George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

The Gamification of Education: What School Can Learn from Video Games

Experience points add up

December 15, 2011

So recently this idea of "gamification"i has been jumping around in my head. There's something simultaneously immature and brilliant about it, but I haven't been sure exactly what.

First, the easy part.

The Evolution of Gaming: 1985 - 2005

In the early days, gaming was an independent experience. Others may have watched over a gamer's shoulder, or even joined in on the couch beside him or her, but that was pretty much it. Like a great book, if it was really cool, one might talk to others about the experience, but the game -- and the gamer's performance -- was in a quiet bubble.

While all media forms of games could communicate to one another through both inspiration and allusion (one game suggesting another, or one game referencing another), there was little authentic social interaction.

Then progressive video game developers -- Hideo Kojima, for one -- got really fancy and started having games communicate with one another. Literally. In one entry from his popular video game series Metal Gear Solid, a character from the game would scan your memory card. (For non-gamers, this is where you save your progress in games -- like a bookmark in a game.) In scanning, this digital character would recognize and comment on other games you were playing, your taste in games, and so on.

For context, imagine the author of a book, suddenly sentient, "sensing" through the bookmark other books that mark has been used in -- Harold Bloom, for example, bristling at sharing a bookmark with Stephenie Meyer. Testifying to the potential of this emerging, interactive multimedia form, it was an interesting sort of demonryii.

Eventually, storylines in games would be interdependent as well: what you did in one game could affect what happened in the next: decisions made by characters in game resonated beyond that game itself in a sort of digital rippleiii. This degree of connectivity underscored the power of digital media. It was fluid and, on occasion, highly intertextual.

But not yet social.

Social Gaming: 2005 - Present

So when the whole Internet thing got off the ground, there was bound to be some evolution -- or at least change in that direction. Video games are played on consoles, the three current hardware forms being Sony's Playstation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii (though, in accordance with the tenets of technology, all three have replacements in some stage of development). All three are also connected to the Internet, which allows for communication, from basic user messaging systems to more advanced use APIs.

And trophiesiv.

Extrinsic Rewards Become Intrinsic via a Trophy System

Trophies are like digital gold stars. Accomplish anything of note in a video game -- simple or grand -- and a little digital trophy will briefly light up in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, then disappear into your trophy case. The kinds of achievements that are rewarded depend on the game design; some are easy and are rewarded naturally as you complete the levels or missions. Others require players to go well out of their way to obtain them.

With trophies, no longer is there a single carrot to motivate the player, but dozens of carrots. With this development, the big idea of a game is no longer simply about getting the "high score," solving the puzzle or defeating the boss. Instead of completing entire arcing storylines and epic interactive narratives, trophies now encourage gamers to seek out more frequent, immediate, and even whimsical matters of gratification, and in doing so recognized new definitions of progress.

Social Media Fragmented and Incremental

The social angle? Your "trophy case" is shared across your friends list online, and can even be shared via Facebook and other web content. When you accomplish something (no matter how ridiculous), it is broadcast to the world.

And this is no minor change.

The concept of completing the digital narrative through interaction found company -- and, one could argue, distraction -- in this trophy system, but also an addiction to the constant recognition, visibility, and connectivity that social media itself breeds. Here, the pursuit of mundane minutiae can become paramount. Traditional goals -- "beating the game" -- are in effect supplanted by a self-selected, self-paced and even artistic expression of your interaction with the game. With some achievements so difficult to obtain, requiring huge investments in time, the achievements became both personal expression and social status.

Gamers Become Authors

In addition to trophies is an equally nascent concept of "experience points," or "XP" in gaming vernacular. XP allows characters to "level up" as they play. As coins are collected or dragons are slain, points are awarded that gamers can spend as digital currency to further develop their characters. In this way, gamers are able to create characters -- and gaming experiences -- that are personal, with few characters turning out exactly alike. Gamers become authors, and their digital avatars in effect become self-nuanced protagonists. The media consumer becomes the media creator; no longer simply a consumer, nor an original producer, but rather prosumerv.

As a media form, what video games lack in substantial dwell time, they compensate with interaction, authorship and details. Between trophies and XP, the gravity of gaming has shifted from isolated acts -- save the princess, turn the game off -- to fully interdependent and borderline sentient systems that connect people and performance.

So this process of gamification is a bigger deal than it seems. Above all else, gamification is about the ability to underscore and emphasize any portion, product or process.

By maintaining systems of achievement, rewarding detail-oriented tasks and providing highly evolved character development systems, the gamification of any media is increases visibility and an awareness of the intricate. These flexible, digital systems promote the crafting and curating of incredibly complex processes, awarding reflection, analysis, metacognition, and social -- yet self-directed -- revision of thinking and behavior.

Within a gamified curriculum, possible pathways are infinite, passivity is murdered, and performance is transparent to all stakeholders.

Consumers become producers, self-aware and self-directed. The burden of "proficiency" is replaced by the role of curious play, and notions of "accountability" are publicly -- and permanently -- rebalanced.

This is what education stands to gain.


iThe process of applying game characteristics to non-game entities.

iiWatch just past the 6:00 mark for the reference, or the whole video for the full context.

iiiSee Bioware's Mass Effect series.

ivAs a matter of semantics, there are both "Trophies" and "Achievements," but they're essentially the same thing. Microsoft got the ball rolling on this idea first; when they introduced the idea, they called them "Achievements." Sony wasn't interested in what at the time seemed like a subtle layer to the game's experience. But there can be a lot of genius in subtlety, and when it started costing them consumer dollars, Sony got to work righting the shift and pleasing the masses, and soon Playstation users had their own system to document and curate player performance -- and in parallel, unique pathways of media consumption.

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