Gamification and Learning Environments: Designing for Engagement and Fun.

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.



This post has severed as my "aha" moment. I am new to gamification and have been reading about gamification over the last few weeks in order to gain a better understanding. The readings have all given me something different to think about and established a better understanding of gamification. However, in the back of my mind, I have been asking myself how it actually works. I am seeing the theoretical side of things and how useful it can be for learning, but I had no clue how it could be applied. This gave me a good sense of how I can use gamification. The emphasis on  constant feedback and meaningful context helped me to see the possibilities for scaffolding writing assignments in my freshman comp classes. The idea that "the context of an engaging learning environment has to connect to the everyday lives of the students" is an issue in freshman composition courses, where students are often taking part in writing assignments that do not connect to their lives. I can see now how the use of gamification could lead to better student engagement in composition courses.

Chvonne, I am glad to hear the post gave you some ideas on how to integrate gamification into learning. You should definitely try this approach in your composition courses.  Be ready to iterate your learning designs, sometimes the context could not be that engaging for all the  students and you will have to re-design it several times.

The great thing about this project is how accessable it is. As much as it seems to teach about nutrition, it also teaches about visual media and family and community involvement in eating habits. It also certainly falls under gamification instead of game as it uses a quest idea, but isn't play in the way that a game is.  You have done a great job with explaining the project, but I do have a question. Would the program be reproducible outside of this individual school? Could I take this use it in a high school in Norfolk (where I attend school)?

Thanks for your comment Jamie.  I do think the project can be adapted to other schools in the USA, since the pervasiveness of sugary foods is something that occurs nationally.  As regard to the kind of "play" that the project uses, you are right, it is different to the one of a board game or a video game.  The play that occurs in this project is more related to the performance arts, something like playing a role in a theater play or in a situation. Imagine for instance the kind of games that children sometimes  make when they play being somebody else from the world of adults like a doctor, a teacher, or a mother.  There are elements of performance that can make learning fun, especially when learning challenges are designed to explore and experiment with the real world. Playing to be a scientist, for instance can make data collection activities more engaging. Likewise, playing to be a cartographer or a mapper. Thinking about play in a broader sense can be useful for the design of learning experiences and environments.

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