Games (and Ads) in Education

Last week, I came across two seemingly unrelated items, an article about games in education and an interview with a successful internet entrepreneur who figured out how to make a living selling tips for World of Warcraft.  Yet reading these articles back-to-back helped me to see parallels between them that were not immediately apparent.

First, Anastasia Salter wrote an article for Chronicle for Higher Education ProfHacker blog, ‘How to Gamify Your Class Website‘ in which she explains how to use various plugin tools to add game-style interactive components to a WordPress class site.  As Salter points out, incorporating game elements as motivational incentives for students can be problematic, since students’ scores can’t be shared among the group if they are linked with grades.  However, the idea of adding ‘voluntary obstacles’ such as optional course achievements to encourage online participation was effective.  Setting up and managing game elements requires additional time and work on the part of the instructor, but may be easy to incorporate after an initial successful system is developed.

This is a novel approach to student motivation and, in my opinion, more creative than the default online couseware assessments that faculty sometimes turn to, such as weekly multiple choice quizzes or a required number of student responses to a discussion board. There is a small but significant difference between the requirement that “students must post at least three comments related to the weekly readings” vs. “forum posts are worth 5 points each and forum responses are worth 3 points”.  Even if responses are not assigned a grade value, students are motivated to increase their ‘score’ by the second approach, and to compare their scores with those of their peers.

The second instance of game-culture influence arrived in the form of a Marketing Over Coffee interview with Chris Antoni (aka Markco) about his successful sales of World of Warcraft tips and strategies.  In the interview, Chris suggests to those who are trying to create an internet audience that they should concentrate on specialization, understanding audience needs, and then producing that content.  This isn’t traditional sales strategy (i.e. placing a product into a market and convincing people that they need it). Instead, Chris emphasizes the importance of building reputation, listening to potential customers, and then creating the product that they are demanding.  To build an audience, he suggests first becoming immersed into the community of customers you are hoping to cater to, and building interest, trust and authority by offering free product (in his case, content).

In essence, Chris proposes a game/incentive model for driving customer interest and matching products to customer needs.  The model is a natural fit for a customer base of gamers; build a world in which ‘players’ can accumulate valuable free resources, then offer them additional resources for a reasonable fee.  This model has been successfully implemented with a number of online services such as Flickr (free photo sharing with paid ‘Pro’ upgrades) and Amazon (with their paid Prime service that offers fast shipping for an annual flat rate).  And more recently there is the Apple App store, where vendors can offer a free version of their application to entice users to purchase a fully-featured paid version, while users can rate and review applications to give targeted feedback to software developers.

So how does Chris’ targeted marketing strategy tie in with teaching and gaming?  Imagine the following scenario.  Start with a course description that is written to entice prospective students.  The instructor then immediately captures student participation by providing non-graded (i.e. free) game-based incentives in the class.  Once the students become vested in the course content (in part by completing the ‘voluntary obstacles’ introduced by the instructor), the ‘paid products’ are offered in the form of graded assignments. By this time, the instructor has gathered information from students about their areas of greatest engagement with course content and hopefully has a better understanding of where students need to reach to expand their skills.  In addition, students have contributed their own knowledge and views into the course, and have learned from their peers in addition to using materials and information presented by the instructor.  By the time major graded assignments are introduced, students are eager to demonstrate their knowledge and present their original ideas and research.

I realize that this scenario is oversimplified, but hopefully it makes the point: rather than telling students to ‘do work’ we have the potential to engage them more fully by incorporating game-play and targeted marketing into instruction.  I know I’ll be working on these ideas as I develop new in-class instruction sessions.

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