#ETOM16 – School is a Game… But is it a good game?

November 11, 2016
Mott Community College
Flint, MI

picture of Barry FishmanBarry J. Fishman, from the University of Michigan, will provide our keynote address entitled “School is a Game… But is it a good game?” We want our students to be deeply engaged with our subject matter. We want them to work hard and take on intellectual challenges. We want them to take risks and try new things. And perhaps most importantly, we want our students to be resilient in the face failure. So why it is that the design of our educational system – including colleges and universities – encourages exactly the opposite behaviors? I propose that our grading and assessment systems are the heart of the problem.

In this talk, I describe an approach called gameful learning – based on observations of one of the most durable and natural environments for learning – learning from play. This is not about learning by playing games. Rather, this talk posits that learning in school is already a kind of game, but a poorly designed one. The goal is to design a better game, and a better system.

What makes for great engagement? Three keys: feeling like you can make choices that matter, being part of something bigger than yourself, and being supported as you develop competence. Great games do this. University courses… not often enough. This talk presents a vision for how university classrooms can be as engaging as good games, and introduces GradeCraft, an application designed at the University of Michigan, that supports “gameful” teaching and learning.



“Most ideas about teaching are not new, but not everyone knows the old ideas.” – Euclid, c. 300 BCE

  • Trends: Badges, Personalized Learning, Makerspaces, MOOCs (open ed), Learning Analytics, 1:1 and BYOD, Assessment and Accountability
  • Student engagement is key and we want students to be:
    • Deeply engaged with subject matter
    • Take on intellectual challenges
    • Take risks and try new things
    • Resilient in the face of failure
  • The way our system is designed it encourages exactly the opposite of the above.
  • In school, risks do not equal rewards.  Students are only focused on the grade vs the process of learning. We are telling students that all the really counts is the final score.
  • Well designed games:
    • Get players engaged early and keep them engaged
    • Appeal to the players sense of curiosity
    • Encourage players to take risks.
  • People will play them because they are challenging, not despite the challenge.
  • What is a game?
    • “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”
  • Education is a practice field. Rules make a game if there are no rules it is “play”.
  • Gamification is insufficient:
    • Points
    • Badges
    • Rewards
    • Leaderboards
    • Avatars/Characters
    • These are all superficial elements of games. We need to change the underlying mechanics of our courses if we want to change motivation and engagement.
  • 10 Principles of why “Good” Games are also Great Learning Environments
    • Clear Learning Goals
    • Employ a Mix of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
    • Support Autonomy
    • Encourage a Sense of Belonging
    • Support Feelings of Competence
    • Lowered Risk of Failure and Productive Failure
      • Without failure there is no learning… goal is not to achieve an “A” but competence.
      • It’s not: win some, lose some > rather > win some, learn some
    • Encourage Exploration
    • Encourage Identity Play
    • Lots of Practice and Reinforcement
      • Engaging in meaningful practice is needed for learning.
    • Embedded Assessment
      • We stop education for delivering assessment rather than engaging students in the act of learning. We need to use technology to generate data while learning is happening. Badges is an example.
  • When teaching embodies these 10 principles, we call it gameful.
  • Game design at the University of Michigan:
  • Gameful beyond courses eg. “Talent Gateway“:
    • Experimentation
    • Risk-taking
    • Help-seeking
    • Much student learning happens beyond and across classroom experiences. How are we helping our students make sense of those experiences and capitalize on them?
  • Self-Determination Theory
    • Autonomy
    • Belonging
    • Competence


  • Tips for Gameful Learning in Courses:
    • Change the Grading Frame
    • Increase Choice
    • Create a Sense of Mission
    • Encourage Risk Taking
  • Do not use “extra credit”, no curves – these are terrible because it rations success and it can hide learning.
  • Gradecraft – a tool that integrates with your classroom and learning management system to support gameful learning.
    • 58 courses have used gradecraft with 5,100 students
    • Paid beta starts in winter
  • Pedagogical Resources on Gameful Design
  • “We consume entertainment but take part in play.”
  • How do we engage in academic innovation, see: “Academic Innovation at the U of Michigan

What can we do in our course design to create gameful learning opportunities for students.

One thought on “#ETOM16 – School is a Game… But is it a good game?

  1. Pingback: ETOM conference highlights gaming, OER, badging, accessibility and more! | eLearning and Emerging Technologies @GVSU

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