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Does Gamification Actually Work?

Does Gamification Actually Work?With the Oculus Rift’s recent foray into the mainstream, video games and interactive entertainment is looking at an intellectual revival. While parents lament that their kid’s Playstation is now going to eat up even more of their lives, futurists are cluing into the increasingly connected and technological future. Many are beginning to wonder just how VR and video game platforms can be tweaked to teach lessons while kids play games on them, opening the door on the wider discussion of “gamification”.

Lee Sheldon is a video game designer and Game Design teacher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he came up with the idea of gamifying his own classroom. Sheldon’s style of gamification didn’t utilize actual video games, but instead adopted common elements from them. For example, students in Sheldon’s class might create avatars to represent themselves, and those avatars might join guilds and go on raids together. “Fighting monsters” translates into completing assignments and quizzes, while larger projects and research papers would be tackled as if it were a quest. Even grades transformed into XP which would be required to level up and eventually receive a higher grade.

What Sheldon found is what many who gamify their classrooms have found: gamification works. Like any teaching method, it has both its ups and its downs, but it’s effective enough a method that Arizona State University picked up on it to teach Environmental Sciences and it’s even being in the healthcare industry to train better physicians. So how does gamification work?

It all basically starts with dopamine, motivation, and the way that your brain works with both. If you’ve ever played an RPG before, then you know that beating the monster, saving the princess, and looting the treasure vault all feel incredibly rewarding–even if you didn’t actually beat anything, save anyone, or gain anything real. This is because your body releases dopamine when you experience pleasure. So when the game rewards you for winning, your body experiences a dopamine rush, and you feel awesome about it. It works in much the same way other types of surface-level motivation do, so if you can tie getting the right answer to releasing dopamine, you’ve got a good start but this is also where gamification can go wrong.

When working with complex topics, it doesn’t always behoove a teacher to adopt a simple system of “output equals reward”. For Kelly Fitzsimmons of Informationweek, no amount artificial reward systems will ever make gamification work for her. She’s just not into playing games. Similarly, there are those who may like to play games too much and may simply be completing wrote actions–which is fine for habit-forming, but not as great for immersive learning. For folks like these, we need to add one thing: the element of story.

One thing that people tend to take for granted in video games is the storyline. Storyline is the emotional glue that holds together facts; it’s the reason that we can remember that Batman is Bruce Wayne, he lives in Gotham City, and that his parents were killed in an alleyway when he was young–but can’t seem to remember that physics equation to save your life. Stories are what give meaning to data. So if you were able to simulate being a Roman Senator around the time Julius Caesar came to power, you might actually get people invested in what the political climate was like in the Western World in 100 BC. This is where virtual reality (VR) could begin to come in very handy.

While nothing has been fully developed in terms of a fully immersive VR experience, Google has taken first steps with their Google Cardboard program called “Expeditions”. The idea of an immersive field trip takes the first, surface-layers steps–but when will we see full, VR gamification in classrooms? Probably not any time soon.

Regardless, whether you’re teaching a classroom full of kids or simply teaching yourself, gamification is a great way to get motivated and stay that way. Just remember: it’s not a one-size-fits all solution, though those it does fit seem to like it a lot.

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