College as a Video Game?

In an average week, human beings spend about three billion hours playing video games. For all that time spent, their rewards are small: they receive some points, a level up, a higher ranking among fellow gamers. But the games are enjoyable and more and more people are devoting time to them.

Can the powerful but inexpensive reward system embedded in games improve higher education? That is the question a handful of researchers across the country are asking. By incorporating aspects of video games into college life—“gamifying” courses and school-related activities—they hope to make learning easier and more fun.

So far, researchers have mostly incorporated rewards into college life. As in video games, college students can gain points, acquire badges, and unlock new levels.

Some researchers have tried gamifying the websites professors use to communicate with students. One of these is Richard Landers, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Old Dominion University in Virginia. 

In 2010, Landers created socialPsych, an online platform that allowed psychology students at Old Dominion to chat with each other using Facebook-like personal profiles and to take online practice tests. Depending on how many tests students took and how well they did, they advanced to higher ranks, obtaining digital ribbons signifying that they were a “newbie,” a “master,” or something in between.

Students could compare their rank with other students. The program focused on test-taking because, according to some psychological research, testing improves learning more effectively than mere studying.

Landers was ecstatic about the results. “This system was ridiculously well-received,” he wrote on his blog (emphasis his). Out of 592 students invited, 385 created personal profiles and 113 (29% of those who signed up) completed at least one practice test. “If you’re an educator like I am,” wrote Landers,

you are probably shaking your head in disbelief right now—28% [sic] of students willingly completed optional multiple choice quizzes that would never have an effect on their grades.  That’s absolutely amazing to me every time I think about it.  Especially fantastic is that simply spending time completing the quizzes exposes them to course material more than they otherwise would have been exposed—meaning they were more likely to learn something!

Among those who took the tests, the average student passed 4.4 of them. (That figure excludes an enthusiastic outlier who took so many tests that she would bump up the average to 4.8 if her results were included.)

While a response rate of 29 percent of students doing something they didn’t have to do is impressive, it is far from 100 percent participation. In spite of Landers’ enthusiasm, many students never logged into the platform at all.

But Landers noted in an email to the Pope Center that researchers had not advertised the test-taking aspect of socialPsych. “It was simply available to any students who happened to click on that option to see what it was,” he said. Because of that, “I think 29 percent is probably a lower bound for its success.”

In a chapter of the 2011 book Serious Games and Edutainment Applications, Landers and doctoral student Rachel Callan speculate that participation might increase during regular semesters (the experiment was held during the summer session) and if more classes used it, so that students would be more familiar with the idea.

Based on their experience with socialPsych, Landers and Callan offered a list of current best practices for using games to improve learning (the full list is behind a pay wall). These include using a meaningful social context (i.e., interacting with people whose opinions matter to game participants); using recognizable rewards; providing rapid feedback; and making the game tasks challenging but achievable.

At the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York, researchers have tried to incorporate video game technology on a wider level. The entire school was invited to participate in a campus-wide initiative called Just Press Play. Created with a $350,000 gift from Microsoft Corporation and launched this year, it is intended to encourage attributes—such as engagement with the campus community, willingness to talk to professors and to make friends, form study groups, etc.—that help students succeed.

When students arrive on campus, they receive trading cards with secret codes and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) keychain that they can use to “check in” at various locations on campus. They can succeed in the game by completing various challenges designed to make them feel more comfortable with the school. These include finding a professor’s office, visiting a restaurant with friends, and even dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in a pre-arranged flash mob.

Other challenges are more directly involved with learning, such as one called “Undying,” which called for upperclassmen to interact with freshmen. Upperclassmen would earn a digital merit badge if 90 percent of freshmen passed a programming class. This apparently motivated older students to organize a study session attended by forty freshmen, and 92 percent of freshmen passed the course.

According to Elizabeth Lawley, RIT professor and production leader for Just Press Play, that was one of the program’s greatest successes so far. The older students found that they liked helping the freshmen, even telling Lawley that they would do it in the future in the absence of a recognized achievement. The Just Press Play award nudged older students to see that helping underclassmen was fun and doable.

Lawley thinks gamification in higher education should be used to give recognition to students for things that they either should be doing already or would enjoy doing, such as the “Undying” challenge.  Trying to make them do more tedious work, such as an extra homework assignment, by “gamifying” it would be like trying to get students to eat “chocolate-covered broccoli.”

She compared Just Press Play to the social media platform FourSquare, in which users “check in” to different locations and earn recognition at the places they already go (for example, you can become “mayor” if you check in enough times at one location). Lawley said, “I think it could work everywhere,” even law schools. She mentioned that Dan Hunter, a professor at New York Law School and advisor to the Just Press Play team, had talked with her about incorporating something similar at his school.

Improvements will be added to Just Press Play this fall. They will include repeatable achievements (for instance, getting recognition for going to more than one hockey game), new achievements announced throughout the year rather than all at once, and the ability to share successes with friends. Lawley is convinced that the concept itself—a “unified game layer” added to undergraduate education—can add a lot to education.

At both Old Dominon and RIT, the gamification programs were experimental pilot projects, but it looks like gamification in higher education will take off in the future. As you can see from this chart, interest in gamification as a concept (as measured by Google searches) has increased dramatically in the last few years.

Professors interested in “gamifying” their course websites to increase student engagement already have a number of relatively easy-to-use options, and many are free. Richard Landers, for example, is offering the technology used to create socialPsych to other schools for no cost. Other free gamification options include BuddyPress, which can make a class website into a social network, and CubePoints, which allows website users to earn “points” for various tasks and can be integrated with BuddyPress.

Administrators interested in “gamifying” their whole school, like RIT did, are also in luck. RIT’s Elizabeth Lawley plans to share the school’s Just Press Play software for free with anyone who asks. Of course, consulting fees for new users may cost a bit, and several professors and students are generally needed to develop content and monitor student concerns. But the results in student engagement could be well worth the price.

Some readers may be tempted to dismiss gamification as merely a trendy gimmick. Indeed, the results of the research so far can hardly be described as revolutionary.

But the concept can still have a positive impact. The use of game elements has already proven helpful outside of higher education. For example, while many weight-loss programs have trouble maintaining participation, Weight Watchers has a good record of loyalty. This is partly due to it uses of game elements: a point system, and rewards such as stars and pins for meeting weight-loss goals, not to mention encouragement and competition from fellow participants.

Reflecting on the potential value of gamification, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said a few years ago that “everything in the future is going to look like a multiplayer game.” He may or may not be right, but in certain corners of higher education, things seem to be moving in that direction.