Do your students prefer playing video games or participating in a typical math lesson? Do many of your students list P.E. and recess as their favorite subjects, despite the fact that your reading and writing lessons always totally rock?
My three boys would love to spend every minute of their free time plugged in to games like Minecraft or Geometry Dash, or out in the neighborhood, playing soccer or Capture the Flag. Sure, they also like to read, draw and play with other toys, but if they had to choose ONE favorite type of activity, games would always win. Hands down!
We all know games are powerfully motivating! But why?
Our brains produce extra amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine when we answer tricky questions correctly, solve tough puzzles or problems, or master a challenging skill. Dopamine triggers a strong pleasure response in our brains, so we seek out ways to get more of it. Games offer lots of opportunities to boost dopamine, so it makes sense that we’re a game-obsessed society.
Scott Rigby, gaming researcher and author of Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In, (affiliate link), says we are attracted to games because they fulfill three key psychological needs: The need for competence, the need for autonomy, and the need for relatedness. In other words, we all want to master skills and feel successful; we want to solve problems for ourselves and make our own decisions; and we want to connect with others, and contribute to the good of a larger group. Within the context of games, we can often do all of these things in a few minutes of play. No wonder they’re so appealing!
More gaming research from Dr. Andy Przybylski shows that players enjoy video games because they get the chance to “try on” characteristics which they would like to have as their ideal self. As we take on the hero role in a video game for example, we might experience different qualities that we aspire to develop, like strength, bravery and ingenuity.
When we think about gamifying learning, we might think about simply turning boring learning into a game to make it appeal more to kids. That’s ok, but an even better approach is for teachers to add “gameful” elements to their teaching, to make already-interesting curriculum better, and (most importantly), to teach kids how to apply a gameful mindset to all areas of their lives.
In her (super) book, SuperBetter:A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games, (affiliate link), game researcher Dr. Jane McGonigal says that developing a gameful mindset can help us win in all areas of our lives, long after we unplug from our device, or walk off the field. She encourages us to apply gaming principles to our lives to help us achieve goals, tackle difficulties, or to just get better at anything. Dr. McGonigal has turned her gameful mindset philosophy into a SuperBetter game that anyone can play. SuperBetter participants adopt a secret identity based on personal strengths, identify ways to power up for success, recruit allies, and participate in quests to reach a goal or meet a challenge.
I’ve never considered myself to be a gamer, but the gameful mindset idea resonates with me! I’ve seen how this kind of thinking can improve motivation, engagement and success with everything from putting away groceries, to sticking with my exercise routine, to strengthening my work habits and parenting skills, to helping loved ones overcome big health challenges. I’m teaching my sons about it too, and, (not surprisingly considering their love of games), the idea also clicked with them immediately.
It’s easy to see why many teachers are turning to gamification to motivate students and boost learning.
Teachers know the importance of helping students develop a growth mindset. It’s an essential way of thinking that allows us to learn from our mistakes, take risks, think outside the box, and seek to improve our skills. A gameful mindset is similar. It’s all about learning to use our inner strengths and problem solving abilities, and to take on new challenges in order to grow. Gamers don’t expect to win the first time they try a game. They know that they will often fail and learn from their mistakes in order to level up or beat a game.
Many of the key skills and abilities necessary to be a great gamer are also necessary for success in school and life:
- Problem solving
- Predicting outcomes
- Strong memory skills
- Judgment and critical thinking
- Decision Making
- Openness to collaboration
- Openness to corrective feedback and reflection
- Willingness to try new approaches, take risks, and possibly fail first before moving forward.
While there are plenty of cool gadgets to help you gamify your classroom, a gamified classroom doesn’t necessarily need to be high-tech and plugged in. To experiment with gamification, schools don’t really need more brainpower, bandwidth or budget. It can be as simple as incorporating some gameful teaching, and a few low-tech tools, terms and tricks into the regular classroom routine.
Here are ten simple, low-tech ways to gamify learning:
- Use competition wisely. We know that competitive games can motivate students. We also know that not all students thrive in a competitive environment, and competition doesn’t work well with every learning objective. So it’s important to use competition thoughtfully. Tournaments and group challenges can be very motivating, especially when they also encourage collaboration among team members, when every child has an equal chance of winning, and when they’re positive, and age appropriate. But don’t forget the just-as-powerful “quieter” competitions where students can work alone and compete against themselves.
- Teach students that we all have special “super powers” or personal strengths that will help us achieve goals and meet challenges throughout our lives. Guide them to discover those strengths and talk about them all year, so students leave your classroom knowing that they each possess unique secret weapons to help them learn and grow.
- Re-frame learning targets into quests and challenge students to achieve mastery before they can “level-up” to other more complicated quests. Use differentiation as much possible, so students can level up as soon as they’re ready. (Since challenges are only challenges if they’re challenging! Ha!)
- Think of ways to gamify your grading. Instead of letter grades, could you assign points for students to collect as they complete each assignment? Could students collect special points for special bonus opportunities? (In gaming lingo: Points for doing work are called “experience points” or XP, assignments are called “quests,” and extra bonus points or rewards are known as “achievements.”) Could you create a leaderboard to show high point earners for different subject areas or assignments? (You can have kids pick a nickname or “avatar” so their real names aren’t posted.)
- Create a system for students to track their progress toward a goal. They can mark progress on simple bar graphs, or collect badges to represent achievements they’ve collected, content they’ve mastered, or new learning or social skills they’ve demonstrated. You can organize your badge system online using a site like ClassBadges.org. Or you can hand out printable badges for students to collect. I’ve created this set of printable badges for the classroom. If you use badges, make it clear that each badge is not simply a reward, but it’s also a representation of the student’s hard work. Here are some more ideas about how to assign badges.
- Incorporate choice. Let students help you gamify your classroom. Encourage them to find and share opportunities to be gameful in their lives outside of school. Let them identify ways to earn badges or collect points based on learning that is personally meaningful for them.
- Remind students that working to master a learning skill is similar to mastering a level or a skill in a game. It takes practice and it seldom happens on the first try. Consider letting students re-take parts of tests or assignments when they don’t meet the standard.
- Encourage students to help each other. Finding trustworthy allies is important in games and in life. Create collaborative challenges, and encourage students to look for ways to step in and give classmates a boost or help them level up on a particular learning or social challenge.
- Surprise students with bonuses. These are often referred to as “Easter Eggs” in video games. These can be little rewards or boosts that players earn to show them they’re making progress and they’re on the right track.
- Although review games focused on basic recall can be moderately helpful, they may not inspire real motivation. Instead try to apply gameful thinking to the real-life challenges within the topics you’re teaching. For example a game where players simply earn points for reviewing multiplication facts will probably not be as motivating as a game that involves mastering different multiplication facts and skills, allowing them to ultimately level up to be able to solve a challenging, real-life problem. (Using their multiplication skills as tools to help them achieve an epic win!)
If you’re interested in gamifying your classroom, you don’t have to make huge changes. Just pick one or two ideas from the list above. Start small by incorporating some gamer language into your instruction, and focus on making just one assignment, subject area, or part of your day more gameful.
If you want to learn more, check out the links below…
Game on, teachers!