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Kevin Bell

Johns Hopkins University Press

Almost everyone gets some pleasure out of games. But Kevin Bell, pro vice chancellor of digital futures at Western Sydney University, sees potential for more than just fun in the principles that govern games.

In his new book, Game On: Gamification, Gameful Design and the Rise of the Gamer Educator (Johns Hopkins University Press), Bell explores the role that the ethos of gaming is already having and could have in the higher education classroom. He lays out the differences between gamification and gameful design, examines case studies at institutions including the University of South Florida and the University of New Hampshire, and aims toward conclusions about the future of this slice of education innovation.

Bell answered questions by email about the book and his broader thoughts on digital learning. A transcript, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Q: What are the core attributes of gamification that meaningfully improve the student experience? Are there certain kinds of courses or disciplines that benefit more from this approach than others?

A: My book focuses on the concept of gameful design rather than gamification, a subtle distinction but an important one. Gamifying equates to making a game of an activity. Gameful design looks at the concepts and intrinsic motivators that are embedded in successful games (and in other nongame activities), and asks whether we can replicate those elements, or layer them onto classroom and online activities. The goal is moving towards flow where engagement becomes seamless and (even) compulsive, rather than dreaded and/or labored.

Because there are so many ways that gameful design can be layered on or applied, no discipline is ruled out. However, when looking at elements like narrative, subjects that have a lot of situations or potential scenarios where judgment calls are involved -- ethics, statistics, philosophy -- are easy fits. The book covers philosophy, terrorism, business ethics, economics and princess fairy tales, so that doesn’t rule much out (clearly).

Q: Can students who don’t have a history of playing digital games be put at a disadvantage when the curriculum is gamified? Are there steps instructors can take to ensure those students don’t get left behind?

A: When I teach on this subject, I discuss many nongame activities where engagement gets to flow -- the state where engagement results in time seeming to pass quickly (Csíkszentmihályi). A good book, a good movie; I would say, ask not about the game, dig into why it engaged. Some people definitely will demur at the thought of anything gamified. I advise people to be careful of the making-everything-a-quest route, though one practitioner in the book did an excellent job of this.

When I review the cases and present the elements likely to motivate, I advise people to focus on two or three at a time. That could be two elements like level of challenge and aesthetics -- focusing simply on better challenging and maintenance of students’ interest and making it visually interesting. Most students, in my experience, are thrilled to have an instructor try anything different. The cases in the book are technically very simple: there are no complex implementations that would take either gamer dexterity or competitive mind-set to engage with.

Q: Many faculty members are reticent to embrace change. How widespread could this approach become, and what would it take to convince faculty members that they should try it?

A: I think the common question and main challenge apparent to many academic staff is the issue of student (lack of) engagement. My role in working on this research has been to leverage a foot-in-two-camps perspective and show how gameful design can enhance or emphasize principles of which most educators are very much aware. Looking again at something like level of challenge: most staff that I have discussed this with have agreed that appropriate level of challenge is a target of theirs (no one wants to deliberately confuse, nor do we want to bore with oversimplicity).

Ditto immediate, corrective feedback; we tend to agree that keeping students in the dark about how they’re doing is not helpful but we can’t be 24-7 in the learning management system. Gameful design can help with these, and other issues. Students get immediate feedback from every social and technical system they interact with, except our academic ones. These principles can be applied only to the elements faculty recognize they would like help with -- it is not an on/off switch.

Q: One of the professors in the book mentions the possibility that gamification sends a message to students that the material is boring and needs to be enlivened. That same idea can be applied to almost any technological innovation in the classroom. Does that perception affect students’ willingness to accept new forms of teaching? Does it undermine the value of the material itself?

A: I agree that chasing new technical innovation can give that message. Much of my career I have spent a rear-guard action suggesting that “perhaps you don’t need to chase the shiny new tech.” I see myself as a tech-savvy skeptic. A frequent question I keep going back to is “What are you trying to achieve with this implementation?” I actually don’t see gameful design as a technology at all -- more a concept and a means of looking at one’s own practices in the light of intrinsic (student) motivators and assessing how one’s teaching could be made more engaging.

Game narrative and shiny tech are last on my list of suggested enhancements. I continue to talk people out of premature tech builds -- games (and gamefully designed courses) are very delicate things that need iterations and a lot of tweaking. After trial run six or seven, then I might contemplate a more formal/technical build-out. Prior to that, level of challenge, feedback mechanisms, aesthetics all need iterative calibration and fine-tuning.

Regarding the potential undermining of course material, the whole concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation focuses on how the elements need to be embedded within the content and materials. A lot of “gamification” projects have focused way too much on the extrinsic; what Phil Trippenbach memorably described as “cherry cough syrup,” also referred to as chocolate-covered broccoli -- a veneer covering something quite unpalatable. If we do this right, the learning itself is motivating, helped by some gameful elements. Cooperation, collaboration, competition and reduced fear of failure are others covered in the book that can be factored in without too much shiny tech and without detracting from the core materials.

Cover of Game On: Gamification, Gameful Design and the Rise of the Gamer Educator by Kevin BellQ: Some of the courses highlighted in the book emphasize competition among students. At a time when institutions are increasing the role of teamwork and collaborative learning in the curriculum, does gamification push in the other direction?

A: I don’t believe so. The book talks of quite a few C’s -- cooperation, collaboration and, yes, competition, but that can be competition against self; time limits/rules etc. Or as Professor Kevin Yee described, a contingent hero dependency (a.k.a. the Harry Potter protocol), with low-risk (team) competition leveraging team support and peer encouragement with “10 points for Gryffindor!” This is reflective of authentic real-world conditions -- working in teams but in a competitive landscape.

All of the cases in the book emphasize peer feedback and social aspects of the learning experience over the competition, but the C’s are still worth considering; the one example where a leader board is implemented (University of Waterloo), the participants are anonymized so participants can see only their position, not the placing of peers.

Q: Why should institutions invest in gamification, given the additional demands it imposes on faculty members’ already limited time, and the potential risk of not improving the learning process as much as such an innovation should?

A: The main challenge for 21st-century higher ed is its relevance to the evolving student body. If we look at our learning management systems, they have not fundamentally changed since the late ’90s. To now compare them to the gamefully designed apps that students are spending hours and hours a day engaging with, we cannot be surprised that we are failing to engage. Our traditional undergraduate students in 2018 are not playing games, they are engaging with gamefully designed apps.

The reason I got into this work was the simple question of whether we can learn from the Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram models, not to copy them but to ponder why our students go there so often and so willingly, yet would rather stab themselves in the eye with a fork than spend time engaging with our materials? The answer to this is the thoughtful implementation of extremely motivating intrinsic elements in the case of the latter and the deferred maintenance, or lack of evolution, of our academic environments based on an early 2000s “if we post it, they will come” mind-set. That mind-set has to change. Production quality has risen and freely available online, web-based technology now allows us to self-serve and implement elements that would have required serious programming skills even only two to three years ago.

It does take a significant amount of time to develop any online materials; my book suggests that with some upfront thought, there are savings that can be gleaned by using resources that are freely available and by ramping up student engagement via elements that are conceptual, sometimes technical or even philosophical. They do not need to place even more onus on instructor-obligate bespoke development.

Even in these early stages … there is enough evidence to indicate that these principles are worth a go. Enhancements can be incremental, low to free in cost and will provide benefits on both student and institutional sides. The book goes into aspects such as unconscious bias (Professor Petruzella at MCLA) and the power of (Facebook-esque) narrative (Professor Niman and UNH) that suggest even greater potential than we at first imagined.

Q: You briefly allude to an anecdotal sense that middle-aged men are more likely to experiment with gamification than people in other demographic groups. What can be done to account for this potential disparity?

A: The comment was more of a realization that that age (my own) was the first one that grew up with arcade games like Space Invaders and the first in-home video games (Atari, Binatone, Pong/Breakout, etc.). It may well be also that when at conferences I talk predominantly to middle-aged men like me or they speak to me (see “unconscious bias” in my last answer). I have taught a short course on gamification/gameful design around six to eight times over the last two or three years and my breakdown is typically 70 to 80 percent female, 20 to 30 percent male, so the interest there is gender irrespective. In the book, I make the statement that in this early stage and in the early stages of any new concept, early-career academics may prefer to stick with "the book" and not take risks. As these concepts get established and their efficacy proven beyond a reasonable doubt, senior administrators will, I believe, be actively seeking out those instructors whose instruction is gameful, and positively encouraging others to be more like them.

Q: Is the gamification concept a fad, as some argue, or a phenomenon that will last? What will push it from the former to the latter?

A: I’m with you; gamification is/was a bit of a fad. Too soon with low funding and technology that required way too much effort to develop games that could not possibly rival the major game developers. Educational games that didn’t educate terribly well and weren’t really fun! For those who feel the need to focus on the tech, emerging AR/VR and artificial intelligence tools are evolving and becoming cheaper (I’d still give it a couple of years).

Gameful design underpins gamification, but it also underpins and can be used to assess, review and enhance anyone’s teaching now and at low to no cost.

The terminology may become moot -- I may get tired of stressing gameful design over gamification; the underlying intrinsic motivators are the key here. Gameful pulls more of them together, under one roof, than any other concept or principle that I came across during my doctoral work. Someone may end up coming up with a better term but, irrespective, I do hope that we don’t let our academic materials and systems work slide into irrelevance while we wait for terminology to be polished or made universally acceptable. For now, I would say, ignore the hype, explore the concepts. Skepticism is fine, but so is giving it a go, reducing your own fear of failure and hopefully, in the process, that of your students.

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