Gamification for #highered: fad or future?

May 23rd, 2013 Karine Joly 6 Comments

Do you need to worry about Gamification?

For The WinIf you’ve been working for a few years in higher education, you’ve seen your fair share of fads. So, when something new pops up on your radar, the first thing you need to do is to try to figure out if it’s just fad or if there is anything to it that can help your institution.

Since my job is to help you learn and grow in your higher ed career, I’m often trying to do this evaluation work often very early in the game (no pun intended).

That’s the reason why I took Professor Werbach’s Coursera course on gamification last year (really killing 2 birds with 1 stone in this instance by getting a first-hand experience with a MOOC by Coursera and learning more about gamification).

In theory, gamification could do wonder for higher education, for the academic side as well as the marketing/communication side of the house.

In practice, though, nobody seems to have lost sleep over their gamified web experience or next campaign in our community (yet?)

How comes?

Is it too early?
Is it too late?
Are we too busy with everything else?

I have to admit: I’m not sure yet.

Meet one of the players in the “gamification for #highered” game

Bryan FendleyThat’s why I had to ask Bryan Fendley, Director of Academic Computing at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, about gamification in/for higher education.

I got to know Bryan a bit more over the past year, because he is at the top of the unofficial leaderboard at Higher Ed Experts as a “super alum” who took not 1, not 2, but 3 of our online courses so far :-)

Bryan is quite a Renaissance man: an educator, an instructional designer, a developer, a presenter and a blogger. Over the years, he has developed a deep interest in game design and gamed learning.

This summer at eduWeb in Boston he will even present a 3-hour workshop about gamification of college marketing. Today, he answers a few of my burning but simple questions about gamification so you can get a better idea about it.

1) What is gamification?

First, think of the things that make up a game: points, score boards, challenges, levels, even rules.
Now, take these same elements and use them to motivate and engage people in real world situations.

In a nutshell that’s gamification: it’s a way to engage people by making something that’s not a game feel like a game. But, it’s not just about playing around. Gamification is a tool used to meet an objective.

It may sound simple, but it’s a real combination of art and science. Not everybody believes gamification will even work. At the same time critics voice their opinions, gamification is applied successfully in several industries: sales, human resources, education, and marketing. We have studies backing up gamification as a viable marketing approach. Although, most of those studies are coming from the big gamification companies. As gamification matures, we are going to see more scholarly research added to the mix. Since gamification is a relatively new phenomenon, since around 2009, it’s still working to prove itself as a respectable discipline.

Additionally, we know a lot of people have grown up playing video games. Video games are heavy influencers for gamification practitioners. It’s almost like game thinking is becoming part of our DNA. People understand games. Just about everybody speaks the language. That’s one reason gamification makes sense. People easily understand how to play along. Most game mechanics will already feel familiar to your users. This familiarity makes onboarding people into your gamified campaigns easier.

Gamification is also coming on strong because, the technologies to put gamification in place already exist. They are already out there, waiting to be leveraged. Social media being one of the most pivotal of those technologies. Social media and gamification share a strong relationship.

For example: social media and gamification go together like peanut butter and jelly. Gamification increases brand loyalty through engagement and social media is sitting there waiting to amplify the message from your users engagement. It’s like, I am spending time interacting with and discovering your brand. Then I get a badge. Do I want to notify my friends? Sure, tweet my accomplishment and ask my friends to play. If you pay attention, you can see gamification sneaking in all around you, especially in marketing.

2) Can you share examples of gamified systems in higher education?

What I have noticed, is that within higher education it seems that there are two paths to gamification and marketing. Buy into a service, or build your own.

Although, some of the big gamification companies I have spoken to, say they have higher ed clients: most don’t list a category on their site for current education customers. This makes me think, higher education may be slow moving into gamification. At least at the paid service level.

When it comes to openly identifying educational clientele, SCVNGR seems to be the exception among gamification companies. They have an exhaustive list of higher education customers. When SCVNGR first started in the business, their focus was on education. I think that is why you see so many universities who have used SCVNGR’s quest based service.

Brigham Young University has a full-on gamification initiative on their BYUtvSports website. They partnered with Gigya to provide incentives to fans for sharing and engaging with content. Users are rewarded for the time they spend, and thousands of signups were reported after the initial launch of the gamified web experience. You can watch the video that markets this experience.

There are big advantages to working with a company that specializes in gamification. Not only do you gain their expertise, you inherit their gamification infrastructure. This can be helpful because: many already have partnerships with other companies to help maximize the impact of your efforts. Additionally, they can often provide you with analytics to help measure your success. I don’t think anybody should underestimate the complexity that can be involved with gamification. It reminds me of days of old, when some organizations considered building their own social networks, instead of leveraging existing infrastructures.

That being said, there are schools that are developing their own gamification initiatives with success. These initiatives seem to fall into two camps:

  • they are putting a game layer on top of real life. This is referred to as an alternate reality game.
  • they are working to add simple gamification mechanics to their existing campaigns or web portals.

An interesting example of a game layer on top of real life is University of Southern California’s “Reality”. Reality is equal parts card game, media creation tool, and web portal. It is used by the Cinema School to make students more aware of it’s resources and faculty by engaging students early in their academic careers.

In contrast, an example of using simple game mechanics for an existing campaign, can be found in the Penn State Alumni Challenge for Former Student-Athletes. A challenge is presented to former student athletes to support their team. The site provides links to make a donation, and a graph is provided to show which team is in the lead to receive two $6,000 prizes. Winning is based on which team has the most increase in giving by former student athletes or the most increase over their previous year.

3) In your opinion, how institutions should use gamification in their marketing strategy?

Gartner made a recent statement that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily due to poor design. Gartner thinks that most current gamification is driven by novelty or hype. I would agree with that. We need to focus on a key word in Gartner’s statement. They never said gamification wouldn’t work. Gartner provides several scenarios where they believe gamification will have an impact. The key words in their warning is “meeting business objectives”.

Obviously you can’t just put a game face on a campaign and expect great results. Its too easy to get caught up in the mechanics and to start thinking it’s a great game experience for your target market/players. Poor implementation or design of the gamified campaign won’t lead to meeting marketing objectives.

If you are going to use gamification, take the time to understand why it works. Focus on your objectives and build in a few game mechanics at a time. You have to look at your marketing challenges and really ask yourself: is a game going to make this more engaging or interesting? If it’s not, don’t try to gamify it. You are just going to make the experience laborious for your users.

By definition, it’s not a game unless people want to play. You have to leverage gamification in such a way that it drives users to voluntarily engage, and keep engaging. There has to be a level of enjoyment. If you think gamification can help you meet an objective, go for it. Just remember to follow good gamification design, and hopefully people will be interested enough to play.

It’s not business as usual, it’s a game.

What do YOU think about gamification?


Have you created or implemented a gamified experience at your institution?
Have you seen a gamified marketing campaign from another institutions that looked interesting?

Please, share with the group by posting a comment to let us know if you think whether or not gamification has a role to play in higher education.

6 Responses

  1. I think one reason we aren’t thinking about this so much in higher ed yet, is because: we haven’t really developed the production skills for the medium.

    Gamification is one of those leap frog concepts. It encompasses and requires many of the things we are already using. It’s a strategic mindset. It requires stepping back and looking at the big picture, and pulling all these resources together into one big motivational scenario.

  2. If your colleagues or admin balk at gamification, tell them you are using “simulations.” Those get grant money & respect ;-)

  3. […] I was asked to write about gamification and the marketing of higher education: “Gamification of Higher Ed Fad or Future?”. In July I will be presenting a three hour workshop on the topic in Boston. I can’t get past […]

  4. Ross says:

    One Problem with Gamification

    One of the problems with gameification is the game is only as good as the model, and all models are inherently flawed because they are a model. Models are missing something be it size, complexity, flexibility, meaning, interconnections.

    The simplification in making a model is the very thing that dooms any outcome using it. This is why meteorologists cannot predict the weather. Well, they can predict some weather. Let me think. The models that meteorologist use–call it a game if you like for this example—are very complex and have evolved over decades.

    If real world problems are to be solved with gameification the model needs to evolve as it is being played. The model must become more complex, much like way the weather models evolved and are still evolving over time.

  5. Ross,

    You are right Gamification is a model. Even the word “gamification” is under scrutiny by those in the industry. It is an immature discipline that is developing. I have heard it described as persuasion marketing, and that seems pretty accurate at times. If behavioral psychology and game design had a love child – I think they would name it “gamificaiton”.

  6. […] following link is an interview from college web editor where I discuss Gamification for #highered: fad or […]

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