Gamification of Development

Patrik Hultberg, Coordinator of Educational Effectiveness, Associate Professor of Economics, Kalamazoo College
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My 200-level Economic Development and Growth course was perfectly adequate. The material covered struck a good balance between theory and policy applications. I felt comfortable lecturing about the topic and students came to class and paid pretty good attention. Even the course evaluations were quite good. Still, I was not happy. Nobel economics laureate Robert E. Lucas once famously wrote that “once one starts thinking about [what factors promote economic growth], it is hard to think about anything else” (Lucas, 1988). I often felt the same way, but my students did not seem to share this sentiment at all; growth and development did not seem to animate them, with the possible exception of the day before an exam.

So I asked myself this question, “How can I turn a perfectly adequate course into an engaging and meaningful experience for our students?” After some reading and reflection, my tentative and surprising answer was that I needed to gamify it; design a framework “around” my course based on gamification principles. In this short piece I want to highlight how gamification can (and did) help create a more engaging and perhaps meaningful experience for students.

Gamification is often defined as the application of game elements and game-design techniques in a non-game setting, like a college course (Werlach and Hunter, 2012). The goal of gamification is to leverage a person’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in order to induce some action, like learning about economic development. I actually prefer the term used by Yu-Kai Chou who calls gamification “human-focused design” (2015). That is, designing for human motivation rather than for efficiency. The latter approach, to paraphrase Chou, is like designing a course that assumes its students will learn because they are required to, not because they necessarily want to.

Gamification is based on several general principles which we might be able to apply to our courses in order to make them more meaningful to students and thereby increase engagement. Below I briefly introduce five such principles (based on Chou, 2015), together with a few examples for how I incorporated them into my Economic Development and Growth (EDG) course.

Meaning: Motivation derived from a belief that the person is engaged in something bigger than herself. One way to implement the meaning principle is to create a narrative that explains the context of the learning activities; i.e. a story that conveys the importance of the course and how the learning can be used to help make the world a better place.

In my EDG course the chosen narrative is that the student has been accepted into the World Bank’s Young Professional program. This fictitious project is a ten-week program (Kalamazoo College has a ten-week term) in which they learn about development and its sources in order to co-author a comprehensive development report targeted at a specific developing country. The goal is to create a comprehensive plan for how to improve the chosen country’s standards of living; that is, improve the lives and well-being of millions people. No task could be of greater importance.

Ownership: Motivation and engagement derived from having a sense of agency and ownership. Giving a student a sense of ownership generates a desire to improve, protect, and obtain more (Chou, 2015).

The EDG course attempts to create this sense of ownership and agency by giving student choices, by allowing them to create their own course experience as far as possible. In general, the course has been designed for students to make choices throughout the course. Very few activities are required and students have a choice in terms of type of activity. For example, students can choose to take a multiple-choice quiz, answer a reflection question, or solve a mathematical problem. They can also choose (within a window of time) when to complete an activity, and whether to redo if needed. Students also have a choice in topics that they want to study more carefully. The comprehensive development report encourages student teams to choose a particular country, to identify the most important problem, and to develop their own plan of attack. Finally, the course has many optional activities that students can choose to do.

Curiosity: Motivation through unpredictability and uncertainty. This is the main motivator behind games of chance and the reason why people sit for hours and hours in front of slot machines in Las Vegas. B. F. Skinner, the famous psychologist, showed that uncertainty and unpredictability of rewards caused a rat to constantly press a lever, but the rat would stop pressing the lever when it was no longer hungry if the reward was predictable.

To implement this principle my EDG course attempts to make class sessions different from each other; the course is partially flipped in order to limit the need for lectures (very predictable), which allows for many projects and formative assessment activities. Also, and perhaps more daring, the optional activities that students can choose to engage in yield a random return of points. That is, for every activity only five random students (about 20 percent) receive bonus points.

Social influence: Motivation derived from a desire to connect and compare with others. There are several ways to implement the social influence principle, but the goal is to create an environment in which each student feel connected to others, including the instructor. Perhaps the easiest approach is to ask students to work together on teams.

In my EDG course all students are part of a team that collaborates on writing and presenting the comprehensive development report. Each member of the team possesses a unique area of expertise that is crucial for successful completion of the project. Most in class activities involve teamwork, and an attempt is made to allow project teams to get used to working together on smaller tasks before tackling the big project. These smaller active learning activities are designed to connect students and encourage peer instruction. There is also a sense of “competition” built in since students collect experience points that are displayed on a leaderboard (anonymously through an avatar). In addition, class photos are displayed online and student work are posted on classroom walls. Finally, I try to act like a facilitator or cheerleader, rather than the sage-on-the-stage that simply disseminates information.

Accomplishment: Motivation driven by a sense of growth and accomplishing targeted goals. This is an important component of gamification but, as illustrated above, points, badges and leaderboards are not the only, or even the main, components of gamification.

The EDG course uses several of these techniques to give students the feeling of “growth” and accomplishment. Almost every activity completed in the course earns experience points, which accumulate and are displayed on the leaderboard. There is a real sense of movement towards a targeted goal, which can be different for each student as different experience point totals yield different “win” states (grades). The Moodle course page displays several progress bars where students see their own movement towards completing various activities, such as earning certificates (badges). There are also many activities, including formative assessment activities, which allow students to be successful. Most activities are set-up so that failure is part of the learning and students can often choose to redo an activity after receiving feedback.

After running this experiment for three years (each year being slightly different), I find that students are in fact more engaged in the course and its activities. I have had my highest rate of attendance and former students have commented favorably on various course activities. The course is at least memorable. The course is also more difficult and time consuming to prepare. Creating the Moodle page itself is quite a task. I’m not sure whether I’m happy yet, but if the Economic Development and Growth course was a video game then I would definitely have “leveled up.”

Chou, Y-K. 2015. Actionable gamification: Beyond points, badges, and leaderboards.

Robert, E. L. 1988. “On the mechanism of economic development.” Journal of Monetary Economics, vol. 22, issue 1, pp. 3-42.

Werlach, K. and D. Hunter. 2012. For the win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business. Wharton Digital Press.



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