Playing With Higher Education: Why Games Work

Posted June 3, 2015

By Tom Heinzen


When was the last time a student turned in an exam and then begged the professor, “That was so much fun! Would you let me take it again, but next time, please, make it a little more difficult!”? No? Well, that happens all the time in game design. In fact, the extravagant promise of game design to higher education is that we can induce academic persistence even in students labeled as “unmotivated,” “poorly prepared,” or “just not ready for college.” Many of those same students will hurry home after class in order to spend the next eight hours playing a difficult video game, learning from and teaching fellow players, managing complex on-line relationships, and figuring out constantly changing rules. They’re doing all the stuff we want them to do for a grade while they are working much harder to experience the pure joy of a hard-won achievement. Higher education has a lot to learn from game designers.

What is it about playing games that creates such extraordinary persistence? A mash-up of definitions produces the idea that play is the voluntary expenditure of exuberant energy in an aimless activity: voluntary, energy consuming, and pointless. The definition of a game is just as important: A form of play that creates arbitrary obstacles to make it more difficult to achieve a specific goal: rules and goals. My cousin and I were just “playing” when we kicked an empty box down the sidewalk of a New York City street; but we starting “playing a game” when we invented a competition to see who could kick the box the farthest. What, specifically, can professors and curriculum designers learn from game designers? Here are four principles of game design that can get you started:

1. The Experience. A game designer delivers an experience. None of the other game mechanics (and there are many!) matter if the overall experience doesn’t work. I once saw an independently produced movie with some actor friends. They suddenly started laughing in the middle of a serious scene because they had both spotted a boom mike dipping into the tippy top of the screen. But they still loved the film because it delivered a satisfying experience even though some of the filmmaking mechanics were sloppy. The overall experience of a course is more important than the mechanics of the delivery system.

2. Onboarding. Game designers recognize that onboarding is the single most critical moment in a game – and there are many critical moments. But onboarding is the moment that initially grabs the person’s attention; it makes players want to play and students want to learn. Some professors already design the first moments in the same way that a skillful writer engages a readers. Onboarding is a creative opportunity to make a sticky first impression.

3. Flow Zone. The flow zone of a game gradually ratchets up the level of difficulty and accomplishment by balancing rewards against discouragement in ways that shift the experience from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Many classic games, such as Tetris, create a flow zone by gradually speeding up play. The flow zone is how we gradually move students to higher levels of achievement.

4. Useful Failure. In higher education, failure leads to threats – of a lower grade, an embarrassing trip to the Dean, or being expelled. Even our point systems promote a fear of failing because every wrong answer on an exam “lowers” your grade. But that’s not how humans learn! Toddlers learning to walk experience repeated, painful failures but they persevere probably because a) walking looks like fun; b) walking gets them more of what they want right away; and c) everyone else is doing it. Game designers can help educators use the experience of failure more effectively.

For those who are new to game design, let’s pause in order to clear up three common misunderstandings. First, we are not interested in turning higher education into a giant game of Jeopardy – students (and professors) may not even know that they are being influenced by principles of game design. Second, a game-based course does not dumb down course content – to the contrary, a game-based course is more difficult because it moves students further faster, and with more creativity and enthusiasm. Third, think of game design as engagement science – a cognitive exercise that uses scientific principles to manipulate and sustain attention for an extended period of time.

In sum, games are only good for one thing in higher education – but it does that one thing extraordinarily well: motivate. Games motivate in dozens of different ways (called game mechanics) but games don’t teach – they motivate learning. Games also can’t assess – but they can measure learning (in new ways) from motivated students. Here are some of the topics for future blog posts. We will . . .

  1. introduce you to many of the people, laboratories, and graduate programs already working in applied game design,
  2. review the meanings of play in the psychological literature,
  3. demonstrate how the language of game design matches established principles of psychological science,
  4. describe some easy-to-understand game mechanics that can reframe a course without anyone knowing that the course has been “gamified,”
  5. describe the many ways that higher education is already a poorly designed game,
  6. help you create authentic, game-based assessments measured by TAPAS that relegate multiple choice tests to the minor role they deserve to play,
  7. share the unfolding empirical research about game designs such as points in a syllabus – a simple game mechanic that professors can immediately apply to their courses,
  8. alert you to common traps that others have fallen into by foolishly slapping on rewards and badges without the benefit of good data and critical thinking, and
  9. encourage you to conduct and share the results of simple experiments that can refine and secure the developing knowledge base about games in higher education.

In 2015, the APA is offering a symposium of game-based applications to diabetes management, aging, education, assessment, and much more. Game labs are popping up independently and in universities. Game conferences are proliferating. So, if you are thinking about or playing with game design to improve the art of your teaching and learning, then watch this space…

[Tom Heinzen is a professor at William Paterson University, works in game design for higher education, has authored with Susan Nolan a statistics textbook, and is an interdisciplinary methods geek He has published peer-reviewed articles as experiments, case studies, quasi-experiments, focus groups, surveys, theoretical models, novels about teaching psychology, several book chapters, academic books, a history about Clever Hans and facilitated communication, and even edited a book of poetry by nursing home residents. Game design is especially appealing because it is a natural home for interdisciplinary applications.]