” or “learners,” and think about this definition as if it described school. A system? School is certainly a system with interconnecting components, including curriculum, assessment, teachers, administrators, etc. Artificial conflict? Sure, if we think about school as an approximation of the real world, and conflict as the learner vs. the content, or sometimes, learners vs. other learners. Conflict isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is an important part of any environment where we are challenged. Rules? School has rules, that’s for sure! A quantifiable outcome? That is the grade learners receive (more on grades in a moment). Viewed this way, Salen and Zimmerman’s definition works just as well for school as for games. But if school is like a game, we claim that it is a terrible game, leading to unproductive learner behaviors. How would we organize school differently if we took the best ideas from well-designed games?

First, consider what we want from our learners. We want learners to engage deeply with tasks and subjects. We want them to work hard and take on intellectual challenges. We want learners to take risks and try new things. And most of all, we want learners to be resilient in the face of challenge or even failure. Does school accomplish this? Rarely. Yet well-designed games accomplish this all the time. As Eric Klopfer (MIT colleague of regular blogger Justin Reich) is fond of saying, “People play games because they are hard, not despite the fact that they are hard.” When is the last time one of your students came to you and asked, “What’s the biggest, most challenging things I can do next?” We thought so. Hadn’t happened to us in a while, either. That is, until we started re-designing our classes to be more like a well-designed game.

We’ll bet you’ve heard the term “gamification.” That is when you take some typical elements of game design, such as stars, avatars, and leaderboards. Gamification, as typically employed, is coercive; used to get you to do something the system wants you to do, as opposed to something you want to do. Think of frequent flyer points. They are gamified in order to get you to keep flying one airline. This may work well (it certainly works on us), but it doesn’t always get us to make the best choices for our travel. Gamification is about what psychologists call extrinsic motivation, when rewards or incentives (or punishments) get you to take a particular action. But we are interested in activating intrinsic motivation, to encourage learners to take on challenges because they are aligned with their interests, not ours. For this, we call upon meaningful gamification, or what we call gameful design.

To activate intrinsic motivation in gameful design, we rely on a theory of psychological motivation from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, called Self-Determination Theory, or SDT. This theory posits that humans have basic needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. We need to feel like we can succeed at a task, and that we are making progress towards that success (that’s competence). We also need to feel that the choices we make matter, and that we have meaningful options as we work towards competence (that’s autonomy). In addition, we need to feel that our efforts are recognized by others, and that we are part of something larger than ourselves (that’s relatedness). When these three elements are present in a positive way, SDT predicts that we will be more intrinsically motivated. And when they are absent or present in a negative way, we require more extrinsic motivation to keep on track.

This brings us back to grades. Because grading and assessment are the “goal” students often shoot for, how we approach grading has a powerful influence on how students respond. We argue that the current system of grading has such high stakes that it is leading to retrogressive behaviors by students. They become so focused on maintaining a “good” GPA that they are disincentivized from taking risks. So in gameful learning, we advocate turning things around so that the grading system incentivizes the behaviors we want to see. In many typical courses, students start out with 100% that is “theirs to lose.” And they will. Because even if you do really well on a test or assignment and earn, say, a 95%, you no longer have 100%, and you probably never will again. So in a gameful course, we start everyone at zero, and show a clear path (Or offer multiple paths and let them choose-autonomy!) towards achieving their goals in the course. By providing multiple options and a leveling-up approach to grading, we create a space where it is OK to take a risk that doesn’t work out -- to fail. But it isn’t failure, it’s an attempt that leads to productive learning, so that the next attempt is more successful. We emphasize that if you aren’t failing once in awhile, you probably aren’t trying hard enough tasks. Our experience is that when courses are designed using this frame, students work harder, are more engaged, and learn more.

We’ve created a site that describes gameful pedagogy in more detail, and with multiple examples from courses in higher education. Or if you would like to be guided in learning more about gameful design and how to create gameful classrooms and schools, you might want to explore our new massive open online course (MOOC) titled, “Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning,” offered by edX (and sponsored by Microsoft), launching on March 6th. Sign up here.

The video below comes from our MOOC and describes the first three of ten principles that are key to a well-designed game and a well-designed learning environment. It also gives you a flavor for how the course is constructed:

The course explores a range of practical design issues surrounding gameful learning, including how to support teachers in using gameful techniques. Along the way, we bring in lots of guest experts on topics ranging from personalized learning and school design to digital credentials. Experts like Angela Duckworth talk to us about how grit and gameful learning are related, and leaders of on-the-ground efforts at personalizing learning in places like the Chicago City of Learning and Mouse in New York City talk with us about their groundbreaking work. We hope to see you in the MOOC!

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