Gamification: now we’re playing for keeps

Gamification it is a term that has entered the jargon of school teachers and even more with those who deal with human resources within companies: all of them wish to engage learners with playful dynamics, from the mundane (competitions) to experiments of higher complexity, such as games where the collaborative component also allows the development of so-called soft skills that are so often lacking to those who enter the world of work. Discussions about the effectiveness of learning and motivation to learn have been going on for many years. In schools and Universities, but even more so in the world of business education, there is often a conflict between, on the one hand, the need to encourage learners, and on the other to measure what has actually been learned in some way. Games have long been used to deal with these problems, to the point that we can more or less talk about a trend, if not a fad. Clearly, digital systems are very useful for supporting these playful dynamics in various forms, from classic ‘serious games’ (the most obvious example is the simulation of a real situation where an error would have serious consequences, such as surgery) to the extreme where games are commissioned and implemented directly by the users. However, there are many disputes regarding the term gamification, which seems to have been introduced in 2010 by the game designer Jesse Shell. In schools it is intended more as a way to engage children in game dynamics, and is often connected to the “upside down class” concept, in other words where students do not learn the concepts in school, but at home, and then take advantage of the time in class to work together in group dynamics with recreational components. All this is also done using a ‘light’ form of digital systems, from video networks to lessons in PowerPoint or Blendspace prepared directly by peers. In companies it is instead seen on one hand as a marketing tool (reaching aberrant limits: in the USA and Japan there are cash machines with integrated slot machines!), we for me is something quite disturbing, or – in virtuous cases – as a way to train employees, especially on those soft skills that would otherwise be ignored. In this sense, talking about gamification can even mean involvement in coaching. Serious games can be translated into Italian as ‘educational games’, but many prefer to speak of applied games, or games that have a practical application, which essentially apply the transformative processes in the player, making him/her acquire information but also skills, ability, sometimes even affecting certain moral values. They are both fads. There has been a lot of talk about them for years, and perhaps too much talk, but this is positive. Companies need new ideas to train staff that are stressed, unmotivated and recalcitrant. Schools and universities must keep pace with the rapid and irrepressible penetration of digital entertainment in the lives of young people (and not only them). Games, and in particular video games, provide many solutions and also other benefits, for example they make the monitoring of learning more effective: if a player/learner completes a game, if he/she has won, achieved a certain score, passed through certain levels, faced challenges, it is possible to know this, see it and measure it. But be careful: developing games is not easy, and it is hard to compete with mainstream games. You will not be able to develop a new Metal Gear either for school or for the company: it is the idea that is important, the initiative, the simple thing that hooks a player without 3D or epic storylines. It is a challenge, however, that many can face, because technically it is now within the reach of many (not all) to develop an electronic game with tools, some of which are free, like Scratch by MIT. In Italy, Milan Polytechnic and CSP Piedmont Foundation are sponsoring the JamToday project, in which you attempt a daring and adventurous overall development: you invite children of all ages and profiles to intensive 48-hour sessions in which, given a theme (last year the theme was healthier living, this year it is mathematics), prototypes of serious games are produced. The format, derived from that of hackatons and game jams, is beginning to be appreciated by many companies in our country because it also lends itself to recruitment: in the two intensive jamming days, the ‘headhunters’ can meet young talent, see how they work and possibly recruit them for companies … an experience that is certainly more intense and constructive than simply reading a resume or conducting an interview. Matteo Uggeri

written by: Matteo Uggeri , 18 May 2016

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