Games have always had a place at school but are most often thought of as a pastime in the playground.

However, game-based learning (using games) or gamification (turning the learning process into a game by applying game principles, such as points) is being used increasingly as an effective way of educating and motivating students.

The emergence of video games, apps and online tools has helped to create a vast wealth of opportunities for these learning styles.

New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) senior researcher Rachel Bolstad says game-based learning can have the most impact when there is a fluid exploration of all kinds of games, including playing and creating video games, board games and physical games.

“Games can be really effective and contribute to particular kinds of learning; different games have different learning concepts and different outcomes.”

For example, students who have the time and space to properly learn how to create their own online games can have massive learning gains in terms of creativity, collaboration, problem solving and negotiation.

“When game design happens in a learning environment, it parallels the authentic processes in the game design industry but at a smaller scale.”

Making learning fun

Wellington High School science teacher Tony Cairns is a big believer in game-based learning in all forms.

“Gamification for me is making learning fun, joyous and fascinating,” he says.

A lot of traditional learning is a teacher trying to tell students information, but when students interact with the same subject through a game, they are more motivated, retain information and build social skills, he says.

“I see it as the future of entertainment and education.”

At present, Cairns’ students are learning about the colonisation of New Zealand but instead of just hearing the facts, all subjects are using different methods to help them gain a deeper understanding and engagement of the topic.

They are using board games, navigation, art and even Minecraft to help with this, he says.

Students are using Minecraft to experience Captain Cook’s voyage themselves, including the perils of scurvy.

“It’s not just teacher in front of students telling them what happened. Kids doing it for themselves, that’s where the revolution is.”

Careful implementation needed

University of Auckland senior lecturer in technology education and chair of the Technology Education New Zealand national council Kerry Lee says game-based learning can be useful but needs to be implemented properly.

Minecraft, for example, can be an engaging and helpful tool if used for a specific learning purpose with discussions and indepth analysis, she says, but if it is just used as a reward or without structure then it is does not aid learning.

Dr Paul Denny from the University of Auckland, who has done research on gamification through an existing online learning tool for tertiary students, says game elements need to be carefully designed so they reward behaviours that are known to positively impact learning.

“In my research, I have found that gamification is a very effective motivator for some students, but not very effective for others.

“The good news, at least in the work I have done with PeerWise [the University of Auckland’s interactive assessment guide for students], is that there haven’t been any negative outcomes; for example, students do not appear to have been demotivated or discouraged as a result of the gamification.”

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