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Teaching and Learning

12 Tips for Gamifying a Course

Experts share their best advice for incorporating digital games in the college classroom.

Digital games can be powerful learning tools, helping engage students and improve learning outcomes. And while adoption in higher education has been slow, a growing number of college and university instructors are gamifying their courses, either by incorporating existing games or developing custom ones. We asked three game-savvy educators and technologists for their advice on introducing gamification to the college or university classroom.

1) Begin by Defining Goals and Objectives

As with any endeavor, the first step should always be to figure out exactly what you want to achieve by gamifying a course. Is the objective to boost student engagement, improve knowledge retention, promote communication and collaboration, or something else?

Edwin Lindsay is a teaching assistant professor of sport management at North Carolina State University who has gamified his Introduction to Sport Management course. While his project was a massive two-year undertaking that involved developing a plug-in for Moodle to create a personalized game experience within the LMS, he recommends figuring out the end goal before beginning a gamification project of any size because it can help determine the path forward.

"If my goals and objectives are simply to review for my midterm or my exam, then there are some external features out there, tools that you can utilize to put your content in, that will allow students to basically review for anything," he said.

2) Start Small and Develop Iteratively

Scott Reinke is the coordinator for the BSU Achievements Program at Ball State University (IN). He was involved in the development of Ball State Achievements, a mobile app designed to improve student retention by gamifying positive activity outside the classroom (and winner of a 2015 Campus Technology Innovators award). He advocates a "fail fast" mentality when gamifying a course.

"Use an iterative process and don't necessarily try to build everything all at once," he said. "See if it works — and if it doesn't then immediately throw it away. I guess that's kind of the essence of a fail fast mentality. Just try it, even if it's just an assignment in your larger class."

3) Network With Other Educators Using Games

Communication and collaboration are key components of 21st-century education, and they're applicable to professional development, too. Educators interested in gamification are not alone, and they can benefit from sharing knowledge and ideas with each other.

Reinke participates in just such a group at Ball State. "I meet with a group called the Serious Games Knowledge Group. There are eight or 12 of us, and we have lunch once a month and talk. They're all just people who take gaming and gamification seriously in education," he said.

4) Use Simple Game-Creation Tools

Drag-and-drop game development tools such as GameSalad and GameMaker: Studio make it possible for non-programmers to create simple, visually appealing digital games. "There still may be a learning curve involved, but a lot of those are WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get] platforms that let you click around and figure stuff out through logic rather than coding," said Reinke.

An even simpler way to create digital games is to use a tool such as Microsoft PowerPoint to create digital versions of board games. "It allows for moveable pieces on a background image that is essentially your board," said Joseph Bisz, an associate professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York and an educational game designer. He has created Concentration-type memory matching games using PowerPoint. The instructor can project the game on the screen for the whole class to participate or allow students to play in small groups around a computer.

5) Get Students to Develop Games

Rather than creating a game for students, some instructors are getting their students to design their own games as a way of deepening or demonstrating their understanding of course concepts. One of Reinke's colleagues at Ball State used GameSalad in his landscape architecture class. Students created games related to developing urban landscapes, gamifying placement of elements such as trees and roads. "Having them design games forces them into a role to really think more deeply about whatever subject it is because they become more invested in the game and their users," said Reinke.

6) Take Advantage of Existing Games

While K-12 may have a more established selection of digital games available on the market, higher education can take advantage of a number of existing boutique games and digital simulations.

One example of a well established boutique game is Darfur is Dying, an online game that challenges students to keep a refugee camp functioning while they learn about genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. "It helps people understand and get a better feel for what's going on," said Bryan Fendley, director of instructional technology and web services at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. "I think that's one of those games that helps teach the social aspect of current events.

Penn State's Educational Gaming Commons also offers a few boutique games, as well as general information about gamification in higher education.

Technical trades and subjects with practical applications such as chemistry and biology present opportunities to incorporate digital simulations, which Fendley describes as "probably the stickiest piece that has come out of gamification for higher ed."

7) Use K-12 Games for Remedial Education Courses

Instructors teaching remedial or introductory level academic courses can take advantage of the wider selection of existing games developed for middle or high school students. Bisz began using games with his remedial level classes in an effort to increase student engagement.

"The BBC in Great Britain designed specific digital games to teach English and math, and although they weren't targeting higher education, our remedial students generally are about 7th grade level, and so we found these things very useful for getting the students to suddenly become engaged," said Bisz.

8) Make It Fun

Both Lindsay and Fendley emphasized the importance of making digital games fun for the students. "It can be well conceived from a faculty member's perspective, but if it's not fun it'll fall flat on its face," said Lindsay.

Throughout the game development process for his Introduction to Sport Management course, Lindsay invited people outside of the project to try the game and give him their honest opinions, either through forum posts or anonymous reports, and whenever possible he applied those recommendations to later versions of the game.

"If somebody doesn't want to play a game, they don't enjoy it and then the whole reason for gamification falls apart because it doesn't by definition really become a game at that point," said Fendley.

9) Don't Forget About the Pedagogy

While fun is a key element of gamification, Lindsay reminds instructors not to forget about the pedagogy in the process. "When we think about our teaching, we think about the theories that are involved in our teaching, and gaming sets itself up really well to be connected to those theories," he said. "I found myself thinking, what would I do in a real class? What would be my mindset and how would that translate to the gaming world? And I was able to match those up pretty closely."

10) Collect Data

Ideally, instructors should have the ability to collect data about students' progress and achievement in the games they're playing for a course. "Look for games that can transfer data back to a spreadsheet or a learning management system," said Fendley.

The SCORM standard or Tin Can API (application programming interface) both provide ways to collect data from games. SCORM is a standard for communication between e-learning software products, and the Tin Can API enables software to collect and share data about digital experiences.

11) Consider Accessibility

Digital games may not be accessible to individuals with disabilities, particularly those who are visually impaired — and simply providing those students with alternate assignments or activities may not be a solution. "If we truly believe that gamification is that much better, then the alternate assignment is going to be an inferior way of learning. We're offering somebody with a disability a lesser version of the lesson" said Fendley.

Fortunately, resources exist to help developers address the issue of accessibility in digital games. AbleGamers has developed "a 50-page living document to assist developers in the process called Includification," according to information on the site. And Twine is a free, open source game development tool that lets anybody create simple, accessible interactive storytelling games.

12) Play Games

Educators who want to use gamification successfully in the classroom need to play games themselves, according to Reinke. Just as a person has to be a reader before he or she can become a good writer, a person has to be a gamer before being able to develop or implement gamification effectively.

"Just find games that interest you or ask people about it," said Reinke. "That's the best part of the group that I'm in at Ball State: Most of what we do is just tell each other about new and exciting games that we've found and that really helps us figure out what we want to do with our games."

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