An Alberta researcher offers object lessons in the gamification of learning

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When Geoffrey Rockwell plays games, it’s a serious business.

Rockwell, Director of the Canadian Institute for Research in Computing and the Arts at the University of Alberta, is co-leader of Digital Games for Learning and Training (DIGLT), a project that focuses on researching the mechanics of good game design.

DIGLT is part of the GRAND network of centres of excellence, a selection of research projects across Canada. It takes complex digital media concepts and try to create products of use to users across a variety of disciplines. Along with DIGLT co-leader Christina Conati at UBC, Rockwell’s part in that is to work out how games can be used to learn.

That doesn’t necessarily mean playing them. One of the best ways to gamify learning is to create environments where students model complex knowledge by designing a game, rather than simply playing one, Rockwell argues.

“We started with the hypothesis that designing a game is the best way to learn. Thus we are trying to understand how games get designed in serious contexts,” he says.

Rockwell has been developing two projects designed to help students design games, but says that it is hard to prove, and expensive to develop. “The one we are getting the most traction with is actually a card game because it is really easy for participants to design their own deck of cards,” he says.

The pair have also been developing an assessment framework of questions that people could ask themselves as they develop a game. But isn’t the concept of gamification already covered? Companies such as Bunchball are already selling products that translate gaming concepts into corporate environments, for example. They have ‘playbooks’ outlining the fundamentals of game mechanics.

But Rockwell says that they’re “light on research.” Gamification isn’t new – it’s been in the classroom for years, he points out. Any teacher who ever kept a score board for classroom behavior can testify to that.

“What we want to do is study when it works and for who and under what circumstances. Bunchball and others are selling products – hopefully we can help them sell better products based on real research.”

Location-based games are a promising area for the project, says Rockwell. DIGLT is using a variety of location-based tools, including SCVNGR, a location-based gaming platform that imposes a game layer on the real world (and which also had its own playbook). DIGLT students used this to develop Return of the Magic, a game that involved going into stores (video here).

Rockwell is also interested in how games can be used to teach more effective writing. “We have developed a prototype of a gamified writing environment, but are now adapting it to work with a particular writing course so we can actually try different types of game features,” he says. But this project highlights just how difficult that is to do.

The software would support hundreds of students learning how to write, but at the same time would have to support the writing instructor’s particular requirements. “Each instance of gamification tends to be customized to the situation,” Rockwell says.

Rather than commercializing the project’s own games and competing with industry, Rockwell and his colleagues are interested in developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which can teach those destined for the private sector how to use that gamification knowledge to best effect. “Universities are too slow to do commercial research,” says Rockwell.

Perhaps in learning the fundamentals of good game design, students will be able to take Rockwell’s research and run with it, creating wealth in the Canadian economy. If he can succeed in that, he’ll consider it a solid win.


Danny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience. He writes for newspapers, magazines and Websites and has his own blog at