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Gamification: A Tool for Motivating Children
Nov 1, 2014

Jack had been the ruler of the village for more than six months. He had many ups and downs during this time. He was not complaining, as he knew that he chose to take this responsibility and didn't have the right to complain. But things were getting more difficult in the village. There were many things to do but he had only two capable workers in the village; this explained why constructions were going so slowly. All the villagers knew that, "Winter was coming." "Winter" was not the season for them but it was the war, which meant more work, difficulties, and responsibilities, and so on.

The ruler's time was fading away. He needed to train soldiers and workers and find more resources. He also had to make some donations to the neighboring villages, as he knew that the more they all helped one another, the more likely they would be to defend their territory. Jack was still happy because they had at least put up walls around the village, built barracks for people, and two camps for soldiers. He was spending four or five hours checking the village every day, because he knew the ruler had to take care of his home. Suddenly, he heard the voice coming from the old and loyal tower. It was telling news of the war. Jack gathered all his soldiers because he was the only one to command them. Strategy was so important, because bad planning would mean the end of all the villages. After a brave speech, they started to march. All the soldiers' attention was directed to Jack, waiting for his commands.

But suddenly, Jack lost all his soldiers. He was mad and ran away from his room to check the router and saw that there was no internet connection. What was he going to do now? Jack sighed. He supposed he would do homework instead. Exams were getting closer; all his enthusiasm faded away.

It does not matter what age you are, most people find it difficult to concentrate on the task they are required to do. There are books, seminars and many activities to motivate people to finish their work. These all show that we face an important problem with handling our responsibilities.

This is also one of the key issues in education. Much research has focused on how to improve the engagement and motivation of young people towards their school work. As you have probably heard, it's almost a cliché that most parents complain about young people's irresponsibility regarding school work and work around the home. While this has been a problem standing in front of us for a while now, we must ask: what makes these kinds of distracting video games so appealing?

The story told above is happening every day. That video game has been downloaded more than 50 million times and is being played every day by millions of people of various ages. The first time I had heard of this game was when I conducted interviews with children using a tablet PC in school. Although my focus of the research was not about mobile games, this was brought up when I wanted to make informal conversation before initiating the interview. One boy was so enthusiastic when we started to talk about this game, that he mentioned he would stop playing the game, go to sleep, but set his alarm for five hours later - his worker would have finished the task he'd been assigned, and the boy would wake up to assign a new task Not finishing such a task would mean lagging behind his peers, for his village would not develop.

I asked him, "what is so nice about this game? You are just building and upgrading buildings and fighting against others."

The answer was, "I don't know; it is just fun."

I also installed the game. I had played it for two months until I woke up at 3 a.m. with a notification. One of my workers had finished his work and I assigned him another task. Then I tried to sleep. I opened my eyes again after a couple of seconds and saw my wife's shocked eyes. She could not believe I woke up just for this. It was the last time I played the game. But the question was still in my mind: how could we trigger our sense of responsibility by exemplifying the methods of the game in real life?

We - people in education, parents - spend a considerable amount of time and resources to nurture children in a manner so that they become aware of their responsibilities. However, schools, teachers, homework, etc. are seen as boring and something to be escaped by most children.

Gamification is a trendy jargon nowadays. It aims at transforming real life context in a manner that adopts game thinking in online platforms. From this perspective, it proposes to increase motivation, engagement, sense of enjoyment, and the positive attitudes of people towards work (Huanng and Soman, 2013). While there is much research in the sector of business, gamification is also widely recognized in education. The educational purpose of gamification is that instead of blunting the way children best learn, the way they enjoy to learn should be adapted in an educational context. This is not a new idea, as this was also expressed in other contexts. For example, Said Nursi touches on a crucial point:

One reason why preachers' advice is ineffective nowadays is that they invite people to change their nature. They advise: "Do not be envious or ambitious, do not feel enmity or be obstinate, do not love the world," and so on. Such advice is useless, for it is against human nature. Instead, these energies can and should be channeled into good deeds and directed toward positive aims. (The Ninth Letter, p. 53)

If we want to apply this method in education, the first thing we should consider is what children like and enjoy most. Obviously, many of them enjoy playing games and any advice like, "Don't play games! Don't laugh during the lesson! Don't spend time in front of the computer! Be quiet in class!" will be counter-productive. As in Said Nursi's statement, this is asking the impossible from a child who is created to learn in an environment that offers play, social interaction, and competition.

Jean Piaget is a well-known theorist about play and the cognitive development of children. He emphasizes the importance of play and its contribution to healthy development of children (Sutton-Smith, 1983). Vygotsky (1967) also underlines social play and peer interaction in child development. However, while Vygotsky gives the example of a child who rides an imaginary horse with a stick, today's children's perception of play has changed and continues to change dramatically. Therefore, it should be understood how Jack's and my sense of responsibility were piqued. While we both cognitively focused and spent a considerable amount of time on this game, we also enjoyed doing so.

From the perspectives above, the stimulating dynamics used in games could be transformed in a suitable manner into curriculum and the classroom environment could be redesigned. This can also be adapted into work environments, as in Google whose office buildings are colorful rather than plain, and there is even a slide for their workers to use instead of stairs. Their aim is to make the environment flexible so people in the firm do not perceive what they are doing as a work.

There is also educational technology that pays attention to gamification. ClassDojo is one of them. It is a simple but effective idea to attract student's attention and change their behavior. Each student chooses an avatar that looks like a small monster and the teacher assesses various things on behalf of the students' avatars. Teachers can give immediate feedback to students. For example, when a student shows a negative behavior in class or solves a question, students will see the changes in his/her ClassDojo app on their mobile device. The children I interviewed showed great enthusiasm about this application and interestingly, they perceive this application as a game, although the only differences between this application and normal assessment sheets were the avatars and the template. Kahoot and Socrative are two other mobile applications that these students have experience with. These mobile applications are also perceived as joyful, competitive, and rich learning platforms.

While considering how to transfer the strategies of the game into the real life context, it should not be forgotten that there are parents and teachers who have serious reservations about games, as some of their children are addicted to these kinds of games. They are right to have these doubts and I do not think games are absolutely innocent. In fact, most strategy games, including the one that me and Jack became addicted to, have many negative messages, from stealing to killing people. But when it is impossible to avoid them completely, it is best to focus on the positive themes and actualize them for productive outcomes in schools and family life.

All in all, I am still thinking about the situation of my village and neighborhoods. The rulers of neighboring villages were sad and angry when I said that I was leaving: "Winter" was getting closer and they needed my donations and the soldiers I trained. I am now consoling myself as my wife, who is a child psychologist, assigned me to do cleaning and made me think of all the bacteria as my enemies and a big threat to our lovely village (home). As parents and educators, it is our duty to discover the way your children and students learn and produce your own real games.

Ahmet Tugra is a PhD candidate in the department of Learning, Technology and Education in the UK.