Gamifying higher education: a useful distinction

In the introduction to my blog series on gamification, I mentioned the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report: 2013 Education Edition, which identifies “Games and Gamification” as a growing trend with a time-to-adoption horizon of two to three years. The term “Games and Gamification” updates the NMC’s older terminology, “Game-Based Learning.” By combining the use of educational games with gamification under a single reference, however, NMC potentially confuses two distinct phenomena.

Jennifer Zaino’s August 5 post for the EdTech Magazine blog, “Why Gamification Is Winning Points on Campus,” takes the confusion a step further by including the academic study of games under the heading of “gamification.” Zaino lists Penn State’s Educational Gaming Commons, the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab as three examples of “[a]n expanding set of university-based research labs, centers, studios and programs see[ing] new opportunities to take gamification to the next level.” But these three initiatives have rather different foci and goals. Penn State’s Educational Gaming Commons features several educational games, but its efforts toward gamification thus far have been limited to handing out achievement buttons at a live event and preparing an infrastructure (not yet ready, if I understand the website) for awarding digital badges across the University. Emerson’s EGL does focus on gamification, but it’s gamification of civic engagement, not of higher education. And Columbia’s Games Research Lab focuses on the academic study of games (there are courses in game design and programming for games). Treating all of these under the heading “gamification” works against the interests of analytical clarity.

I wish that everyone discussing these topics could agree to make a distinction between “game-based learning” and “gamification,” but at present that looks like a losing battle. In the latest issue of Computer Science Education, Adrian and Michelle de Freitas helpfully make the same point by using adjectives. They distinguish “topic specific gamification” (I think they need a hyphen to specify that “topic” modifies “specific”), or the use of educational games, from “classroom gamification,” which “seeks to transform the entire classroom experience into a competitive game” (Adrian A. de Freitas and Michelle M. de Freitas, “Classroom Live: A Software-Assisted Gamification Tool,” Computer Science Education 23 (2013): 189–190). I suggest a slight change to this terminology to “content gamification” (to shorten the phrase) and “curricular gamification” (because gamification of this type can occur at levels larger than a classroom, and is probably more effective at those larger levels for reasons I’ll treat in other posts), but I appreciate the distinction the de Freitases have made here.

Going forward in this series, I’ll be focusing chiefly on curricular gamification: using game mechanics at the level of a course, program, curriculum, or institution. By no means do I oppose or disparage the use of educational games; in fact, I’m in the process of building one right now. But I also favor analytical clarity, so I’ll narrow my topic for now.


One thought on “Gamifying higher education: a useful distinction

  1. Isaac

    This is great Chris. I actually presented a paper on this just a couple of weeks ago here in Sydney and have started to use gamification on a classroom and curricular level for beginner Koine Greek course.


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