Gamification and the generational divide: perspectives from AIEC 2014

Gamification and the generational divide: perspectives from AIEC 2014

Right from the minute Gabe Zichermann strolled on to the stage at AIEC 2014 in Brisbane it was evident we were in for a treat of a keynote address exploring gamification. The very word ‘gamification’ implies fun, entertainment, excitement, and adventure. Yet we know little of the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’, and we are certainly clueless as to how these games could possibly be of interest to us in international education. 

Can we find answers through gamification to some of the more vexing issues that we encounter with students of the next generation? Are there opportunities for us to buy into gamification to help solve the many challenges plaguing academia today? The present youth generation moves ahead in leaps and bounds while we desperately play catch up, hoping to slow or even stall the speed with which learning happens, knowledge is shared and engagement is established.

So what is gamification?

By definition gamification is the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. Initially applied by airline companies in their Frequent Flyer customer loyalty programmes, the idea gained more traction in 2010 when companies such as Badgeville started using it to describe their behaviour platforms. In 2011 ‘gamification’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year Short List.

Gabe Zichermann, in his engaging keynote speech, delivered the underlying message behind gamification, which is: FUN. Gamification is exciting because it promises to make the boring things in life more fun. And what possibly could be more boring than school or work? And what if you were to combine both of these together and find yourself in a position of being an education professional, trying to engage with students and trying to convince them to fully embrace the learning experience?

What shone through Zichermann’s presentation was his clear aspiration to share new ideas about the video game industry with educators and the wider public. His key argument was that gamification can effectively be used not only in business but also in education as a replacement/alternative to the traditional classroom experience. Zichermann connects the video game engagement with dopamine – a hormone released as the players achieve rewards (focusing on challenge-achievement-pleasure and risk-reward mechanisms).

Real-life applications

Duolingo, the online language learning programme is perhaps the best visual example of an application of key elements of gamification to the learning process. It has scores (experience points), progress and activity tracking, user voting, engagement and collaboration as  well as virtual ‘lives’ which users can lose when making mistakes. Last year, Duolingo was awarded the ‘iPhone App of the Year’, the first educational app rewarded by Apple. And not lost is the footnote: Duolingo has over 16 milion users.

An intriguing reference that Gabe made was to ‘Foldit’ – an online puzzle video game about protein folding released in 2008 as a part of experimental research project developed by the University of Washington. Foldit developers applied gamification in order to make the programme more interactive and appealing to the public. Foldit allows users to predict the shape of a protein and map it, using a game-like structure. The better the model, the more points you get. In 2011, something remarkable came out of this: Foldit players were able to produce an accurate 3D model of the enzyme that causes AIDS in monkeys. Just to put it in perspective, this problem has been perplexing scientists for over 15 years. Foldit users achieved this task within just 10 days, earning gamification some well deserved credit. This accomplishment confirmed the potential power of gamification which had been, until then, considered more like child’s play.

Since then, the idea of turning a game into an educational tool has quickly gained traction across the board. One of the recent examples is ‘ImmuneQuest’, aimed at university students. ImmuneQuest allows users to experience the interconnectivity of the body’s immune system by taking on the roles of the different parts of the immune system, fighting off invading microbes and viruses. Taking a cue from the many video arcade games, the idea is for students to learn by doing.

Gamification is on the rise, including in areas like journalism. A recent initiative by Al-Jazeera offered the first web-based game in which users can take up a role of a journalist/researcher who investigates pirate fishing along the African coastline. The game rewards users with points, badges and tracks their progress as they go through a series on interactive videos and articles. The budding journalist in each of us can be tested in this exciting approach to investigative reporting. More importantly, it induces in the participant a desire to test their own capabilities in engaging in activities that catch their interest and in the process create a learning style that would have been outside conventional learning parameters.

New generation, new demands

Zichermann stresses on the importance of the choices the younger generation makes. The automobile industry was recently facing an unusual dilemma: car sales had dropped, not because of affordability, nor environmental pollution, but due to a disinterest in learning to drive. The young generation of American teenagers was choosing texting over driving because driving rules forbid combining the two.

Zichermann also warns, “Don’t give users learning platforms with some game elements thrown in. Give users games and put learning inside.” Generational arguments or evidence behind gamification dictate that ‘millennials’, who are currently at the centre and focus of many organisations, grew up playing video games and are typically very responsive to this form of entertainment, engagement and collaborative work. It is a generation that has been constantly exposed to multiple channels, devices and messages and it takes an extra effort to cut through all the noise, chatter and static to reach them and engage with them.

Zimmermann’s advice to universities as they roll out the red carpet to recruit this generation is very simple: understand this new generation well. Respond to their needs by understanding what they like, how they like it, and on what terms. A failure to do so would be a polite but immediate rebuff on the part of this generation. They may be young and in their teens, but they are silently demanding and have changed the rules of the game, not through debate but rather aschoices driven by their minds and fingers. Our inability to understand them will make us irrelevant and obsolete.

By Duleep Deosthale, Admission Table, Mountain View-CA, USA and  Max Ksiazka, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia