There are several ways in which the application and research of gamification affects learning. Although a popular approach for applying gamification is by implementing a system of rewards (badges and points), there are other forms in which the principles and mechanics of games can be used for pedagogical purposes. I am interested in exploring how gamification can be applied to the design of learning environments. Particularly, how can we create learning environments that are engaging, that are as fun as games? How can we design contexts, resources, tools, roles and scaffolds that are motivating and empowering?
In summer 2012 I had the opportunity of collaborating with researchers from the University of Texas-Austin in the design and implementation of an action research project in Freeway High School, a low-income majority-minority public school in Central Texas. During the course of three weeks we collaborated with a group of high school students and a teacher, in the creation of a connected learning environment. We strategically designed the context, resources, roles, and scaffolds, and chose to use networked multimedia devices (iPods and iPads) as tools, in order to foster a learning experience that was meaningful and fun. While we were applying the principles of connected learning, we were also embracing some of the principles that are at the core of play and engagement.
An important principle of game design, for instance, is that the story and the fictional world have to be meaningful to the players. In a similar manner, the context of an engaging learning environment has to connect to the everyday lives of the students. Instead of having a fictional world as a context, we addressed a problem that existed in the real world. We stated it in the form of a question: "Is the pervasiveness of sugary foods and beverages creating a toxic food environment?" Since childhood obesity, toxic food environments, and the pervasiveness of sugar were issues that affected the everyday lives of our students and their communities, they could meaningfully engage in the different tasks and activities we created around this context.
Another principle of game design is to keep constant challenge. Players confront several challenges and solve problems constantly in order to advance in the game. For our learning environment we designed a series of mini-challenges that kept the flow of tasks and activities at a constant pace. We scaffolded those activities in a way that allowed students to learn more about a complex problem and, at the same time, to build a series of multimodal designs (infographics, interactive maps, photo essays, visualizations, music videos, short stories) that would become part of a bigger challenge: the creation of an interactive iBook that told the story of the pervasiveness of sugar and toxic food environments.
The mini-challenges allowed students to play different roles while exploring and experimenting with different sources of information, data, and physical spaces in the real world. For instance, in one of our mini-challenges, learners played the role of ethnographers collecting visual evidence of the presence of sugary foods and beverages in their own homes. In other mini-challenge students played the role of reporters and amateur cartographers while mapping the restaurants and grocery stores available in their communities. As learners advanced in the completion of mini-challenges they increased their expertise in the problem of study, as well as their capacity for critical design.
Researching and applying gamification can be very generative for the design of learning environments, especially when we concentrate in the principles that are at the core of play and engagement. Game design principles such as constant challenge and feedback, meaningful context, and the freedom to explore and experiment in a world while playing powerful roles, can help us to design learning environments that are engaging, fun, and connected.