Technological gamification, the use of game thinking in non-game contexts, can increase motivation and collaboration, when used in educational practices. Although, primarily used to raise the extrinsic motivation it is also an interesting aspect to consider with regard to the human sciences, which traditionally are focusing heavily on the intrinsic motivational factors.

Years ago, Douglas Thomas, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, made an interesting discovery while teaching his students about massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. He had filled up the syllabus with heavy philosophical readings, including Descartes and Heidegger. Thomas then taught his students these highly complex themes and ideas, through the student’s participation in online games, or more precisely; the students ended up teaching themselves. The idea for the students was to reflect upon their in-game characters with Thomas’ syllabus’ philosophical readings in mind. Thereby, they applied the complex philosophical themes, such as the mind-body problem and the connection between being and time, to the online games they were playing.

The three-hour classes started out with two hours of class lecture, half an hour of discussion and half an hour of the students showing each other new philosophical findings and applications within the online games. But very soon the students took over the class, using almost the entire time sharing new ideas with each other regarding the games. Meanwhile, the students were teaching themselves the highly complex philosophical themes in order to apply its theories to their characters in the MMO games. The class actually turned into a scenario, where the students were breaking the philosophical codes collaborately, while they were applying them to the MMO games in an effort to understand these games. Philosophical problems, which can be of less interest for some people, had suddenly reached a high degree of personal relevance through of the application of these problems to the MMO games, thus, raising both interest and understanding for philosophical ideas and themes. Furthermore, the determination to collaborate and the application of personal relevance to complex philosophical problems also helped to diminish the old authoritative teacher-student relationship, with the students now learning by themselves, instead of being taught what to think or how to understand certain things.

Educational gamification

In a world, where the concept of knowledge is constantly changing, and where the truth is more often defined by its context and not its content, it is very important to define exactly what we want from education. As a minimum, all educational fields should try to keep up with this ongoing development, and thereby motivate students to apply their skills on the rapidly changing reality that surrounds them. This is mandatory in several educational fields, including business, law and architecture – educational fields which could not survive without adjusting to their changing surroundings. In contrast to this, the human sciences seem to be stagnating to a certain degree, thus falling into its theoretical self and away from the moving environment of the real world. So what needs to be applied to this educational field, to keep it in touch with reality? One of the answers could very well be the concept of gamification.

Gamification used as an educational tool is commonly known as educational gamification; i.e., a strategy to apply game-like elements to a learning process. This approach has already been used to increase extrinsic motivation in, for instance, business schools and design schools. Here the application of reward systems, including leaderboards, gaming points and achievement badges, has been used with great success to encourage students and help them to succeed in their educational field.

Scientific research has also shown that playing games releases so-called “reward chemicals” in the brain, thereby, making the participants more receptive to learning. Furthermore, there seems to be a close connection between gaming on one side, and problem solving as well as evidence based decision making on the other, which makes the application of game elements in education highly relevant.

Actually, the concept of gamification has been around for many years. Often, it is referred to as adding game-like concepts to non-game settings and it has been used in a wide range of different areas, including business strategies, motivation of positive social behavior and, as mentioned, education. At the core of this concept lies the notion that games are powerful tools, which can encourage people and motivate them in many different ways. Hence, the main idea behind gamification is that by using game elements and game-design techniques in non-game contexts, it is possible to motivate people to solve problems that are not simply related to games, but also to the real world. In other word, by utilizing gamification it is achievable to deal with real world topics and solve real world problems.

Challenging old paradigms

When looking at the education of the human sciences, the intrinsic motivational process has become so highly valued that anything, which potentially could add something new and different to the educational practices, is often considered a threat to the humanistic way of studying. Because of this, most classes are taught in large auditoriums, with students listening to professors, who have “all the knowledge in the world” and rest of the study time is spent by reading long complicated texts alone without any motivation to collaborate with classmates. In this case, adding new technological elements to the educational practices would, arguably, be a threat to the typical learning process.

As mentioned earlier, gamification has been used with great success to encourage students regarding extrinsic motivation. The fear from the human sciences’ perspective is that this new technological idea will mean the end of intrinsic motivational factors, and thereby take away the essence of humanistic studying. Meanwhile, it is this attitude towards the humanistic educational practices that is, at least partly, responsible for the lack of usability, collaboration and personal relevance and causes problems that many students at the faculties of human sciences face every day. Additionally, the concept of technological gamification can, as mentioned, actually remedy these tendencies, and even do it without abolishing the seemingly highly valued intrinsic motivation.

Gamification and the future of the human sciences

The most interesting question we can ask ourselves, considering the educational experience led by Douglas Thomas, is that if already existing online games can improve the learning processes, then what can be achieved with games purposely developed for educational practices?

Considering these possibilities, gamification reveals itself as being, not a threat to the humanistic values and intrinsic motivational processes, but rather an interesting way to mend the problems that this academic field seems to face. By applying technological gamification to the learning processes within the human sciences, the students will, potentially, be able to dig into the complex literature on their own, think for themselves and collaborate to reach the highest goal; an intellectual and relevant discussion. Moreover, it will provide the students with encouragement to apply their academic skills on the reality that surrounds them, because this is exactly what gamification seems to facilitate.

Of course, there are pitfalls to avoid, when dealing with educational gamification, and those are actually relevant for all the educational fields out there. For most students the gamification of education will work as a highly motivating factor, however, for some students game elements can be highly demotivating and, at its worst, even disruptive to the learning process, according to Ian Glover, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. This is, of course, an argument that have to be taken seriously, and, therefore, it is important to stress that gamification is not to be seen as an alternative or substitute for the typical educational practices, but merely as a supplement that can be used to encourage the students.

So, how can gamification help the human sciences adjust to the ever-changing surroundings? By teaching the students to apply their skills to the gaming processes they participate in, they then gain confidence in how to utilize complex theories within a scenario. By doing this, they need to work with the theories to make them fit a reality, which in many cases are unknown to them and constantly changing. Of course, it would seem to be an obstacle that the applying of theories is done inside the games and not in the real world. However, if we follow famous game designer Jane McGonigal, it should be possible, in the long run, to actually change what we are capable of as human beings, by spending time on playing online games. So maybe the concept of gamification could be the start of a new and better educational practice, also within the human sciences.