Gamification in the Classroom

MSU’s meaningful play faculty and students came together on Wednesday to listen to Scott Nicholson, a game designer and board game enthusiast, give a talk on gamification. Nicholson currently teaches at Syracuse University, where he employs gamification in big ways through his undergraduate courses. But before we go into that, let’s have some more on the man himself.

Nicholson has been working with board games from 2005 to 2010, at one point creating the first web-based video series on board games—Board Games with Scott. Eventually, Nicholson’s repertoire with board games landed him in the center of the CBS Sunday Morning Show where he discussed board games with Mo Rocca, ultimately revealing disdain for the ever popular Monopoly. As time went on, his experiences led him into game design where he helped create his first published game, Cthulhu Live, a live-action role playing game. For eight years, Nicholson participated in the creation of multiple live-action games, which served as his largest influence in the way he deals with game design and teaching.

Scott on CBS Show

When it comes to classroom, Nicholson wants students to be engaged with the material in a fun and exciting way. To do this, he gamifies his gamification classes. When we think about the word gamification, images of point systems, leaderboards, and badges are usually the first to come up. While for some game designs these kinds of rewards work well, Nicholson believes that they don’t really work at keeping players motivated over time. Badge and point-driven gamification hopes to keep people stuck in rewards loops forever. But wait—rewards are good, right? Sometimes, sure, but Nicholson has found that using extrinisic rewards in place of intrinsic motivations can do some serious damage.

Imagine a student who loves to read. He signs up for a summer reading camp at the library, where they reward him with a gold star for doing what he’s always found fun. At the end of the summer, however, when the camp is over, this student finds himself less motivated to read now that the rewards are gone. In this situation, the student is in worse shape than before the summer camp. It’s this type of damage that Nicholson is determined to avoid, by using meaningful gamification instead.

Meaningful gamification has six components, a R.E.C.I.P.E. of sorts, for creating intrinsic motivation. Reflection, exposition, choice, information, play, and engagement are that six components Nicholson believes makes for successful gamification. As a professor, one way that Nicholson employs this recipe is by allowing the classroom to recreate the syllabus…completely. That’s right. He let the students decide how they earn grades, typically by also agreeing on an overall narrative.  Nicholson realizes that the appeals of motivation change, much like levels in a game. At Level 1, certain rewards are motivating. Then a shift is needed to retain interest and motivation.

He actually arranges three different points in the class when students design, then redesign, and redesign the syllabus. The first time, they add lots of points and punishments for nonparticipation. After living with their own system for a while, they are assigned to revisit and revise, during which time, the students continue to reflect on what is and isn’t working. This cycle occurs a third time, when the students transition, through their own realizations, to a more narrative driven approach, rather than rewards-based.  In the case of the picture below, the students decided that Nicholson was an evil scientist overlord who was keeping the rats (students) for his experiments. The ultimate goal of gamification is to transition from extrinisic rewards to intrinsic motivation.


Evil, indeed.

Gamification is a fun and interesting way to engage and motivate us, but it is constantly changing and morphing into a system that encourages users to grow, putting people at the center of creation. We look forward to seeing Nicholson’s future work in the progression of gamification. If you’d like to read more about his research, be sure to visit his website for articles and publications or take a look at his lab’s page, Because Play Matters.

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