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Can Gamification Really Help You Pursue Continued Learning as an Adult?

Continued learning is an essential skill for adults. What we learn in school is never a finished skill set, but only a foundation for future success. The world around us continues to evolve and demand new skills.

Many adult learners can gain new and useful knowledge from bite-sized content packages, whether through trade publications or podcasts, or online tutorials. And even if you have to start earning in the present, it’s possible to finish diploma courses as you build your career.

Still, as a more mature and responsible student, you’re also pressed to balance time and juggle priorities. If there’s a way to make vital information easy to digest and maybe even fun, it could improve your learning outcomes. And that’s where gamification could come into play. Does it really work?

The potential of video games

Video games have come a long way since their inception. Before the turn of the millennium, gaming was a somewhat niche culture. Today, the Entertainment Software Association estimates that three-quarters of American households are home to at least one gamer.

It’s not just about how video games have become embraced by the mainstream. It’s also the time we spend playing. Adults spend over 6 hours a week playing with others online and over 4 hours a week playing with others in-person.

Those statistics are indicative of the potential of video games as a medium for interaction and experiences. And they have increasingly come to attract the attention of educators seeking to harness that power somehow. Get it right, and you can appeal to a wide range of students, presenting the material in a more stimulating manner.

Complexity in game design

The term ‘gamification’ dates back to at least 2011. It refers to the deliberate transfer of game design elements into non-gaming contexts.

But game design is really complex. Over a million titles existed as of 2019, which doesn’t even account for homebrews, user mods, or browser-based Flash games. They span dozens of genres and hold varying levels of appeal for different audience demographics.

Much like the proverbial book and its cover, a game can attract or turn away players based solely on genre or visuals. Those who do give it a try can get hooked or lose interest based on other design elements. Those include learning curve, gameplay mechanics, story content, and social interaction.

Attempts to transpose those design elements into the realm of education are met with further complications. Some subjects might be better suited to gamification than others. The students’ personality traits and age can also determine their response to such treatment.

man playing video game

Limitations of a haphazard approach

In the scientific method, you conduct experiments by isolating one variable for study and controlling all the rest. However, when educators apply game design to their material, they often incorporate multiple elements and present the material to a heterogeneous audience.

Thus, while some studies have shown gamification does improve student immersion and engagement, this approach makes it impossible to isolate exactly which elements make gamification work.

An overall review of the available literature indicates that little is truly understood about the long-term benefits of gamification in the practice of education. And yet the use of game design principles by instructors is rapidly outstripping studies of its effectiveness.

When that happens, any learning improvements derived from gamification come down largely to guesswork and circumstance rather than systematically demonstrated benefits. It’s almost a matter of intuition on the part of the instructor. How good is their feel for game design, combined with their knowledge of the material and its effective delivery? And will that work for a particular student?

Sticking with proven practices

Until the evidence in favor of gamification in education becomes well-defined, it’s best to treat it as more of a buzzword than a proven practice. Maybe it makes the learning experience fun, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to better mastery or retention of knowledge.

If you happen to find a topic that’s presented using elements of game design by a skilled instructor, and that approach seems to resonate with you, then great. You might be able to more rapidly absorb information while enjoying the process.

But in the absence of such good fortune, students and educators alike can rely on the tried-and-tested methods of andragogy. Remember that adults learn differently. They process information based on how they perceive its value and relevance to their lives.

When adults can align the ‘why’ of learning with personal goals, values, and previous experiences, their outcomes will naturally improve. Pursue further learning along those lines, and you’ll continue to build a better developmental path.

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