Thursday, July 7, 2011

Games and Engagement

Recently I asked educators to name the top 5 features necessary for an educational game. I am currently grappling with this question. I've seen a lot of research about games that tends to boil down to -- We intuitively know that games help students learn, but the only data we've collected shows that games improve motivation.  Data showing both an increase in motivation and in academic success (in whatever way you want to define that) either doesn't exist or I just haven't found it yet.

So I posed this question to mine the intuition of educators who feel that games help students learn. I asked them to choose the top 5 features necessary to make a game that is both fun and educational. I knew I'd get a wide variety of responses, but I hoped the "cream" to rise to the top.

The feature that received the most attention was about gaining student attention -- a game should engage students and get them excited about learning. Of course, that's why we all play games. A good game engages some part of our brain whether it be the thrill of competition or an interest in dominating the world. ;-) While I know the importance of engagement, part of me wishes that what we teach would be exciting enough to get student attention. Is the best part about a game is that it provides a carrot to capture student interest? Do we run the risk of games becoming a crutch or will games serve the purpose of providing engagement until a genuine interest develops?

I recently discovered the research of Dr. Danielle McNamara regarding the reading comprehension program iSTART. iSTART is a digital reading program that has been shown to be successful with helping students improve their comprehension skills. The only problem with iSTART is that students quickly lost interest. The program was tweaked by adding gaming elements. Some elements distracted from student learning, while others made students pay more attention. The final product, iSTART-ME, include the most beneficial gaming elements that heightened student interest while not detracting from student learning.

This kind of motivation, or engagement, I can get behind. When there are skills students need to master, and the only means of mastery is practice, and practice can get a little boring at times...bring in the carrot. Isn't that what we all do when we attempt to start a new habit or make changes? 

Would you like a carrot? Check out Daily Feats! It is a site where you can earn points for doing those little things you know you need to do but just need a little motivation to do. Ok, it's not as motivating or engaging as a game. It is just one example that shows we gravitate toward experiences that give us some sort of reward or that respond to our actions in a positive way.

There's more I want to say about the survey I did with educators about games, but this is enough to chew on for today. You'll see more about this in future posts.

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