Imagine a classroom where learning is not merely made of boards, screens, presentations, and students’ desks, but an engaging adventure taking our children to perilous jungles, futuristic starships, or opening their risk-free business franchise, all from the comfort and safety of their gaming chair and gaming device. Imagine a classroom where students do not just study concepts but also experience them, where learning is not a chore, but a choice-driven journey filled with challenges and rewards.
For us gamers (especially old-school gamers like myself), this world is not all that imaginary. I have been playing video games since 1985, when my father brought home an Atari 2600 console with three games. I remember it being hooked up to the Grundig colour cathode-ray tube television that we all remember from early 80’s Malta, and suddenly, joystick in hand, the Missile Command cartridge in the console, I was a six-year-old defending six different cities from a missile attack which rained down on them in fast moving vector lines. I was developing my reaction time, reasoning, prediction of movement, hand-to-eye coordination and many other transversal skills applicable to any future I could have picked.
Games have obviously developed since then and I would directly call out all my gamer friends and ask them how much World War 2 history they have learnt from games like ‘Medal of Honor’ and ‘Call of Duty 1 and 2’? How many Flight Simulator users feel confident that they could land a commercial plane with the help of the Instrumental landing system and help from the control tower, should an emergency arise? I bet there are quite a few who would say yes. I myself am proud to say I captained and commanded a crew of real human players in different roles (engineering, helm, weapons…) on the bridge of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise in Virtual Reality, in the game “Star Trek: Bridge Crew”. Pity I cannot add that to my CV, but I can assure you that the complexity of thought and decision-making involved in captaining all those different elements and leading real human players in virtual reality, is a great feat of leadership nonetheless. Imagine all the skills students can gain from such an experience.
A few years ago I was in Russia and had the opportunity to go trap shooting with an over-and-under competitive shotgun. I could not say no to such an experience and believe it or not, after simply getting some form and pointers from the shooting-range Marshall, I was hitting the fast-moving targets like I had always been doing on a video game. The Marshall then asked if I had done this before and if perhaps I was pranking him by acting like it was my first time. It was indeed my first time shooting a gun, but I had done so many times, in Counter Strike Source, Call of Duty, and Battlefield before. Was it simply a matter of confidence-building? Was it something more cognitive-behavioral, in which my brain was rewired in some way or another to improve my performance in that task through the games? In the end my answer to the Marshall was, “I only shoot guns in video games, never in real life before now.”
This potential of wiring up our brains and learning with digital games was not something new, however. The US Army back in 2002, published the first-person shooter game called “America’s Army”, intended to inform, educate, and even recruit prospective soldiers. The project was only shut down 20 years later but more than 13 million players have registered America’s Army accounts over the years, with more than 260 million hours played on various titles of the product. It has sparked great interest and given many young people a lot of information, as they engaged in tactical simulations. Now imagine if this engagement were to be received in games that were tied to curricula and formal education, and why not, even our job training.
Gamification is the process of learning involving the strategic implementation of game elements and mechanics into our students’ or trainees’ educational journeys, to promote engagement, motivation and enhancing the quality and standards of our learning outcomes. Let’s face it – human beings, not just children, want to play and want to have fun. Games are fun, so we should teach with games.
I still remember my first teaching experience as a Personal and Social Development (PSD) teacher 19 years ago, and I was warned to call the games I used in class (which were not digital at all) as “ice breakers” or “experiential learning experiences”, or “activities”, because “we do not want to get the reputation that PSD is the subject where all we do is play.” Well… how the tables have turned. Now that I work as a Head of Department in Ethics Education (with the Ministry for Education, Sport, Youth, Research and Innovation in Malta), not only do I support games, but I support the whole process of gamification through digital media, which is how most of our children are playing today, and those of my generation of gamers, still do. After all, who decided that playing has to stop once we grow up?
The benefits of gamification are being widely studied and we are already getting many published statistics, especially from the US, that speak for themselves, and many are just proving what we already knew through common sense. The below are some highlights from a number of studies:
- Challenge-based gamification can improve student performance by 89.45% compared to lecture-based education, with data coming from an experiment in Greece with higher education students studying statistics
- Gamification led to a 65% increase in engagement when workers engaged in online training courses;
- Game-based learning is showing a boost of up to 40% memory recall. Those of us who are parents, we can all see how our children learn hundreds of names of Pokemon and their evolution effortlessly. It is amazing what a young, motivated, engaged brain can memorise and recall.
- 300% higher homework completion when using gamified courses. Of course – homework is suddenly fun!
- Assessment shows how gamification improved students’ understanding of the curriculum by 75.5%. The students also wanted gamification for other subjects.
- 73% of children with ADHD experiencing gamified learning, reported a lasting improvement in their attention span. If one had to look at the children excelling at eSports, we can see how beneficial gamified learning can be for neuro-diverse students.
John Dewey, a progressive pioneer of education is quoted saying “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results” (1916).
This quote highlights the importance of experiential learning, which is a fundamental component of gamified learning; gamification indeed epitomises this philosophy. For instance, Minecraft: Education Edition can transform abstract concepts into immersive experiences, that are built by the students themselves. Instead of reading from a textbook about ancient civilization, students can build and navigate the ancient complex of Chichen Itza and visualize more and imagine what it would have been like to be a Maya climbing up the staircase of the temple of Kukulcan. In this perspective from Dewey, we certainly need to provide our students with engaging activities that require problem-solving and critical thinking, which we definitely know games often provide.
Dewey is also in fact quoted saying “we only think when confronted by a problem” (1910). I would certainly bet that our students will be more engaged in solving mathematical calculations in Roleplay games in order to level up their characters, than a traditional math problem presented as a story sum involving 6 oranges and 10 parsnips, and again, those of us who are parents or work very closely with children, know this to be true. Games are full of complex puzzles and challenges that students find great motivation in facing and solving.
Dewey is not the only thinker that speaks about the importance of problem-solving. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator known for his work on critical pedagogy, also offers insights into this. Freire’s idea of ‘problem-posing’ education, where teachers and students learn together through dialogue and problem-solving, aligns with the interactive and problem-based nature of gamified learning. Memorising concepts will never be as effective as posing a problem for students to solve.
Freire also rejected the “banking concept” of education, where students are seen as merely recipients of knowledge, in which information is “deposited” as it were, only to see how much of it was retained as it is regurgitated on an examination booklet. Freire prescribed a more student-centered approach, insisting that students should not be passive, but rather active participants in their own education. This fully aligns with gamification models, where students can level up at their own pace, learn at their own pace, explore different rabbit holes of learning which could be provided even by AI technology at their own pace, build neurological connections that make sense to them especially if they are neurodivergent, and repeat the same levels of the game, or the same interaction of an AI to consolidate the learning and improve performance and mastery. The benefits of gamification and self-directed learning for students are enormous and only limited to one’s imagination.
“Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Another Deweyan quote that immediately, more than a century later, resonates with gamification of learning, because gamification blurs the line between learning and living, providing simulated experiences that mirror life’s complexity and dynamism. For instance, a game like “Animal Crossing” immerses players in a vibrant and virtual world where they manage a community of anthropomorphized animals. The game mirrors real-life experiences like building relationships, managing resources, understanding economics through buying and selling, and exploring biodiversity. One can even contribute to the local community and its learning and make money and pay back mortgages, and all this is packaged in a cute looking game with an ESRB rating for all ages. Imagine what such a game could contribute to the curriculum from Primary level all the way to higher education.
I believe that it is now the right time for Malta to research and explore gamification as much as possible, especially in our upcoming educational strategies. To take Dewey’s advice, “if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Gamification needs to complement our educational system in order to improve it, improve quality and standards, as well as get more children excited about their learning journey. We need to explore the creation of tailor-made tools for our curriculum and syllabi and this is up to us educators who can bring about these changes in pedagogy. Education Officers and their teams, need to provide more up-to-date professional development to promote and adopt the use of innovative emerging technologies such as gamified learning in their subjects.
We are now in an era of rapid digital transformation, and it is crucial that as educators we keep up with this pace and remain relevant. Even the exponential growth of Artificial Intelligence is something nobody can stop or avoid. AI is also part of gamification, and a game could be a perfect setting to start teaching children how to use and prompt a collaborative AI tool. Some developers like Axon Park, are literally creating such learning tools.
Gamification of learning engages not only the digital natives of today, but also us, the gen X-ers, Xennials and Millennials who are teaching them, and grew up to learn how to learn these games rather than being native to them. It will make learning interactive, enjoyable, and enriching for all, educators and students alike. More importantly, gamification equips students with 21st-century skills and transversal learning, like problem-solving, collaboration, and digital literacy. If we choose to procrastinate gamification, we risk rendering our educational systems outdated, losing generations by failing to prepare them for a future driven by technology and innovation. For these reasons, exploring and moving towards gamified learning, is not just beneficial, but urgent and it is essential to nurture well-rounded, individuals for the future.