Gamification and Game-Based Learning in EdTech: How to Start Designing a Great Product
By Krista-Lotta Ojanen and Saila Juuti
There are many ways to start designing a game. You may have your mind set on a cool mechanic, like pinning teams against each other in a fun multiplayer environment. Or you wish to share a captivating story with memorable characters – or design an entire game world that’s different from our own.
However, when you want to create an educational game, you need to look at what you want to achieve with it; how will it improve learning and what is learned when playing your game.
Gamification or Game-Based Learning (GBL) – What’s the Difference?
In the EdTech field, both gamification and game-based learning (GBL) are used widely to describe game design elements or principles that have been added to educational products. Often the two terms are used interchangeably – which makes it difficult for educators and even EdTech companies to distinguish them from each other.
To summarize it, gamification refers to the integration of game elements or game framework into conventional, existing learning activities, such as solving math problems. This is done in order to increase student engagement and motivation.
Game-based learning on the other hand, starts right from the beginning; with designing learning activities that have game characteristics and game principles inherently within them. The learning activities therefore are intrinsically game-like.
BUT, when it comes to real-life EdTech solutions that are used today, do we need to recognize which ones are so-called gamified products, and which are GBL?
Coding apps and platforms, like CodeMonkey, are usually easy to define as game-based learning solutions. The whole game is centered and designed around teaching very technical skills, which might make it more simple to develop game mechanics to match.
On the other hand, some solutions like Practicle Math, offer classical online assignments and educational videos to support math learning – but also spice things up with gamified features. In the Pet Duels, students solve math problems in a competition that resembles a classic fighting game.
Good Mechanics Are King?
Many guidebooks suggest starting the process of game design with good mechanics because it’s absolutely what’s needed in order to make the game fun and user-friendly. For one, if your controls are clunky, or the behavioral rules are hard to remember, the player gives up instantly. Or if the levels 10 to 100 don’t bring anything new to the experience, even a compelling storyline or outstanding graphics won’t make up for it.
An unique and fun mechanic is typically the foundation everything else is built on – from the very beginning of the design process. However with educational products, it’s actually the learning goals, as we’ll find out further on.
Our company (Education Alliance Finland) specializes in evaluating and certifying education products. Too often we come across games and applications, which have the potential to be fun and entertaining – but have been filled with educational content only AFTER the game design was finished.
For example, annoying fact pop-ups are delivered while playing, or the game assets are clumsily re-skinned to match the content topic. The player could be quizzed about something they can’t possibly know, unless they’ve been lectured about it before pressing the start button. The overall user-experience of such games can be frustrating and tedious. These types of products shouldn’t make claims about being gamified or following the principles of game-based learning.
Especially if the players’ first reaction is to run in the other direction.
Learning Goals at the Core of Educational Game Design
Education – teaching someone something – always starts with defining the learning goals. What is it exactly that you want to teach? Or as it’s said with many forms of art: the thing you’re hoping to tell, defines how you tell it.
Therefore the rule of thumb is that the key learning topic or content should be something the player actively interacts within the game. If you’re hoping to teach basic counting, make the player tap things one by one. If it’s physics, let them build moving things, draw power vectors or organize planets in space.
It can even be something as complex as cell biology. In the very topical strategy game Antidote: Battle of the stem cell (by Psyon Games) it is possible to gain knowledge about several things related to human anatomy. Our bodies are made of cells, and stem cells are especially important. There are also plenty of other cells, which defend the body against bacteria and viruses.
All this is shown with a mechanic, where the player places different kinds of defensive cell units and develops vaccines to keep the nasty bugs from reaching the precious stem cell.
Playing Antidote is definitely entertaining but also, the goal for sharing educational content and developing mechanics to complement learning were there from the start, which makes it an excellent game-based learning solution.
Balance Between Playing and Consuming Facts
It’s common for teachers to have a cynical stance when it comes to educational games. It’s their job to ensure that students focus on internalizing every piece of knowledge in the curriculum – and sometimes games are just too distracting and time-consuming.
Furthermore, they might be skeptical about the learning materials incorporated into the game mechanics. Indeed, with some subjects there’s a lot of information that needs to be delivered, and it’s more convenient to create content for the learner to consume, like text or videos.
If you take this route, remember: the player needs to have a reason for watching videos or reading text while in the game. How can they use the provided information in the game?
Often the most useful thing to do is to look at your learning goals again. What is the focus? Can you pick one or two main goals, and ditch something that makes the game unnecessarily complex? If you can teach one thing well, the next steps are easier to take.
The line between gamified EdTech solutions and game-based learning products is thin, and in most cases an unnecessary detail to focus on (for the customers). Gamification refers to the integration of game elements or game framework into conventional learning activities; while GBL focuses on designing learning activities that are in essence game-like.
Defining the key learning goals and coming up with unique game mechanics should be where your product development and design work begins! Often it’s best to make one of the two: 1) GBL solution that’s focused on developing one specific thing from start to finish, like coding skills or knowledge about human biology 2) a mixed solution that has both great consumable content, as well as gamified features. Practical Math being a great example of this approach.
About the Authors
Saila Juuti is the Founder of Education Alliance Finland. She has a Masters Degree in Internet and Game Studies and is leading the EdTech quality evaluations at EAF.
Krista-Lotta Ojanen is Communications Manager at Education Alliance Finland. Krista has a Masters Degree in Culture Antropology and is in charge of content production and research at EAF.