The fact that ever-increasing numbers of students from ever-more-diverse backgrounds are entering our institutions is great news in many ways, but implies that we need new strategies to engage them and promote active learning; I believe that games can be part of the solution. Academics around the world agree with me, and at the HEA STEM conference (Manchester, 1-2 February 2017) some of them shared the work they are doing using games and gamification. Keynote addresses by Bill Wakeham and Peter Goodhew centred on the fact that academics (and employers) want university graduates to be lifelong learners full of curiosity, capable of creative problem solving and independent critical thought, and with the all-important willingness to have a go. I hope to convince you that games can help develop these qualities.
I love board games. I love the strategic problem solving, I love the friendly competition, I love the unpredictability, I love interacting with other players in a structured way, and most of all I love the opportunity to take a risk and maybe lose, knowing that I’ll be able to play again using different tactics. And I’m not alone (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/25/board-games-back-tabletop-gaming-boom-pandemic-flash-point): for example, 12,500 people are expected at the UK Games Expo at the NEC this June.
The things I find enjoyable in games are exactly what make them useful in teaching, as covered in Louise Robinson’s (University of Derby) overview of the topic. I was especially interested in her points (based on the work of Jane McGonigal; McGonigal, 2011) about how similar to a game the student experience already is in many ways. All games must have a goal (corresponding to universities’ Aims and Objectives documents); rules (corresponding to universities’ assessment criteria); and the possibility for feedback on success and failure (corresponding to universities’ grades and feedback). Playing games can help us enter a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), where we are so enjoyably absorbed in the task at hand we don’t notice time passing; we can harness this to help our students to engage fully and actively with their learning and increase time on task. All this being the case, as academics we can surely tweak our existing offering to make it more playful and engaging; from computer simulations to role play to board games (Lean et al, 2006), the use of games in educational settings can be adapted to many teaching needs.
Specific examples of educational games in practice were shared. I (Rebecca Barnes, University of Sheffield) enjoyed showcasing a card game I made (downloadable for free from licensing.sheffield.ac.uk) and have used in a large-group setting to help my students review and apply knowledge on protein purification techniques, and to develop their experimental design skills. Louise Robinson described one of the games she uses, pitting groups of students against each other in a task requiring both strategic thinking and technical prowess. Removing the stress of formal assessment and adding a fun element helps students grow in confidence.
Michael Scott (Falmouth University) told us about how he and his colleague Mark Zarb (Robert Gordon University) introduced a LEGO Robot Olympiad using the off-the-shelf EV3 system as an intro week icebreaker for their first-year students. Low-pressure socialising during this creative challenge helped students get to know each other, which in turn eased the transition to university and improved the effectiveness of group work later on.
Friendly competition can be a valuable tool for increasing student engagement on a larger scale: this is known as gamification. For example, Rebecca Sharp (Bangor University) gamified her Behavioural Psychology module, transporting it to the middle of a zombie outbreak, complete with themed materials and visits from actors. Her students earn points for attending lectures, completing quizzes, and viewing coursework feedback, for instance, leading to the survival of humanity but also an increase in attendance and surely better exam results. Educators who are interested in this kind of strategy but aren’t ready to commit to the immersive experience that Rebecca provided for her students might like to consider gamification apps such as Socrative, Kahoot, or PeerWise.
How could you use principles of gaming to help your students engage with your subject? Check out this HEA resource to get started. The game’s afoot.
Csikszentmihalyi, 1990. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row.
J. Lean, J. Moizer, M. Towler and C. Abbey, 2006. Simulations and games: uses and barriers in higher education. Active Learning in Higher Education 7:227.
J. McGonigal, 2011. Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Penguin.