Oct 18 2013

The Awesome Power of Gaming in Higher Education

EDUCAUSE 2013 welcomes Jane McGonigal and considers the potential of games in education.

Games designer, author and researcher Jane McGonigal sees a future in education where MOOCs, live events and ordinary gamification initiatives all blend into a new way of learning, creating “extreme learning environments” full of opportunities for play and creation.

McGonigal’s address Thursday at EDUCAUSE showed off many new types of games that are already well on their way to creating the future she described.

“We normally think of games as being fun, kind of trivial, maybe something to pass the time, but what if we thought about them as a platform for inventing the future of higher education?”

McGonigal is the author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin Press, 2011) and the former director of Games Research and Development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. McGonigal’s research focuses on how games can transform real life and be used to increase players’ resilience and well-being. She speaks frequently on the psychology of gaming and how it can be used to cure social ills as well as further educational missions. She consults frequently with global agencies, businesses and other institutions to develop games to further their missions or goals.

At EDUCAUSE, she shared several revealing statistics:

  • There are 1 billion gamers worldwide who spend at least an hour a day playing a game.
  • Gallup engagement research in 2012 revealed that 71 percent of workers are not engaged.
  • The lack of workforce non-engagement costs $300 billion annually in lost productivity, Gallup estimates.
  • The longer children stay in school, the less engaged they become: 76 percent of elementary students are engaged, which drops to 61 percent in middle school and down to 44 percent in high school.

The Cure for Lagging Engagement

The cure for that apparent lack of engagement lies in gaming, McGonigal asserts, in part because of the positive emotional effects gamers experience:

(In descending order)

  1. Joy
  2. Relief
  3. Love
  4. Surprise
  5. Pride
  6. Curiosity
  7. Excitement
  8. Awe and wonder
  9. Contentment
  10. Creativity

When those emotions activate certain areas of the brain, they also counteract feelings of depression, and for periods of time extending long after the game is ended, McGonigal said. Games encourage a sense of resiliency, and also teach gamers that failure is permitted.

“Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we can see that game play is literally the opposite of depression,” she said.

“Gamers fail, but you have this positive emotional resilience. Think about how different that is from our current educational system.”

The Future of Gamification in Education

McGonigal shared a quote from Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, who has said that education is no longer “about centralized instruction. Rather, it’s the process of establishing oneself as a node in a broader network of distributed creativity.”

Gamification in higher education is going to be a lot more than what you’re seeing today,” McGonigal said. “This is flipping our concept. Should students be learning knowledge that is already known, or solving problems that nobody’s solved before as part of their education?”

McGonigal shared three examples of new games now advancing a variety of fields of study, and offered hope that such techniques could be applied to revolutionize the ways through which higher education is delivered or assessed.

1. Foldit

The University of Washington’s Foldit game enables anyone to contribute to scientific research through virtual protein folding. The university’s game developers posit that human gamers’ propensity to not give up on a gaming task – resiliency – make them much more adept at solving complex protein structure prediction and design than supercomputers. And in some ways, they’ve already proven that to be so. Foldit game participants have been named in several published scientific journal articles, including one that describes how a protein structure could be solved and used in the treatment of HIV.

2. Urgent Evoke

The rich, interactive universe of Grand Theft Auto was the inspiration for this game, developed for The World Bank as a way to teach Sub-Sahara African youths to solve social problems in ways that also could provide a sustainable living. The platform is free and available online and can be used by schools to teach social entrepreneurship. A graphic novel serves as the game’s centerpiece, and players build out their gaming profiles as a comic or graphic novel might retell a superhero’s origin story. Participants complete projects in real life to solve real problems, such as securing a community’s food supply or establishing a sustainable power source, then progress through levels of the game. Those who successfully complete their 10-week missions ultimately earn certification from the World Bank Institute. In 2010, 50 student participants saw their entrepreneurship models funded by the World Bank, including Libraries Across Africa (now Librii), a franchise operating in Ghana.

3. Find the Future: The Game

Not all games must be played out in a virtual space. This game – developed by McGonigal with Natron Baxter and Playmatics – combines real-world missions with virtual clues and online collaboration, resulting in young people working together overnight in the New York Public Library to write and publish a book of personal essays about what they learned.

“The game is designed to empower young people to find their own futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and objects of people who made an extraordinary difference.”

Participants spend a night wandering throughout the library’s stacks and research materials, scanning QR codes to prove they found and interacted with the objects of their clues or missions. One 2011 participant, upon discovering the library’s early draft of the Declaration of Independence wrote an essay called a “Declaration of Interdependence.”


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