Many of us fondly remember the game Oregon Trail. This game, first developed in 1971 and popularized through the 1990s, took participants through the simulated harsh landscape of Missouri to Oregon via a covered wagon in the late 1800s. Along the way, gamers battled bouts of dysentery and cholera, hunted wild animals and suffered from the much-dreaded broken wagon axel. While the Oregon Trail has been somewhat relegated to popular culture, it represents an immensely important milestone in learning history: it was one of the first computer-based educational games.
With the advent of digital and mobile technologies, educational games are quickly becoming the norm for learning. From secondary to post-secondary schools, to government or corporate training initiatives, games are now a serious part of an overall learning and development strategy. In fact, EDUCAUSE’s 2011 Horizon report suggests that game-based learning will gain widespread use in two to three years.
(Click here to learn about the “Queen of Gamification”, Jane McGonigal, and hear why she believes gaming can change the world)
Part of the reason for the growing popularity stems from the alarming school dropout rates. One million, two hundred thousand students in the United States fail to graduate from high school every year. For students to go on to college, the rates are equally frightening: less than two-thirds of college students actually graduate.  Thus, clearly something must be done to combat these disturbing trends; many believe that games hold the solution.
One reason for such shocking dropout rates, as pointed out by a recent Time magazine article, is a lack of engagement. According to research cited by MIT, students can remember only 10 percent of what they read, 20 percent of what they hear and 50 percent of what they see demonstrated. However, when they actually do something themselves, such as in a game or virtual world, the retention rates skyrocket to 90 percent.
In addition to learner engagement and knowledge retention, games can provide another huge benefit to learners: safety. For professional and industry training, games can closely replicate the real world, but without health or safety risks. For example, a game could simulate disaster response such as cleaning up a hazardous waste spill. Or, a game could replicate a fire in a plane’s cockpit. These types of scenarios are extremely challenging to train for because they involve inherent danger to participants. A game or virtual environment, however, can provide the necessary training, in a safe environment.
Do learners really benefit from games?
The big question is: do games in education really work? The evidence to-date is extremely promising. University of Colorado Professor Traci Sitzmann conducted a meta-analysis of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games. Upon examining 65 studies and data from 6,476 trainees, it was found that after using the games, learners had 14 percent higher skill-based knowledge level, 11 percent higher factual-knowledge level, and 9 percent higher retention rates. At MIT’s Education Arcade, playing the game Civilization led to student’s increased interest in history, and was directly linked to an improved quality of their history-class reports.
Evidence such as the above suggests that games do, in fact, lead to an increase in learning and retention. However, developing and implementing a game can be an extremely costly endeavor in time and budget. Therefore, many educators and developers are now looking toward a new solution: the gamification of education. In this model, elements and theories from games are borrowed for use in learning environments. Karl Kapp, one of the leading games experts, says gamification for learning is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems. But how is this actually accomplished within a learning experience? The chart below provides a few ideas.
Simply implementing the principles of gamification is not enough. Successful gamification requires solid planning and sophisticated design. Unfortunately, schools and organizations are not always utilizing game designers or instructional designers.
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As pointed out by a recent eLearning Guild article, research firm Gartner predicts that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet their business objectives primarily due to poor design. Too often, the glamour of the technology sways the decision-making process. In this case, the game itself is considered first, followed by the content. Instead, the content should be considered first, followed by the game.
Does the content fit the game? Or does the game fit the content?
It’s important to fully think through gamification prior to launching this endeavor. Upon performing an analysis, instructional designers and game designers should be consulted. For example, several important questions should be addressed:
-What instructional issues are you trying to address through gamification?
-Can your content be organized according to levels, stories, areas, etc?
-How will the learning outcomes be assessed via the game, or the elements of gamification?
-How will you define and measure success?
-How adept are your learners in technology?
-Do they have access to the necessary technology or platforms?
-Will training or a user manual be provided to learners?
-What type of technical support will be available?
-Are there cultural norms that need to be considered?
-Will the solution integrate with your current learning management system?
-How will student enrollments be handled?
-How will students’ progress be tracked?
-Does it need to be mobile-enabled?
Games, and gamification, can greatly influence the overall learning experience. Not only can performance objectives be met, but learner engagement, community and persistence can also be positively impacted. We’ve certainly come a long way from our gaming roots in the Oregon Trail, and we’ll continue to see exciting changes as learning becomes increasingly gamified.
About the Author
Dr. Hixson is a Curriculum Consultant in Pearson’s Custom Curriculum group. She recently earned her Ph.D. in Computing Technology in Education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Prior to graduating, Dr. Hixson was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship from NASA, for which she designed and evaluated an eLearning program for astronauts flying in long-duration exploration missions. Her research interests include learning theories and instructional design theories using digital technologies.
 Dockertman, Eliana. “The Digital Parent Trap.” Time magazine. August 19, 2013.
 Sitzmann, Traci. “A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games.” Personnel Psychology, 64. 2011. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2011.01190.x/abstract