How To Introduce Gamification (or anything new, really)

Introducing change like a new idea, routine, or workflow to anyone can be difficult. Introducing gamification to students is no different. I remember when I started gamifying seven-ish years ago, introducing gamification was actually harder than creating my gamification system. I made a lot of mistakes when I first introduced gamification. Since then, I’ve learned a lot of best practices for introducing gamification (or anything new, really) to students.

  1. For some, change follows the grief cycle – Not everyone has a problem with change. Many students have no problem adapting to something new, especially if they see it as fun. Those who don’t adapt well, however, tend to push back. And that push back follows the grief cycle. The most important thing to understand here, other than the types of push back to expect, is that you must stay the course. If you implement a change like gamification, don’t go back on it. You can tweak it, modify it, improve upon it, and add/remove parts, but don’t abandon it; persist and pivot is the name of the game. You will be doing yourself a disservice and will miss out on the opportunity to model for students how ideas start out as ugly babies but grow into something beautiful with effort and persistence. It also helps to give students a voice in any process. Allowing students to suggest Achievements and Items for the Item Shop can go along way in moving students through the cycle quickly.

Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle

2. Mollify loss aversion – You can cut down on push back by avoiding loss aversion. Loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to prefer avoiding┬álosses┬áto acquiring equivalent gains. This means that someone will be more upset if you give them something then take it away than if you never give them anything at all. Losing $100 hurts more if I get to hold it first. In terms of change, loss aversion can be avoided by starting gamification or new ideas at the start of the year. Students can’t get upset about a change in routine if gamification is part of the routine from the beginning. If you can’t start at the beginning of the year, start at an obvious checkpoint. Beginning of marking periods, units, or after breaks is a great time to jump into something new. But don’t preface it!

3. Onboard new ideas – Back when I taught high school, I taught public speaking. In PS, I use to do a unit on stand-up comedy. In that unit I warned students to never preface a joke; don’t tell people how funny a joke is gonna be with phrases such as: “You guys will love this joke.” Just tell the joke. In the same vein, when you are introducing something new, don’t hype it up before break. Don’t hype up the change at all.

I’ve never had a good experience when I told students that when they got back from Christmas break, we are going to do something awesome or different. I think that is because the line between excitement and anxiety is thin. Instead, onboard students. Onboarding, like loss aversion, is another game-mechanic we can use to smoothly implement change. Onboarding is the act of integrating people with new ideas. Ever notice the two main ways a video game onboards players?:

1. The video game only tells you what you need to know when you need to know it. You don’t learn about a new spell you’ll receive at level 75 when you first start the game. You learn how to swing your wooden sword at a rats in the sewer.

2. Great games never break the narrative to tell you how to swing the wooden sword. Learning how to play a video game, the actual mechanics of play, are told through the story, as part of the story. Not as some separate event. When you leave your house in a game, someone on the street may stop you and ask you to help them by going into the sewer to kills rats. This is how mechanics are introduced. As part of the narrative.

These two points are vital in introducing new ideas. The first part of my gamification system I introduce students to are Quests and experience points (XP) because they are the first thing students need to understand. They are the foundational game-mechanics on which the system is built. I introduce this as part of class, in context. “Congrats class, you’ve complete your first Quest and earned 50xp” is all it takes to introduce this idea. Any confusion is cleared up by re-framing the same statement: “Yep, 50xp for the Quests you guys just completed. Way to work hard.” The hive mind of the class is able to put together what Quests are and what XP is. After that, I introduce them to the leaderboards, achievements, and Item Shop when the time is right. Don’t be in a rush to explain the whole system, especially if it’s complicated. This timing also goes a long way in preserving excitement and engagement. The kids never know what’s coming next.

4. Let them play – Any time you introduce a new idea or technology to anyone, let them play with it. Structured and unstructured play are valuable learning techniques. When students first see leaderboards, I give them a 1/2 hour or so to check them out and talk about them. When I introduced Flip Grid, I let students play and make funny videos before asking them to reflect. Do not expect someone to use, perform, or work with something new at the same time you introduce it. Build in time for play. Play helps students feel part of the change rather than feeling that the change is something happening to them.

5. Share success stories – Whenever possible, highlight success stories in your gamified class. If someone hit an new level or earned a new achievement, tell the class about it. If a student has created something awesome with the new edtech you introduced, let them share it. The more success stories you can show, the more students will be able to imagine themselves being successful. Success breeds success.

6. Allow for diverse feedback – Give students a diverse, productive way to voice what they like, what they don’t like, and what they would like to change or add to your class. I don’t always make this feedback anonymous, as anonymity sometimes skews the truth, but I do usually use Google Forms or Office Hours. Students have also left me notes or made me videos. If you let students know you are open to feedback, you’ll be surprised at how they deliver it to you. I once had a student redesign a site I made because he didn’t like it! Differentiate your methods of feedback and you will find the hidden gems of wisdom that your students have for your class. Approach this wisdom with the understanding that students can, and do, come up with great ideas that you should implement into your class.

These are just some of the best practices I use when introducing gamification, or anything new, to students. Now that I run the Fair Haven Innovates program, a program where we are constantly pushing the educational envelope, I can tell you that these best practices work in a variety of contexts, not just gamification.

With that said, I wish you all a great start to your school year and look forward to sharing all of my brand new adventures in Fair Haven Innovates with you!

Until Next Time,

GLHF