The Gamification of Education: Why Online Social Games May Be Poised to Replace Textbooks in Schools

Article excerpt

The world has entered a bright new technology-driven era, yet the education system remains rooted in a gray industrial past. At least, this is the argument that a growing number of education professionals are making.

One idea for reform that is steadily gaining popularity involves moving learning almost entirely online and declaring textbooks more or less obsolete. Some suggest taking Web-based learning one step further: Online social gaming may become the educational tool of choice.

While traditional education proponents may be quick to dismiss computer games as inconsequential, others argue that a strong precedent for independently motivated online game-based learning has already been established. Examples include PBS KIDS's interactive whiteboard games, which teach basic subjects to very young children, and the Learning Company's hugely popular historical learning game, The Oregon Trail.

Advocates for gaming in education also point to professional training situations where games are increasingly replacing lectures and presentations. Further afield, Jane McGonigal, the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, has designed award-winning games to help ignite real-world solutions to pressing social and environmental challenges, such as global food security and a shift to renewable energy.

In their book, A New Culture of Learning (CreateSpace, 2011), Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown argue that curiosity, imagination, and a sense of play--three aspects integral to learning--are largely missing from the traditional textbook-and-test based education system. What's more, the authors point out, these are all present in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of War-craft.

In Thomas and Brown's view, such games "are almost perfect illustrations of a new learning environment." In the social gaming world, "learning happens on a continuous basis because the participants are internally motivated to find, share, and filter new information on a near-constant basis," they write. Unlike midterms and final exams, games associate learning with fun and allow for trial and error (basically, the freedom to make mistakes). They can also encourage exploration, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas while removing unwanted pressures that can interfere with students' abilities.

Thomas and Brown further point out that players must do a great deal of reading and research (typically on blogs, wikis, and forums) in order to complete quests in MMORPGs. In other words, well-designed games can also motivate kids to read, the authors believe.

Already, one well-funded experimental New York City public charter school, Quest to Learn (Q2L), has practically eliminated textbook-based learning and largely replaced it with game-based learning. (A sister school, ChicagoQuest, is scheduled to open in September 2011. …