A gamification design for the classroom

Michael Hitchens (Department of Computing, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)
Rowan Tulloch (Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)

Interactive Technology and Smart Education

ISSN: 1741-5659

Publication date: 12 March 2018

Abstract

Purpose

The research described here presents an approach to gamification for the classroom. The purpose of this paper is to determine whether students would perceive the gamification activities in a positive light. Previous research has contended that students need a positive mental attitude for effective learning. The core question was to examine student attitudes to gamification, not the success of the gamification itself.

Design/methodology/approach

Based on a survey of the gamification literature, and particularly drawing on the work of Groh (2012), this system is designed with three key principles in mind: relatedness, competence and autonomy. Classroom activities and associated software were designed and implemented. Almost 200 students were surveyed to determine their attitude to the gamification. The survey included both Likert-scale and qualitative responses.

Findings

A majority of the students reported that they found the gamification useful and enjoyable, only a minority of students (around 15 per cent) disagreeing with such statements. However, only a minority of students perceived a relationship between the gamification activities and games. The authors conclude that well-designed gamification systems can be well-received by students and suggest that the success of gamification projects may not lie in their ability to recreate the experience of a video game, but in the strength of the relatedness, competence and autonomy of the student experience.

Research limitations/implications

The research is limited by the nature of the participants, who were drawn from videogame and media units and who may be predisposed to game-like activities.

Originality/value

This research demonstrates that students are able to perceive value in gamification in the classroom.

Keywords

Citation

Hitchens, M. and Tulloch, R. (2018), "A gamification design for the classroom", Interactive Technology and Smart Education, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 28-45. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITSE-05-2017-0028

Download as .RIS

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Traditional pedagogic models for higher education are becoming increasingly ineffective and challenging to apply (Biggs and Tang, 2011). Motivating students to perform crucial tasks such as complete readings, participate in class discussions and other activities or conduct self-directed research, is becoming more and more difficult. Indeed, across disciplines, students are becoming progressively resistant to participating in any activities which do not involve direct assessment. Student issues with motivation are well-known. For example, in a study of Australian University students, James et al. (2010) found that “the proportion who found it difficult to motivate themselves to study” was 48 per cent. Many authors have noted that attrition is a greater risk for first-year students than for students in later years of study (Tinto, 1993; Johnson, 1994; Department of Employment, Science and Technology, Strategic Analysis and Evaluation Group, 2004). Amongst first year students, motivational issues have been found to be a significant contributor to students withdrawing from study. For example, in a study by Peel et al. (2004), motivation was stated as a contributing factor by 63 per cent of the students surveyed about their reasons for withdrawal. Motivation has been found to be an influence on students’ success in study of quantitative units by a number of authors, for example Anthony (2000).

This paper will suggest that this great challenge for higher educational pedagogy (and indeed pedagogy at all levels) is also a great opportunity. The problem does not lie with individual teachers nor even in specific syllabuses but is a systemic reflection of cultural and generational changes in how people learn. Many of today’s students have spent their formative years learning through mediated experiences, such video games, online environments and social networks. Rather than dismissing the significance of this, or trying to train students out of their “bad habits”, there is the opportunity to embrace the pedagogic potential of these systems. Contemporary video gaming, in particular, has evolved to be a highly complex and rich medium, which mobilises a sophisticated range of both subtle and overt pedagogic systems to train players into highly specialised and specific skills (Tulloch, 2014). If these game logics and mechanisms can be effectively adapted and applied to the classroom environment, then educators will be able to develop new models and methods of pedagogy specifically designed to engage and appeal to contemporary and future generations of students. However, to support this contention, we need to be certain that students can form favourable views of such pedagogic designs.

The benefits of looking to games (both digital and traditional) to discover effective techniques to increase engagement and enjoyment have been recognised (Deterding et al., 2011). The concept of “gamification” is becoming one of the most widely used, but poorly understood, terminologies in contemporary pedagogy. Broadly defined, gamification is a process whereby game mechanics are integrated into traditionally non-game tasks to make the experience more fun, engaging or meaningful for the participants. Techniques of gamification can include setting up precise rules, point systems, rewards, punishments and competitions. From teaching institutions to health services to the corporate world, people are recognising the potential of games to enrich their learning and working experiences. However, if gamification is to fulfil its promise in improved student outcomes, based on enhanced motivation, there needs to some assurance that students will view it favourably. The central question addressed here is whether students can form favourable views of gamified learning.

This paper will explore the history and contexts of the concept of gamification and examine the debates around defining the term and the theorisations of core mechanics and best practice. It will outline the central theoretical framework through which we have developed a set of gamification techniques and technologies, describe the pilot program we have developed, to show how the concept of gamification can be positively received in a tertiary teaching environment. We will evaluate our experiences in gamifying the university classroom based on surveys of almost 200 students and reflect upon students’ responses to gamified learning practices and classroom techniques. We will demonstrate that gamification can successfully be used by university teachers to encourage positive student attitudes to engagement with academic material, to improve motivation, to improve student confidence in their learning and to make classes more enjoyable.

Note that this work was specifically aimed at assessing student attitudes not student outcomes. We are not so much concerned here with the ability of our gamification design, or another particular design, to improve learning, but whether gamification can improve student attitudes to learning. This is based on an assumption that the latter can lead to the former. Our research question is:

Can students perceive gamified learning as:

  • enjoyable; and

  • beneficial to their learning.

The first part of the question relates to the implicit assumption that people will more readily engage with an activity that they see as enjoyable. The second part that students will more likely partake in activities for which they see the benefit. If students can regard gamification activities in this way, then there can be more confidence that such a pedagogic approach can also enhance student learning outcomes as students will be more motivated to take part in learning activities.

Games and gamification

Deterding et al. (2011) define Gamification as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. The idea itself stretches back much further, at least to work in the 1980s (Malone, 1982). While Deterding et al.’s has become a widely accepted definition of the term, it can be seen to derive from the first recorded use of a very similar term, “Gameification”, in a blog post by Terrill (2008). Gameification is there described as “taking game mechanics and applying to other [sic] web properties to increase engagement”. Terill’s definition is less general, being concerned only with mechanics and their application to the web, but the two definitions have much in common. In particular, they concentrate on portions of what constitutes a game (mechanics in Terill’s case, game design elements for Deterding et al.) and their use beyond games. It is also clear that the definitions are not rigorously specific. Deterding et al. spend considerable time exploring their definition. They place marked emphasis on the “experiental and behavioural quality” of game playing, labelling this “gamefulness”. As they admit, this introduces a degree of subjectiveness into the definition, as what one person finds redolent of the experience of playing a game, another may not. Further complicating interpretation of their definition is their understanding of a game as a composite entity. Following Juul (2011), they conclude that the individual components of a game do not make a game; it is the combination that creates the experience. As they note, elements of games are often included in other media. The examples given, such as game controllers used as input devices in non-game HCI applications and game engines used to produce non-entertainment software, leave little room for argument as to the game-related nature of these sources. However, whether they are actually design elements or technological implementations is more debatable. Also, the definition of Deterding et al. lacks both a rationale for gamification and any basis on which to judge which game elements best serve that rationale. Admittedly, it is difficult to have one without the other, but Terrill did include the goal of increased engagement.

Muntean (2011), following Flatla, Gutwin, Nacke, Bateman and Mandryk (2011), provides some other examples of game elements, i.e. scoreboards and personalised fast-feedback, used in gamification. These are more recognisably design elements, being independent of particular technological implementations. She also, and arguably more interestingly, posits a goal for gamification – “to rise the engagement of users by using game-like techniques”. This follows from the definition of Terril. As Nicholson (2012) points out the basic idea is not new – even airline frequent flier programs and the trading stamp programs dating from the 1930s could be regarded as conforming to this ideal. Nicholson emphasises the importance of motivation and context for gamification:

[…] for meaningful gamification, it is important to take into consideration the background that the user brings to the activity and the organizational context into which the specific activity is placed. A significant challenge in creating this type of a broad system is developing a strategy to encompass a wide variety of user backgrounds, desires, and skillsets.

Becker and Nicholson (2016) distinguish between rewards-based gamification and “meaningful” gamification, where the intent is to use game elements to increase student engagement with learning activities in the classroom. They focus on self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2002) and the need for learners to have a positive mental outlook, to be able to make personally relevant choices and to perceive a connection to other people. Their recommendation is to use “game elements to help participants find a personal connection to a non-game setting”.

Other authors, such as de Neef (2013), also emphasise the importance of motivation. However, simply lifting an aspect of a game and applying it to a non-game context does not mean that the audience for this re-used element will be motivated in the way that the designer intended. This is discussed by Groh (2012) where, drawing on talks by Schell (2011) and Deterding (2011) and the work of Deci and Ryan (1985), he states three principles for evaluating whether an element might be successful used in gamification, based on intrinsic motivation:

  1. relatedness: the universal need to interact and be connected with others;

  2. competence: the universal need to be effective and master a problem in a given environment; and

  3. autonomy: the universal need to control one’s own life.

These criteria are in broad agreement with the quote from Nicholson given above. The competence of a user will depend upon the background that they bring to the situation in which gamification is being applied. This, and relatedness, address the need for context. Autonomy and competence can be understood as encompassing user skills and backgrounds. The three criteria of relatedness, competence and autonomy can be used to judge whether a game design element may be useful in providing the appropriate motivation.

Gamification can be seen simply as the use of any game-related elements. However, successful gamification requires more than this (or perhaps less, in terms of being more discerning in selecting the game design elements to be used). Rather than simply appropriating elements of games without thorough consideration of the experience they will bring to the gamification, elements to be used in gamification need to be judged against the principles enunciated by Groh and the over-arching goal of increased motivation. To take one example, the failure of leaderboards to provide motivating gamification by themselves (Hecker, 2010) can be understood when judged against the principles quoted above. Leaderboards do not, by themselves, provide interaction. They may show a relative performance, but that is often judged on activities which involve no interaction between participants. They may also contribute to a loss of feeling of autonomy, as the performance of others, as much as one’s own, can produce a position on the leaderboard. Simple positioning, without any other form of performance feedback, gives little indication of competence. For example, the marks in an assignment can be ranked, but that gives little indication whether any of the students have failed to attain competence (or, conversely, whether any have attained it).

Deterding et al. (2011) posited that one of the keys to gamification is to use elements of game design. Without revisiting competing claims, we will consider a sample of definitions of a game to see what guidance they can give us in identifying game design elements for gamification. The article by Deterding et al. quoted the definition of Juul (2011) for a classic game “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable”. Another well-known definition is that of Salen and Zimmerman (2004), “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome”. There are some essential points of similarity between the two definitions. Both involve rules, quantifiable outcomes and the participation of an active player. These are, unsurprisingly, very abstract definitions. They are attempting to encompass an extremely wide range of activities which we recognise as “games”. They give little guidance to the details of what makes a game, i.e. the elements which make up its design. The definitions do not lend themselves to decomposition. As Juul admits, no single part of his definition suffices to define something as a game. Each component can be found in non-game activities. It is the totality that places something in the category of “game”. On the one hand, this is useful for gamification, as it implies that elements of games can be used in non-game contexts. On the other hand, it complicates the task of gamification, as it provides little guidance as to what can be used, let alone what might be successfully used.

There have, of course, been other attempts to understand the nature of a game. Adams (2010) focuses on gameplay, which he sees as consisting of challenges and the actions by which players may overcome them. This appears more promising for gamification, as it focuses on competence and autonomy. Deterding et al. emphasised the experiential quality of games, which comes from the experience of playing – the gameplay. So perhaps it is in the challenges and actions of gameplay that sources for gamification can be found. This can be seen in learning games where, at the expenditure of considerable resource, the games present the learning material in the structure of what is essentially a full game. These systems can be understood as complete games in terms of definitions noted earlier. The question then arises whether successful gamification relies upon staying this close to the unpacked nature of a game, or whether we can follow Deterding et al.’s definition and instead use elements rather than complete games.

Avoiding a complete game potentially discounts game-like challenges and actions. While they do not by themselves constitute a game, providing a game-like environment with game-like challenges and actions leaves so little left to make a complete game that it would be questionable why the slight extra effort would not be made. A gamified activity may still include challenges. However, they may not be game-like and so not dependent on game design elements. If we consider a pedagogical application, then challenges will be inherent. Learners need to be challenged and provided with the tools (actions) to overcome those challenges. Yet there is no inherent requirement that these challenges and actions be themselves gamified. It may even be undesirable as the extra layer of complexity added to the underlying discipline material by gamifying the challenge may place unnecessary hurdles in the path of the learner. Perhaps other game-design elements are better suited to gamification unless a full game is to be considered.

Such reasoning, although perhaps not in an explicit form, is not new. It can be seen to explain the use in gamification of such elements as leaderboards, point totals and dramatic graphic responses. Such design elements are drawn from games, but not from the challenge/action dynamic that Adams sees as central to gameplay. However, as discussed above, the choice of elements to use also needs to be judged against the criteria of Groh. The study presented here was in the context of a gamification design in a class-room environment. As the resources were lacking for a full-scale learning game, the decision was made to avoid gamifying elements around the actual course material. Instead the game design elements were chosen to frame the classroom context and provide a more engaging environment in which the core learning could take place.

Gamification design

The intention of our project was to determine whether gamification can improve student motivation and engagement with classroom activities. The findings on student motivation mentioned earlier, combined with forgoing discussion on the rationale for gamification, make their use in enhancing student motivation and engagement an obvious aim, admittedly one which is by no means unique to this project. A sound gamification design was required to avoid any problems in the design affecting student responses. A relatively minimal design was used for the reverse reason (so any inherent sophistication in the design did not overly influence the students).

Two basic principles were set for the gamification design:

  1. it had to be implementable in a standard classroom; and

  2. it had to adhere to the three principles identified in the previous section (relatedness, competency and autonomy)

Two considerations influenced these principles. First, the desire to enhance student motivation and engagement in a traditional classroom setting. The principle of relatedness is relevant here, as classroom interactions in small group teaching is an environment conducive to interactions between students. Second, resources were not available for an extensive digital implementation, although some software was developed, as discussed below.

An initial version of the gamification design was created and implemented and a small pilot study was carried out. Some modifications to the gamification were then made and a larger study undertaken. The initial design, the modifications made and the results of the two studies are reported in the following sections.

Activities and earning points

For simplicity, the design was based around the earning and expenditure of points. This allowed for transparency in activities, as it could be clearly stated what points were earned for which activities, what points a student currently had and for what they could be used. The purpose of the gamification was to give as “gamelike” an experience as possible in the interests of motivation. Students were set a range of tasks through which they could earn points. These tasks included answering multiple choice questions in class or performing team tasks (discussions, debates, mock trials, etc.). Other desired behaviours and activities, including asking good questions, engaging with lecture/readings or helping out a classmate, were also rewarded. While assigning points for some of these required subjective judgements from the class tutor, no difficulties were experienced in practice. The tasks varied week to week; however, every week had a multiple-choice quiz, and some type of team tasks. Earned points could be spent to form teams and receive rewards such as special titles and powers.

Each week the students answered two multiple choice questions. These questions were based on the week’s lecture and readings. The questions were shown on the screen at the front of class. Rather than labelling answer A, B, C and D as is standard, answers were labelled Y, M, C and A; and rather than writing down answers, students all stood and simultaneously performed the gesture associated with that letter from the Village People song/dance YMCA. Students could get zero, one or two points, depending on how many questions they answered correctly.

Each class was divided up into four teams after answering the week’s questions. These teams were set tasks related to the subject matter of the unit. In a video game design unit, we randomly generated game titles and students had to pitch a game design/UI/narrative based on that title. In a digital media unit, we had in class debates about the value of web 2.0 or a mock trial of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden (teams served a prosecution, defence or witnesses). All tasks however had clear points associated with outcome. The game pitches were ranked (by class vote and/or tutor decision) from best to worst with 3 points for 1st, 2 for 2nd, 1 for 3rd and 0 for last (although ties were allowed so most weeks no team received zero). In debates and the mock trial, the tutor judged the effort of the teams’ participation – 3 for outstanding, 2 for good, 1 for satisfactory and 0 for unsatisfactory.

The type of points students earned for a task depended on the task. There were four types of points they could earn:

  1. multiple-choice points;

  2. team points;

  3. class participation points: awarded for other types of good class participation, e.g. a productive question or answer or helping out a classmate with something they were struggling with; and

  4. bonus points: awarded for gamification-related activities.

If the student earned a certain number of points on a specific task in certain period, they could activate a multiplier. Multipliers increase the number of points a student received for that task from that point onwards (or until they lost the multiplier).

The multipliers were earnt by specific achievements:

  • all multiple choices questions correct in three consecutive weeks;

  • part of the winning team in three consecutive weeks; and

  • 4 points in 2 weeks for participation.

A multiplier lasted until the student no longer satisfied the condition (e.g. when the student gave an incorrect multiple-choice answer) or until the multiplier is upgraded by again fulfilling the condition.

There was a final type of points: gamification points. These were the points that students could “spend”. They were the sum total of all other points, with the multipliers factored in. When gamification points were spent other points totals remained unaffected, this meant a clear record of how the student had done with set tasks was maintained.

Rewards

Students could spend their gamification points on a variety of rewards such as teammates and titles.

Membership of the teams were randomised each week; however, students who had “purchased” friends would be in a team with those friends for the rest of semester. Teammates had to agree on the purchase. The cost for both parties was five gamification points.

A title was a word of phrase that could be purchased, from that point on every time the tutor addressed the student they had to use that title. If they did not the student earnt a “bonus” point. Titles could be used instead of or as part of a name, for example “Dracula”, Sarah “The Impaler” Smith.

Standard titles consisted of popular honorifics and television, movie and literature character titles. These titles were priced according to how desirable they were deemed (Table I). All titles were unique (only one student per class could use them).

Other titles were created by the students. These could be anything is as long as it was not offensive or inappropriate. Students could also not purchase their tutor or lecturer’s name, a surprisingly popular request, but one that would have made the class confusing. These titles cost five gamification points per word.

Students could also purchase other rewards. For example, if a class included a presentation, presentation dates were auctioned off, the most desirable going for the highest price. Students could purchase the position of team leader. A team leader made decisions for the team such as what task to do (when an option existed) andwho will present. Team leadership was priced at one gamification point per week, or five gamification points for all weeks. Another popular purchase was the right to stay stationary. Each week when the teams randomised students often had to move to join their teammates. However, if they had bought the right to stay stationary, their team had to come to them. Price was the same as leadership.

Cards

Based on anecdotal feedback from students and teaching staff concerning the initial version of the system, it was concluded that students wanted more they could spend points on. As such, the second iteration of our gamification system was identical to the first but with one additional reward mechanic: cards. We created a set of physical cards, broadly modelled on Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone cards in design and use, that students could purchase for 5 gamification points each, or receive for good performance (e.g. the students in the hardest working group may be awarded with a card each). There were 60 different cards available, and they all had different functions, for example we had a card that allows a student to quiz a classmate on correct referencing practices (for points), a card that allows them to reward a classmate that they think has done excellent work, a card that doubles their points (as bonus points) for group tasks, a card that means a student must talk like a pirate when presenting and a card that defends the bearer against all other cards. Each card was designed to have one of four purposes: increase collaboration, aid learning, increase student choice and increase engagement with gamification system. The first three of these directly align with Groh’s three underpinning principles, namely, relatedness, competency and autonomy, while the final purpose, i.e. increasing engagement with the gamification system, means higher participation and as such reinforces those first three purposes. Cards like the aforementioned “talk like a pirate” card, for example, have little direct pedagogic impact, but they become highly desired and thus increase student motivation to earn points and their engagement with class activities.

The software

Both iterations of our design used a specially designed piece of software to help facilitate our gamification techniques. The software served multiple functions. At its most basic, it served as the attendance roll. Tutors marked students as present using the software, and students could sign-in to check their attendance. It also kept track of the points a student had earned and applied multipliers automatically. It provided the facility to create random teams for team tasks. The teams were randomly generated from attending students while accommodating purchases of permanent teammates.

As the software was open to students and updated in real-time (most tutors used an iPad or laptop to give points during the course of the class), students were encouraged to login and see how they were doing and what they were getting points for. This allowed for real-time feedback mechanisms. Students could find out their rank in the class, but not other students’ exact marks.

The software also allowed staff, at the end of semester, to have a clear basis for formulating class participation marks. They could use the multiple-choice marks (as evidence of engagement with readings and the lecture), the team work mark (as evidence of engagement with set tasks) and class participation (as evidence of good general engagement to formulate their participation marks). Bonus and gamification points were not used in calculating participation marks, as these were influenced by game mechanics and purchases, not solely by class performance.

The software was hosted on an internal university server. This server also supported a range of other teaching related resources on it and as such was maintained and updated by department technical staff. As the software was coded by one of these staff members, that person was able to ensure that any updates would not interfere with continued functioning of the gamification software and also implement any bug fixes to the software itself. Only very minor bug fixes were necessary to the software. No significant maintenance issues were encountered.

The tutors in charge of each class were responsible for managing many aspects for their individual classes. This included inputting of points and approval of titles and profile images. Figure 1 displays the interface through which tutors could mark attendance and award points for a weekly class. Figure 2 displays part of the administrative interface, through which students could be added and removed from classes and teammates assigned. Figure 1 is from a real class, with identifying information removed, and Figure 2 is for a fictitious (dummy) class but illustrates the functionality.

Student responses

The initial gamification design was applied to the teaching of first- and second-year units in videogames and media studies. The application of the modified design was extended to a third-year unit in critical game studies. Student responses were collected in the videogames unit (for both versions of the gamification) and in the third-year unit (for the modified version). All three units consist of lectures, tutorials and, for the first-year unit, practicals, with the gamification activities being used in the tutorials in all units. The first-year unit typically has an enrolment of approximately 250 students, consisting of both students taking videogames-related programme and students taking the unit as an elective. The second-year media unit had an enrolment of approximately 190 students, primarily from media-related programs. The third-year unit typically has an enrolment of 75 students, with the majority being students in games or media-related programmes. In all cases, the gamification activities were introduced in the first tutorial, with tutors describing the system, rules and possible rewards. As noted above, every tutorial for the rest of the semester then included gamification activities, such as the weekly quiz, use of any earned titles, group selection and other rewards.

For the pilot study, at the end of the semester students in two randomly selected tutorials from the first-year unit were given a survey which consisted of eight open-ended questions pilot study survey questions:

Q1.

Did you enjoy the use of gamification techniques (the gamification software, the multiple-choice questions and the group tasks) in this unit? Why/Why not?

Q2.

Did the use of gamification techniques help you understand either the theory in this unit, or what was expected of you, more easily? Why/Why not?

Q3.

What do you think were the best and worst aspects of the gamification techniques used in this unit?

Q4.

Did you track your progress in the unit through the gamification software? Why/Why not?

Q5.

In what ways do you think the gamification software needs improving?

Q6.

Do you feel gamification is a useful technique for university teaching? Why/Why not?

Q7.

How much did the gamification system resemble any video games that you have played? Which parts of the gamification system were most game like?

Q8.

Did using the gamification system give the same experience as playing an actual video game? In what ways?

With 39 responses being received. In the main study, all tutorials in both units were surveyed and 160 responses were received, being 130 from the first-year unit and 30 from the third-year unit. The survey for the main study consisted of five questions on a 1-5 Likert scale and three open-ended questions. Main study survey questions (1-5 Likert-scale, 6-8 open-ended):

Q1.

I enjoyed the use of gamification techniques (the gamification software, the multiple-choice questions and the group tasks) in this unit.

Q2.

The use of the gamification techniques helped me more easily understand the theory in this unit and/or what was expected of me?

Q3.

Gamification is a useful technique for university teaching?

Q4.

The gamification software resembled video games that I have played?

Q5.

Using the gamification system gave me the same experience as playing an actual video game?

Q6.

What do you think were the best and worst aspects of the gamification techniques used in this unit?

Q7.

Did you track your progress in the unit through the gamification software? Why/Why not?

Q8.

In what ways do you think the gamification software needs improving?

For the first five questions, respondents were also allowed to give additional, open-ended, responses. It should be noted that five open-ended questions from the pilot study were turned into Likert scale questions to allow easier quantitative analysis. Completion of the survey was anonymous and voluntary in all cases, accounting for responses being less than the total enrolments, with no incentives being offered. To encourage student participation in the survey, which was voluntary, age and gender information was not collected so that students could be assured of anonymity. The surveys were administered in individual tutorials and in groups of this size a combination of age and gender can identify individual students.

The responses to questions Q1, Q2, Q6, Q7 and Q8 of the pilot study were analysed and coded according to the following scale:

  • very negative;

  • somewhat negative;

  • neutral;

  • somewhat positive; and

  • very positive.

The codings were discussed by both investigators, with sample codings jointly cross-checked. The full coding was carried out by the first investigator. The assigned values for each question were then averaged and the results are shown in Table II.

For the main study, as the equivalent questions were on a Likert scale, results were simply calculated from the returned values, with the results shown in Table III. While the questions were numbered differently in the two surveys, the order of equivalent questions is the same across both, and the results can be directly compared between Tables II and III. The results reported in Table III are closer to a neutral value than those in Table II. Whether this is due to the quantitative nature of the main survey versus the qualitative nature of the pilot study, which was analysed to give quantitative results, or due to the modifications in gamification design between the two surveys, is unknown. Regardless, the two surveys demonstrate agreement in the tenor of response. Table III also shows that the two cohorts of students surveyed in the main study had remarkable similar overall responses, well within a standard deviation of each. In the questions of most interest to the discussion here, the questions concerning enjoyment, understanding and usefulness of gamification for university teaching, the results were almost identical. Given this, it appears reasonable to treat those participants as a single group.

It can be seen that the students generally had a highly positive view of the gamification design and its value for their learning (Q1, Q2 and Q6 in the pilot study, Q1, Q2 and Q3 in the main study). However, the students did not perceive the experience of their gamified learning as being very similar to playing an actual game (Q7 and Q8 in the pilot study, Q4 and Q5 in the main study). The responses were quite consistent across the participants, shown by the relative low values for standard deviation.

Results for the question on the use of the software to track progress (Q4 in the pilot study, Q7 in the main study) are shown in Table IV. It will be noted that the results are distinctly different from those of the questions relating to enjoyment and usefulness of the gamification. Even many students that liked the in-class gamification did not use the software, one such student replying in the open-ended response to Q7 in the main survey “Nope, didn’t care”. For such students, enjoyment and the learning experience appear to matter more than abstract quantification, which is a pedagogically desirable result.

Note that Q3 and Q5 in the pilot study and Q6 and Q8 in the main study were not amenable to numeric analysis.

It is clear from the actual responses that many students found the gamification enjoyable and productive. In total, 58 per cent of the respondents to the main survey gave agree or strongly agree responses to Q1, with only 14 per cent giving responses of disagree or strongly disagree. The results were even stronger in the pilot study. This is reflected in comments such as:

  • It was very helpful and gave me motivation to study.

  • It was a great way to engage with and go over the content.

  • Makes class more fun and engaging.

These were not the only responses that mentioned motivation/engagement. That students should volunteer this, when it was not directly mentioned in the question, is very positive, given that it is one of the main underlying motivations for our use of gamification. Other comments focussed on the enjoyment aspects, for example:

  • It was fun and entertaining.

  • It adds an element of fun to tutorials.

Despite the generally positive nature of the responses, it is worth noting that among the minority of students that disliked the gamification approach, many were highly negative, for example:

  • childish, ineffective for learning; and

  • time wasting.

Responses to Q2 showed that students were generally positive about the effects of the gamification on their learning, but not to same extent as they found it enjoyable. The average here is lower (45 per cent of the respondents to the main survey gave agree or strongly agree responses) and the standard deviation higher, though still only 21 per cent, gave responses of disagree or strongly disagree. This mixed view is demonstrated by comments such as:

  • It did get me to read the readings. I don’t know if it actually helped my understanding though.

  • Didn’t really affect understanding, just interest.

Students are not always the best judge of their own learning, and it is likely that a student who engages with the unit material will develop a better understanding than one that does not. Other responses were more plainly positive, such as:

  • It helped reinforce what was in the readings and lectures.

  • It encouraged me to read and examine the unit material.

The different responses to Q1 and Q2 are a useful reminder that students can perceive the difference between an enjoyable experience and one that enhances their learning. However, it is worth noting that 14 per cent of respondents across all surveys had a response for Q1 that was a lower value than their response to Q2, and the vast majority of such cases had responses that differed only by a value of one. While enjoyment and learning are different phenomena, these results imply that in gamification the two are correlated.

Q3 in the main survey and Q6 in the pilot survey directly addressed whether the students considered the gamification a productive approach for their learning. The overall result, as shown in Tables II and III, was positive and comparable to those for Q1 and Q2, with 56 per cent of the respondents to the main survey giving agree or strongly agree responses to Q3, with only 14 per cent giving responses of disagree or strongly disagree. Some of the student comments were very direct, such as:

  • Yep, because it encourages participation.

  • Makes tutorial more engaging.

  • Yes!!! Motivates self-learning and improvement.

The last response also identifies a positive effect on motivation as a result of the gamification.

However, such responses should not be taken as signalling that gamification is the solution to all issues of student engagement. For example, the following responses indicate doubts about its universal applicability:

  • For me I do think it is but it may not be for other courses and students.

  • For this unit, definitely. This technique is probably niche however. Would not work in most other units.

  • Only in certain units – this unit lent itself well to gamification because it itself is about games.

The last comment illustrates a separate pedagogical issue, that gamification activities must be relevant to the material. In games and media units, this may be easier to achieve than in, for example, accounting. This is not to say that this cannot be achieved, but methods for doing so are outside the scope of the current work.

It is also interesting to note that these positive effects can be achieved without strong interaction with supporting software. Only just over 26 per cent (52 of 199) participants across all surveys reported using the gamification software to track their progress. This is a dramatically lower rate than those who found the gamification useful and/or enjoyable. Interestingly, while all those who used the software found the gamification enjoyable, not all of them found it helpful to the learning. Of the 47 software users, 20 gave neutral or negative answers to Q2. Usage of gamification software cannot be directly linked to student perception of the usefulness of the in-class gamification activities to their learning.

Not only did very few students use the software, very few of them perceived the gamification software as particularly game-like. This can be seen in the responses to Q4 and Q5 in main survey and Q7 and Q8 in the pilot survey. It is worth noting the disjunct between perceptions of the gamification as game-like (students considered it not to be) and its enjoyability and usefulness (students considered it was). This indicates that making gamification game-like does not need to be a high-design priority in creating such learning activities.

Students did identify some aspects as game-like. The ability to earn and spend points, particularly titles, were noted in a number of student responses. One student even compared the activity to a “management sim” due to the need to balance point spending between items considered entertaining (such as the titles) versus options that may have actual utility (particularly teammates). Despite this individual observation, the lack of a link between game-like nature of the software and the enjoyability/usefulness of the activity appears to be a significant finding.

Conclusion

The results of the student surveys show that a majority of students both enjoyed the gamification in the class and could see the benefits of it to their learning, giving a positive answer to both part of the research question. This implies that gamification is a useful technique for addressing student engagement and motivation. Despite this, it should be noted that there was still a significant minority that had negative views. While gamification should be considered as part of the suite of tools to address issues with student motivation, it should not be viewed as a magic bullet and the distinctive learning styles of individual students always need to be considered. There is also the limitation to this study that the participants were studying media and games-related units, and so might be thought to have a bias towards game-related activities. Balancing this is that the majority of students did not find the gamified classroom activities particularly game-like.

Our gamification design was based on three principles: relatedness, competency and autonomy. Relatedness was achieved by having the activities take place in a class environment. Students could observe the performance of others and compare it their own. The titles and group activities (both tasks and group formation) allowed students to interact with their peers and teacher. Competency was required to answer the quiz questions and perform the tasks. The point rewards were independent of the performance of others, providing for autonomy and competence. This was enhanced by the ability to select rewards by the expenditure of points, providing students with individual rewards that were independent of the selections of others. This sense of control (for example in the selection of team members) is important in providing autonomy.

The in-class gamification design, not being based in software, was selective in its use of game design elements. Points are a long-established feature of games. Challenges also existed, but were directly related to course material (for example the quiz questions) and not something that had to be overcome to access the course material. Titles are a feature that appears in certain games (e.g. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online). In those games, they appear popular with players, as with the students in this study, but in neither case relate directly to the central mechanics of gameplay. They are, however, important examples of self-expression, allowing students (and players) to distinguish themselves from others. The results of the surveys allow us to conclude that the majority of students found the gamification enjoyable and productive.

Despite this use of game-design elements, it is worth remembering that students did not find the experience of the gamification software to be particularly game-like. This did not impact on the success of the non-software-based gamification activities. This implies that it is careful selection of design elements that is important in successful gamification, not in providing an overall game-like experience. A design which attempts to be game-like while sacrificing either an enjoyable experience or the principles identified by Groh will, we contend, lead to unsuccessful gamification. Game design elements chosen must be strongly linked to at least one of the principles as a rationale for including them in the gamification design. At its base, this is simple pedagogical principle, as learners need to understand the reason for their learning and be able to display their individual achievements.

It is worth noting that a very small number of participants had a very negative experience. It can be seen from Table V that it is a minority, with the percentage of negative or very negative responses to Q1 and Q2 and in the main survey ranging from 14 to 21 per cent, but a minority which still represents a significant number of students. Some of their comments have been given above, others include:

  • It felt like it was infanatising (sic) the class.

  • I believe that gamification is a futile attempt at encouraging students to voluntarily engage in a learning style that I see no value in.

That this body of students exists should come as no surprise, as individual learning styles can differ markedly and what is appropriate for one student may be counter-productive to another. As well as adhering to Groh’s principles and carefully selecting design elements accordingly, allowance needs to be made for those learners who may not find gamification a productive experience.

The surveys administered in the course of this work asked questions on whether the gamification software produced a game-like experience. Fairly comprehensively, the overall population reported that it did not. As much gamification has drawn on videogame design, we wished to examine whether supporting software which delivered a game-like experience was necessary to productive gamification. Given the majority positive responses to the questions on enjoyment and usefulness, we would contend that game-like software is not a requirement for successful gamification. In future, work we intend to continue to develop the gamification activities and examine how game-like students perceive the in-class (non-software) activities to be.

Based on the results presented here, we would claim that gamification can be enjoyable and educationally beneficial for a majority of students. The design of gamification requires careful attention to underlying principles which will support student participation and success. Software which supports gamification does not have to deliver a game-like experience for the benefits of gamification to be realised. However, it must be remembered that a gamification-based approach may not suit the learning styles of all students.

Figures

Our gamification software (sample only)

Figure 1.

Our gamification software (sample only)

Sample administrative interface

Figure 2.

Sample administrative interface

Titles and their costs

Cost Title
2 Gamification points Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, Sir, Dame, Lady, Lord, Professor, Mistress
4 Gamification points Duke, Duchess, Baron, Baroness, General, Prince, Princess, King, Queen, Emperor, Empress, Tsar, President, Darth
6 Gamification points The Great, The Wise, The Wonderful, The Terrible, The Impaler
8 Gamification points Queen of Dragons, Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, The King’s Hand, Lord/Lady of Winterfell, Lord President of Gallifrey, The War Doctor, Jedi Master, Lord of the Sith, The Boy Who Lived
10 Gamification points Supreme Ruler of Universe, God of All Things, Destroyer of Worlds, He Who Cannot be Named

Pilot survey numerical results

Question Average Std deviation
1 4.4 1.0
2 3.7 1.4
6 4.1 1.2
7 2.6 1.5
8 1.8 1.3

Main survey numerical results

Question First year class average Third year class average Overall average Overall std deviation
1 3.6 3.7 3.6 1.0
2 3.3 3.3 3.3 1.1
3 3.6 3.6 3.6 1.0
4 2.5 2.1 2.4 1.2
5 2.1 1.8 2.1 1.0

Use of gamification software to track progress

Study Yes No No answer
Pilot study 9 25 5
Main study 38 119 3

Distribution of responses Q1, Q2, Q3 in main survey

Response question Q1 (%) Q2 (%) Q3 (%)
Strongly agree 16.9 13.7 18.7
Agree 41.9 31.2 36.9
Neutral 27.5 33.8 30
Disagree 10 11.9 11.3
Strongly disagree 3.7 9.4 3.1

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Corresponding author

Michael Hitchens is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: michael.hitchens@mq.edu.au

About the authors

Michael Hitchens is a Lecturer in video gaming and computer security at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. His research in videogames focuses on player experience, story and narrative in games and the relationship between player and player character. His recent work includes an examination of the relationship between contemporary contexts and design choices in opponents in first person shooters and the development of a framework to quantify player’s involvement in video games.

Rowan Tulloch is a Lecturer in digital media and video gaming at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. His research looks at the technological and cultural logics embodied within practices of interactivity. His work on video gaming explores the pedagogy of video games and the normalising forces used to teach, coerce and compel players to engage in certain privileged ways to construct the intended play experience. His recent research has focused on the effectiveness of different models of gamification in the university classroom environment. From this research, he has formulated new frameworks for conceptualising gamification and is developing a software package to assist university staff to better engage their students through simple gamification techniques.