For the past several years, the category of “Game-Based Learning” has appeared in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report: Higher Education Edition, classified as a set of trends to watch in the two-to-three year horizon. In the 2013 edition of this report, the category was renamed to be “Games and Gamification.” Several weeks ago, this blog featured a number of posts on the use of games in education, clearly a hot topic, as evidenced by the number of readers who have accessed these articles since the original post dates.

As the Horizon Report points out, games and gamification are not the same. Games – whether casual or immersive, single player or multi-player – demand the full focus of the participant on the game itself. Lose focus and there are consequences. In an educational Math game like Algeburst, the speed component of the participant’s score will suffer; in the mobile-device-based action game Temple Run, the player’s character will fall off of a wall or crash into a bridge.

Gamification — or the application of game mechanics and game design techniques to non-game applications and contexts — utilizes badges, leaderboards, rewards, and other forms of recognition. The participant’s focus, in this case, is on the set of activities that are being encouraged by the game mechanics, not on the processes of tracking points and granting rewards. Gamification is not a new concept. If your kindergarten teacher maintained a chart with each student’s name on it, and placed gold stars next to the names of students who had successfully completed assignment or tasks, he or she was employing badges and leader boards (social recognition).  The student who had earned the greatest number of stars by the end of the day or week typically earned a “reward”.

The principles of gamification have been applied to a variety of business and consumer applications over the past several years to help drive learning and engagement. Foursquare, a smartphone-based app that displays listings and maps of area restaurants, shops, and other services, enables its members to earn and redeem points for a variety of participation-based activities with its business partners. Many employee training programs award badges and web-based recognition to employees who complete in-house training programs. HighScore House is a relatively new application that enables household members to compete against each other for points, by completing chores, saving money, and conserving resources. And LinkedIn’s “Endorsements” feature provides its members with the ability to publicly endorse other members – to essentially give them “badges” for the skills that they possess.

In an educational setting, gamification techniques can be used to recognize students for completing tasks, moving to the next level in a series of assignments, or for achieving high scores on those assignments. When an element of public recognition is added – like a leaderboard on the course website – it tends to encourage competition among students. In a recent blog post, game designer and Cengage Learning author Jeannie Novak proposed the notion of “gamifying” the classroom – adding rewards and competition — as a first step for educators who are interested in adding serious gameplay to the classroom environment. Tech-savvy educators who are interested in adding sophisticated gamification elements to their courses can take advantage of commercial or open-source gamification platforms.

Gamification has become an area of great interest and debate in the education community. A recent Future of the Internet report on gamification from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project presents the views and expectations of education and business professionals in the area of gamification, including a discussion of the word “gamification” itself. In a recent paper by researchers at Columbia University, the authors present arguments on both sides of the gamification story, pointing to evidence that students are more engaged and likely to complete assignments if they are “in competition” with other students. Others point to the dangers of using extrinsic rewards to motivate learning and studying, instead of relying upon intrinsic rewards. One thing is clear: we can expect to see more examples of gamification in education, particularly in MOOCs and other online courses, as educators continue to explore the possibilities.

Do you use gamification in conjunction with any of your courses? If so, we would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below. You can also find us on LinkedIn, Facebook, SlideShare, and YouTube.