Educational games vs. “gamification”

An article on Slate.com by Chris Berdik describes the distinction between using games to reward students for learning (“gamificaton”) and using games to capture the intrinsic fun of learning. An example of “gamification”  would be a math game that rewards correct answers to math drills with a short shooting-stuff video game, animations, or points. The problem with this model, according to the article, is that students learn that the subject matter (e.g. math) is a means to an end – that getting the boring math over with allows you to reach a fun reward. It doesn’t foster any love of the subject matter or inspire students.

Instead, the researchers of MIT’s Education Arcade believe that educational games can capture what is inherently fun or inspiring about the subject matter – for example, that math allows us to solve real-world problems – and put that into a game. They have produced a game called The Radix Endeavor that is aimed at middle- and high school students and covers topics in math and biology. The game is highly complex and large-scale, and involves both individual and cooperative tasks – and is freely available online. It is not designed to replace classroom instruction, but to supplement it by giving students a place to apply their knowledge.

This type of game is clearly a more ambitious undertaking than a simple drill-and-reward type game (which may still have a role as a review tool), but with really exciting implications. It’s sometimes hard to make students see applications for what they learn in an introductory course, when the real-world application may be years away – a game is of course not exactly “real world” but still provides some motivation and excitement about what is being taught in class. An inquiry-based game that gives students room to fail at some tasks without “failing” in a real sense, and to work through frustrating problems using their knowledge, has the potential to teach much more about how science works than anything I could say in front of the class.

More about The Radix Endeavor can be found around the web:

Next Gen Learning Blog

Boston.com State of Play

Games and Learning

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