Game on

Nov 30, 2020

Dr Patrick Buckley and Dr Elaine Doyle explain how gamification can enhance accounting education, and why experienced professionals might rail against the concept.

Human beings are hard-wired to play. Games are an integral part of our personal, social and cultural identities. Games provoke powerful emotional responses of joy, anger, satisfaction and frustration. Science is discovering deep, complex relationships between our brains, neural systems, learning and game-play.

A feature of the modern world is the rise of the video game, from Minecraft to Mass Effect. In 2019, the number of active video game players worldwide was 2.47 billion. For children and young adults, computer games have become a dominant form of media consumption. It is self-evident that computer games have a powerful effect on behaviour.

The observation that the mechanics and dynamics used in games can affect motivation and behaviour has led to the concept of gamification. As is often the case with new ideas, there are several competing definitions. Broadly speaking, however, gamification can be seen as a suite of techniques and psychological prompts connected by their association with games and play. More specifically, gamification involves the use of elements traditionally associated with games (such as structured rules, competition, points and leaderboards, for example) in non-game contexts to prompt specific behaviours or emotional responses in individuals.

Gamification in practice

While gamification is a new term, using game mechanics to solve problems and gain an advantage in the real world is far from novel. For example, consumer loyalty points programmes leverage at least some of the elements and characteristics associated with games.

In recent years, interest in gamification has been accelerated by:

  • The ever-increasing pervasiveness of smart devices, such as phones and watches, that provide a platform for gamified activities; and
  • The rise of the ‘attention economy’, where attention is individuals’ scarcest resource. The ability of gamification to attract and hold the attention of consumers, employees and other stakeholders is of significant interest to organisations.

Many of us are now very familiar with fitness tracker devices and related apps, the experience of which is grounded in gamification. A variety of goals are set out (steps per day, calories burned and so on). Constant feedback and reminders are received (“Did you move enough this hour?”). Daily targets achieved are celebrated, and badges are awarded for more significant milestones. Fitness trackers also allow goals and achievements to be shared with friends, motivating us and encouraging competition.

In business, activities such as marketing, customer relationship management and innovation are especially suitable for gamification. Other potential applications include personal productivity management and health management. The global market value of companies developing and deploying gamified activities and processes is expected to be $12 billion in 2021.

Gamification also has the potential to make a difference in education and training. Capturing the attention of students, engaging them, and sustaining their interest has always been a challenge. Many educators feel their work has become more challenging as an ever-increasing array of digital distractions compete for attention. With its promise of positively engaging students and mediating their behaviour, gamification is a valuable tool that can be used to appeal to the digital generations.

Gamification in accounting education

From one perspective, education has always been gamified to a degree. A final grade can be seen as an external representation of how much you have learned relative to the content of your course. Tests and quizzes provide feedback on how much students have learned, both in absolute terms and relative to their peers. However, many educators are now becoming far more systematic about applying gamification to the design and delivery of their courses.

When thinking about how gamification can be applied in educational and learning contexts, it is useful to think of it in terms of engendering particular classes of behaviour in students. For example, a teacher may decide that prompting competition will be effective in motivating students. To attain this goal, a traditional quiz may be adapted. When a student completes the quiz, for example, they will not just be told if they are correct or incorrect, but also how they performed relative to their classmates for each question. A more extreme version would publish results on a leaderboard for everyone to see how they did relative to the rest of the class.

Conversely, a teacher may wish to promote collaboration, allocating badges (like ‘Best Explainer’) to a student who helps other students with explanations, using an online forum or a similar collaboration tool. These awards are often valuable in terms of demonstrating valued personal skills and attributes to potential employers. Demonstrated collaborative actions in learning contexts could be integrated into such schemes.

Another teacher may wish to prompt creativity. Rather than create a test, the teacher would instruct students to develop a test themselves as a learning exercise, with marks allocated for how well the test meets and tests the learning outcomes of the course. This approach compels students to ask meta-questions about their course, such as: “What am I being asked to learn?” and “How will I know if I’ve learned it?” Extending this approach, students could be asked to take, evaluate and improve on the tests other students create, again prompting collaboration and engagement.

Benefits of gamification

Gamification is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires consideration and careful design to be used effectively and, as with many teaching techniques, it has its advantages and disadvantages. In the context of the teaching of accounting and tax, we have observed interrelated benefits of using gamification.

The first and key benefit is improved motivation. Gamified activities are seen as being fun, interesting and engaging, and an improvement on more traditional ‘chalk and talk’ forms of content delivery and assessment. This is particularly the case for younger students, arguably because, having grown up with video games, they are more comfortable with games in general.

Improved motivation then explains the other positive effects of gamification we have observed. In general, students tend to be more satisfied with courses that include gamified elements and activities. Students prefer and perform better in courses they are engaged and interested in, and gamification serves that end. More importantly, the learning outcomes for courses, as measured by grades, tend to be better in courses that contain gamified activities.

Challenges of gamification

In our experience, using gamification in an educational context also involves potential risks and requires careful consideration of at least three key challenges:

  1. The most significant challenge is the need for careful contextualisation of gamification. Time and again, we have noticed that different participants respond very differently to gamified activities. One of the most important variances is in how individuals react to competition. Some people are temperamentally inclined to be motivated by competition, while others find it objectionable in an educational setting. This variance seems to occur regardless of the gamification intervention used – some find badges motivating, while others see them as patronising, and so forth. A particular schism we have observed is that undergraduate students tend to respond far more positively to gamification than postgraduate students. From informal conversations, we have inferred that postgraduate students, who have paid significant fees for courses and are much more focused on grades, feel gamified activities are a ‘gimmicky’ distraction. Therefore, we expect that resistance to gamification would similarly be found in professional and continuing education contexts.
  2. Gamification works by creating extrinsic motivation like badges, points and leaderboards, as opposed to the intrinsic motivation of learning for the sake of learning. There is a significant body of research that shows how extrinsic motivators can temporarily shift behaviours, but that this shift will be short-lived. Unless the motivators are reinforcing, cumulative, and continually increasing, individuals will become satiated with external motivation, ultimately undermining its long-term impact.
  3. The old saying, “You get what you measure”, sums up a final challenge. A well-recognised risk of offering rewards linked to behaviour is that unless the reward is very tightly tied to the desired behaviour, the provision of rewards may encourage behaviours that are not desired by the game designer, but which are more effective at accruing a reward.

Conclusion

Gamification has attracted much interest as a way of creating more engaging educational experiences. It aligns with the media consumption habits of digital natives. It leverages the power of the pervasive information systems that are now integral to our lives. It offers a framework to address the motivational issues often associated with online learning, particularly useful in the new learning environment forced upon us by COVID-19.

It also brings challenges and raises questions. Gamification is perhaps best thought of as a technique to inform the design of content delivery. As with any approach to education, it will be most successful when the learner’s abilities, needs and characteristics are placed at the heart of course design.

Dr Patrick Buckley is a lecturer in information management at the Department of Management and Marketing, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick.

Dr Elaine Doyle is a lecturer in taxation at Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick.


The business case for gamification

‘Gamification’ is the use of the dynamics and mechanics traditionally associated with computer games to affect behaviour in other contexts. As a generation of children and young adults who have engaged with computer games from their early years enter education and the workforce, educators and employers must understand how gamification can be used effectively to motivate and manage these individuals.

This article looks briefly at the strengths and weaknesses of gamification as an educational tool to help facilitate individuals in developing their knowledge and professional skills. Gamification can improve motivation, satisfaction and assist in the achievement of learning outcomes. However, care must be taken to ensure that gamification matches students’ needs and does not obscure the value of learning with badges, leaderboards and the like.

As with any tool, it must be used carefully. Nevertheless, the synergy between gamification and the lived experience of young people means its importance is likely to increase over time.