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Pokémon Go – could teaching learn a few things from gaming?

Education technology   Digital learningEdtechLearning processes

We live in a world where video games manage to engage millions of people across the globe for many hours a week. As Jane McGonigal notes in her Ted Talk, ‘Gaming can make a better world’, the mechanics these games use clearly work, so why not use them in education?

Take the most popular mobile game of all time, Pokémon Go, which was released in July this year. Like all games, Pokémon Go contains simple learning mechanics that make games interesting, fun and engaging. Some educators are choosing to focus on how they can bring Pokémon Go into the classroom in order to make their geography or maths lesson more interesting. But what if we thought more about what makes Pokémon Go so much fun in the first place? Or to put it another way, how can we ‘gamify’ learning?

What is ‘gamification’ and how can it be used in education?

Knewton has produced some excellent summaries of gamification. Study them, and you’ll find many of these mechanics in every video game, including Pokémon Go. A few examples include:

  • Levelling: as you get better, you work your way up a hierarchy
  • Achievements: you earn medals for your successes
  • Collaboration: only by working together can players beat the greatest challenges

Istanbul, Turkey - July 20, 2016: Close-up image of pokemon go game app icon in the Apple App Store on an iPhone 6s. Pokemon Go is a popular virtual reality game.These concepts can be applied in many different ways. For example, at the height of the Harry Potter craze, one of my teachers assigned groups of students to the four houses from the books. We could earn points for our house by completing homework on time, achieving high marks, and good behaviour. Learning became competitive. Suddenly our education wasn’t just about learning – there was a leaderboard to top.


The value of acknowledging success

Acknowledging success at every level of ability and stage of the learning process motivates students, especially when they can see a real result for their efforts. This means more than just exam results and ranges from stickers for younger children through to statements of achievement for older teenagers. Even just a simple ‘well done’ can work wonders on a student’s love to have the hard work they’ve put in recognised.

Incremental goals are also a great motivator and rising up the ranks is part of what keeps Pokémon Go players hooked. The game provides a succession of clear goals which have rules on how they are reached. The player knows what they need to do, and how they’re expected to do it. The same can apply in education; learners must know what they are supposed to achieve, and how to achieve it.

Goal-setting can be done on a sliding scale from the big:

  • Having the most Pokémon/achieving high marks in a test

to the small:

  • Earning a few experience points/understanding a new concept in a lesson.

The above is identical to the reward cycle of video games that keeps players coming back for more. Clear stepping stones with clear results and feedback encourage bite-sized chunks of learning that help to keep students focused, engaged, and motivated. Use of these mechanics can also help students to study independently, stay self-motivated, and keep track of their capabilities. They want to succeed, and enjoy succeeding. That’s why people put so many hours into video games – everyone likes to win.

How education and gaming can be further integrated is an ongoing challenge, and not one that can be solved in one blog post. However, I feel quite passionately that making good use of games as tools for learning  involves more than simply using the content of the latest video games in traditional, formal learning environments.

Does the success of Pokémon Go indicate a new era for learning? I would love to hear what you think.

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