Want better student engagement? Turn your course into a game

Gamification is not a magic bullet and it will not magically make the most boring task exciting, but it can be a catalyst for change

September 4, 2021
Person holding retro gaming joystick in hand
Source: iStock

When Macquarie University academic Rowan Tulloch set up a “simple gamification system” to help enthuse his undergraduates, he did not know he would end up having to address one of them as “Rameses Niblick the Third Kerplunk Kerplunk Whoops Where’s My Thribble?” in class roll calls.

The moniker, borrowed from a character in the sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, was the “shy, pass-level” student’s reward after he amassed 55 “points” for doing preparatory readings, asking questions in class and contributing to group work.

Dr Tulloch, a lecturer in digital media, had allowed students to cash in their points on the right to be addressed by certain “titles”. Most students opted for relatively short titles such as “Dr Who” and “Sarah the Impaler”.

It took the Red Dwarf fan two years to accumulate enough points for his much longer title, which he finally earned in the final semester of his degree. “Not only that, he topped the course with a high distinction,” Dr Tulloch said.

“I asked him afterwards, ‘Did you do all that work for the title?’ He said, ‘No.’ At first he wanted the title. He thought it would be funny, so he did the course readings to earn those points. Then he found he was more confident answering questions in class. Then other students wanted him in their groups, and he made friends. The whole thing continued to snowball, and it even spread to his non-gamified units.”

The story exemplifies the potential of gamification, an “educational methodology and philosophy” that Dr Tulloch has embedded in his teaching through two home-made platforms. One, “Game Change”, is an extension of his points approach that he developed with funding from telecommunications company Optus.

In Game Change, students can expend their points on cards that authorise them to control certain aspects of the classes – such as dictating the referencing style in assignments, or forcing classmates to talk like pirates. The cards can be customised to the subject material. For example, cards for a Shakespeare course might carry illustrations of star-crossed lovers.

The other platform, “Rogue AI”, involves mystery narratives that the players solve by researching course content. In one version, students unpick a series of puzzles to prevent an artificial intelligence entity experiencing an “existential crisis” from detonating nuclear bombs.

Presenting both platforms at the EduTech 21 conference, Dr Tulloch explained the rationale. “Games, and video games in particular, are in themselves sophisticated teaching forms. They have to teach complex tasks [that] players need to master – flying a plane, commanding an army, running civilisations.

“Gaming makes possible a type of pedagogy built on personalised, real-time feedback [where] individual creativity is baked in.”

A key strength of the pedagogy is the emphasis on engagement, in a context where – unlike compulsory schooling, or university classes where suddenly leaving would be socially awkward – people can just do something else if they get bored.

“Games can’t assume engagement,” Dr Tulloch said. “They have to create it. Games need to keep players engaged as they learn and progress.

“It’s a radically different type of pedagogy in many ways, and it’s a pedagogy that so much of the younger generations are very familiar with. It’s what they’re used to, and like it or not, it’s what we as teachers are often competing against.”

Dr Tulloch said game-based learning had “fairly universal appeal” – particularly among older students, a group he had expected to be a “hard sell”, but who warmed to the approach once they understood the reasons for it.

“A lot of law students like the approachability of a class that’s set up this way,” he told Times Higher Education. “They like the core mechanics of software [that helps] demystify the academic process by showing exactly what I’m asking for, and how they need to perform.” Female students also seemed to log into the software and check their progress more often than men.

But hard-core gamers tended to be critical on technical grounds, while school-leavers worried about being “infantilised” by the “more gimmicky” elements of the games. “There’s sometimes a concern from people who’ve only just become adults, that this is going to make them look like kids,” Dr Tulloch said.

Colleagues’ reactions were more as Dr Tulloch had expected, with older academics generally less keen to experiment with game-based learning – partly because of unfamiliarity with the medium, and partly because of persona.

“There’s a different dynamic between a relatively young, approachable academic and your more traditional professorial type. Once you start calling someone Rameses Niblick the Third Kerplunk Kerplunk Whoops Where’s My Thribble, you don’t necessarily have that authority.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I imagine some students didn't like it and in the modern UK system it only takes one complaint, often vague and anonymous, to force a change In any case, how would you apply this to a proper subject

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