Game-based learning is about acquiring knowledge or skills by playing a game, thus making the learning process more interesting, meaningful and effective. Games can be anything from digital- to real-life role-playing games. Image: Shutterstock

Educational games, mobile quizzes and digital badges are transforming learning

Feature. How is gamification affecting adult education? Three experts share their views on the future of gamification and game-based learning.

16.03.2021

Gamification has been a buzzword in education for quite a while now. It has been seen as a saviour of education – a promise to make learning easier and more fun. But what is it really about?

ELM Magazine spoke to gamification experts in order to find out what kind of game-based learning we can expect to see in the future.

Isabella Aura is a doctoral candidate and Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki a postdoctoral researcher in the Gamification Group, a multidisciplinary research group operating within two Finnish universities. Oliver Šimko, the founder of gamification company Luducrafts, is a gamification designer with a background in adult education.

Behind the buzzwords

Gamification, Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki explains, means to enhance systems, services, organisations and activities in order to create similar experiences and motivations to those experienced when playing games, with the added educational goal of affecting user behaviour.

Practical implementations of gamification include a variety of elements and techniques, which can be, for example, points, leader boards or challenges.

Game-based learning is about acquiring knowledge or skills by playing a game, thus making the learning process more interesting, meaningful and effective. Games can be anything from digital- to real-life role-playing games.

“When we play games, there is a purpose and challenges and tasks that appeal to us. As we proceed in the game, we become more effective and begin to recognise our abilities,” Isabella Aura explains.

Games have been played throughout the history of mankind, and there has always been more to the process than pure entertainment.

Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki

For example, the development of a child’s brain relies heavily on playing, and societies would malfunction if we were not capable of working together or competing against each other according to mutually agreed rules – skills and attitudes that we learn by playing games.

So game-based learning is by no means a new invention. Digital educational games have been around for a while, too.

Issues with user-friendliness

I recall playing educational computer games as a kid at school. In one of the games, the player had to point and click at European countries on a map. By trial and error, I learned to locate mysterious countries like Albania and Liechtenstein.

It was the 1990s, so this was a fresh exception to regular classroom learning. However, the games were not a lot of fun to a 10-year-old – at least compared to any of the popular PC games we used to play at the time.

“Sadly, the same setting still exists,” says Isabella Aura. “We all know that games designed for entertainment tend to be more engaging and multidimensional than games that are solely for educational purposes.”

Oliver Šimko has come to the same conclusion. He says that finding an excellent educational game that meets today’s game industry standards is still challenging.

“If you look for good examples of educational games, you’ll find that many of them were designed as games in the first place, and educational value happened almost by a happy coincidence. Educational games are too often designed based on the needs of the client or the business, forgetting to consider them from the learner’s perspective.”

Be that as it may, game-based learning is here to stay.

Mandatory training can be more engaging

The business world is embracing gamification, which is quite easy to understand if you have ever had to sit through a lecture on company values or health and safety policy.

According to Isabella Aura and Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki, the most common gamification procedure for companies is to create different types of simulations, for example to introduce new employees to the company.

“Some large tech companies are also using digital badges to recognise learning and, for example, the consultant company McKinsey uses a game during its recruitment process,” adds Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki.

The potential is huge, because you can turn something that people don’t even want to attend into a pleasant experience

Oliver Šimko notes that gamification can be particularly useful in mandatory training.

“The potential is huge, because you can turn something that people don’t even want to attend into a pleasant experience. However, it is easy to fail if you misjudge your audience.”

Oliver Šimko

Gamification has also reached the world of science. A good example of this, Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki says, is a crowdsourcing game called Foldit. The idea of the game is simple: to identify the structure of proteins.

“You don’t have to be a scientist. You just need to be able to see patterns,” she explains.

A delicate balance for adult learners

Compared to corporate training or scientific research, the setting of non-formal adult education is very different.

“Adults who have voluntarily enrolled in a course tend to take responsibility for their learning. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t need any additional motivation or entertainment,” says Isabella Aura.

She believes that one way that adult education could benefit from gamification is by using individual learning paths, for learners to get the most out of the course.

“Individual learning paths can be enhanced with badges or other rewards, individual tasks or avatars, for example.”

If a game is well designed and user-friendly, you don’t have to have any pre-existing knowledge or skills to be able to play it.

Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki points out that there is a fine line between giving too much or too little guidance to adult learners.

“There is a really important balance between the autonomous, self-learning process, and the guidance which is needed to avoid getting lost in the learning process. At this point. techniques like flipped learning or gamification can be really helpful.”

“Learning is a serious business”

One thing to keep in mind is that not all learners are eager to take on new learning routines. Oliver Šimko brings up some common obstacles, such as viewing learning as a serious business not to be undermined by games, in his blog post on EPALE.

He says that these obstacles can be overcome by careful game design and knowing your audience. Instead of demographics, he speaks of psychographic segmentation and taking into account that there are different player types.

“Some people want to win and some like to see others lose. Some play to express themselves and others just want to feel the social elements of the game. You need to prepare game mechanics that work for all of them.”

Many people who oppose playing games believe that you have to be a so-called digital native to enjoy them. Isabella Aura notes that the whole concept is rather misleading.

Isabella Aura

“While some children grow up surrounded by digital devices, they do not automatically know everything about technology, and all skills need to be learned. Also, if a game or gamified feature is well designed and user-friendly, you don’t have to have any pre-existing knowledge or skills to be able to play it.”

What will the future bring?

While it is understandable that not everyone embraces the idea of having more technology in our lives, it seems inevitable.

“Distance learning is now the new reality,” says Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki, “and this creates more opportunities for gamified solutions. There is a call for games that are nicely integrated with all of these meeting platforms and are able to engage or get the attention of people, because you get very tired of just sitting in front of a screen.”

She also expects to see a stronger role for VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality), especially in statistics and data visualisation.

I saw the change in attitude and behaviour take place before my eyes. It was the surprising miracle of education.

In addition to these immersive new technologies, Oliver Šimko sees huge potential for gamification in a world that is increasingly interconnected.

“The digital world is blending into the personal world, for example in how our social media accounts are connected to pretty much any service we use nowadays. Gamification could become the key element in motivating and nudging people in this new environment,” he says and gives a few examples of gamified solutions that help us make better choices for ourselves and others.

“There are recent fitness apps that nudge users towards walking an extra mile and improving their health. An app called Headspace uses cleverly gamified techniques to help you start meditating, and Waze nudges you towards becoming a more proactive and caring driver who contributes to road safety.”

However, advanced technology combined with extensive user data can also be used to control people.

“We can see the nightmarish scenario emerging in China, where the social credit and point system is in fact a gamified citizenship that in my opinion resembles an almost totalitarian future. I hope that gamification will never go in this direction.”

After this thought, it might be useful to end with a less threatening example of gamification.

Success in small steps

A gamified learning experience does not have to be digital at all, or the digital element can be just a tiny part of it.

Nikoletta-Zampeta Legaki noticed the value of gamification while she was teaching forecasting techniques to a postgraduate class in Greece.

“People came to the course after 8 or 10 hours at work, which meant that the last thing they wanted to do was to listen to someone explaining mathematical equations,” she says.

She created a mobile quiz on Quizizz, and saw the tiredness vanish.

“It was really simple stuff. After a wrong answer, some music or a meme might appear. But suddenly the students were excited, speaking to each other and wondering what had just happened.”

For the teacher, the experience proved that game-based learning has great potential.

“I saw the change in attitude and behaviour take place before my eyes. It was the surprising miracle of education.”