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The (video)game of life

Gamification: how game elements can help learn, train and improve cognition.

by Nicholas Newman
07 September 2020
8 min read
byNicholas Newman
07 September 2020
8 min read

The gamification of life is not a modern concept or practice, although within the last half century it has blossomed into a significant dimension of computer functionality.

The concept of gamification only became popular in the last decade. In essence, it is based on the multidisciplinary concept that game elements, such as earning points or rewards, can be adapted for education and training. Since gamers voluntarily spend many hours playing games that require concentration and problem-solving, educators and trainers seized the opportunity to explore and develop programs using gaming techniques to teach, train and improve cognitive skills.

Games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions responsible for vision-spatial skills, according to Interesting Engineering. "Video games can also train players to be more personally accountable.

 In-game accomplishments tend to trigger dopamine release in the brain which rewards the player for their 'hard' work."

How gamification is used

In a learning environment, gamified tasks can integrate three approaches to influencing, guiding and rewarding effort and outcomes: the first one is supplementing a grading system by awarding an individual marks for effort, degree of progress over time, or completion of an assignment. The second is creating tasks for individuals or teams of employees to complete in competition with others. The third one, finally, concerns the use of avatars in co-operative games as part of a community working on one task together.

Designers of computer training and learning games combine traditional game mechanics with topical or subject content to deliver desired learning outcomes. For example, in order to encourage the completion of a training module, the designers might offer incentives such as badges or set up competitive leader boards.

Why games can be useful in learning

For both the student and employee, gamified learning and training offers many advantages: individual control since the game can be played at a time and place of his or her choosing; progressive learning opportunities by introducing incremental stages of difficulty; private, instantaneous and ongoing feedback; sense of community, especially in programs where team cooperation is core to the game's success.

For employers, educators or trainers, games may be a cost-effective means of imparting knowledge and practical skills to a predetermined consistent standard. Gamified learning and training simulations have been adopted in a variety of settings ranging from construction, health and safety, transport, medicine and the military.

Construction and urban design

Before computer aided design (CAD) and virtual simulation software became available and affordable, architects and planners relied on models made from a variety of materials, including Lego Architecture sets. Today, virtual simulation gaming software, such as the city management building game City Skylines, has become popular with town planner since it offers realistic learning and problem-solving experiences.

Likewise, both architects and planners are employing advanced CAD-based simulation software to study, learn and discover potentially expensive problems in a design before construction begins. Also available are specialist simulation software programmes, such as Massmotion, Simwalk and Crowd Dynamics, which are used to model and manage crowd behaviours.

Construction and manufacturing

Health and safety requirements are a fact of life for both the public and private sectors. Monitoring and maintaining compliance with the increasing body of regulations are prime responsibilities for both employees and employers. More and more employers are using gamified courses to ensure staff is knowledgeable and following the latest regulations.

The British Safety Council finds that virtual learning can prove useful in enabling the student to learn the required health and safety habits required in mining, construction and steel making.

The games allow employees to learn safety protocols in a virtual environment before applying them to the real world.

Medicine and health

Trainee surgeons are also using computer games to improve their manual dexterity, sharpen their reaction time and heighten their concentration. Indeed, research has shown that playing computer games "is a good warm-up" to performing keyhole, or laparoscopic surgery, according to Steve Wigmore, professor of surgery in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Similarly, medical students are perfecting their knowledge and skills with role-play in a variety of settings and situations: Microbe Invader lets a medical student act as a busy doctor in the understaffed Happy Hospital or treat infectious diseases in a virtual community. Prognosis is a scenario-based game of clinical cases for healthcare practitioners to sharpen their diagnostic and treatment skills. Medical School allows players to learn about the human body and how to correctly diagnose patients, all within the safe virtual walls of the medical school in preparation for clinical work.

Transportation

Simulations that include reward systems are being used to educate employees on the challenges of operating different types of transport over a wide range of environments and conditions.

Increasingly throughout the transport sector, employers train staff on advanced versions of simulation games before they are allowed to practice on the real thing. In fact, there are several suppliers marketing advanced educational and training and simulation software for the maritime sector, including Kongsberg Digital, NAUTIS Maritime Simulator and Force Technology.


Pilot training is the best known example of professional simulation

Education

In the education sector, gamification has shown its value in imparting hard subject knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or, what is commonly known, as STEM subjects.

One recent addition with relevance for future employment prospects is the game Geckoman, which teaches the basics of nanotechnology. This educational game, designed by Northeastern University game designers, teaches the scientific principles of nanotechnology and helps students ages 10-14 understand the difference between the nanoscale and the macro scale.

Code Master is a Programming Logic Game that teaches the basics of computer coding to children in a fun and enjoyable way.

For the engineering-oriented student, there are a range of engaging learning games, such as Space Engineer, Medieval Engineer and Miners Wars, all from video game developer Keen Software House. These programmes provide enjoyable, yet challenging, problem-solving games for students keen on designing and building a spaceship, castle or coal mine.

Gaming their way to greater engagement

With high levels of penetration, both educators and trainers have developed gamified apps, websites and operating systems to encourage students and employees to work and train. With greater experience and knowledge, game designers are learning how to make even boring, difficult and complex material interesting, exciting and possibly addictive. In effect, gamified programs may encourage learners to come back for more by combining the desire to succeed with frequent rewards—and fun.