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Gamification and Education


Anyone who has used Duolingo for any amount of time will tell you - it's wonderful. Why is it wonderful? Well, it teaches you a foreign language and you can tell its working because you progress. There comes a point where you're typing (or swiping) whole sentences and you just get it. It starts to come together. Suddenly you can say "Our cat does not eat cheese" and then "His trousers are red" in another language. Your pronunciation is probably awful but so what?

The thing with Duolingo is this; it doesn't just teach you, it gamifies the teaching. Each lesson is packaged into little chunks and for each chunk you have 3 hearts, or lives. You can fail but you can't fail too many times. It's a bit like R-Type in that sense, and you can buy power-ups and extras (though I can't find the heart refill anymore, sadly). There's even a timed practice that really puts the pressure on.

So as you can tell, if you've ever thought about the appeal of computer games, Duolingo is using a fairly standard set of game features to hold your interest.

  • A long term goal
  • Incremental goals and sub-stages
  • Partial failure via loss of "lives"
  • Rewards for progress - experience points (XP) and levels
  • Rewards for good/exceptional performance - Lingots
  • Special stages e.g. timed practice
These aren't all the different methods with which game holds people's attention, and I'm probably missing some that Duolingo uses, but anyone who plays games (and has thought about it) will recognise many of these devices.

It helps that people want to learn other languages, but if you want learn something what better way to do it? No one is every going to properly learn something they have no interest in anyway. 

One Billion

The second app I've seen that is really pushing the envelope with regard to gamification of learning is the One Billion App. The BBC did a piece on it last year and they have plenty of evidence to back up their claims. 

This is another example of a specific educational application; it teaches pattern matching and maths.  

It's really basic and easy to use and that is the point. A lot of it is repetition and just like doing maths in a notebook one gets better and better, moving on to more and more complex tasks. The difference between this and usual class based schedules is the interactivity. Interactivity is key; feedback is instant and that's something you can't get in a classroom. Traditional teaching only provides feedback after your exercise or your test is marked. 

One Billion is doing a great job in Africa but this type of system would be applicable anywhere.


SpaceChem by Zachtronics is a more traditional game. It's a puzzle game that gets hard really fast. It's a real brain bender and very, very good but also pretty hardcore if you want to do well on it. It isn't really an educational game, in that it's just a puzzle game and not focused on any specific area of learning (although you will learn a bit about chemical bonds). What it really teaches is logic though, and it does a great job of it. It comes as no surprise to learn it's used in classrooms.

The Future

I've no doubt that using games for education is going to become a big thing. I'm amazed it hasn't happened yet actually. There are that many people interested in education that I cannot believe no one has twigged that gamifying education is great way to engage students and ultimately accelerate learning.

Accelerate? Yes, accelerate. People learn how to win, how to overcome, faster than they just learn for learning's sake. Take a competitive person and sit them in front of a new RTS game; they'll soon learn what units are best in what situation. The people who are better than you at computer games have two things going for them  - they're probably faster and more skilled with a controller/keyboard and mouse than you, and (most importantly) they understand, they know, the game better than you. It doesn't matter if it's knowing the system and/or knowing the exploits it's just knowing that gives them the edge. 

One Billion has shown that gamification can accelerate learning. The sum of human knowledge is ever expanding and games that teach you are the future. 


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