Video games hold the key to engaging kids in education.

That was the message Pierre Le Lann brought in his talk “Gamification Meets Education” at the Interactive Ontario’s  INplay kids conference.

“If you think of school as a game, it's a pretty badly designed game,” said Le Lann, who is co-founder and co-CEO of the Montreal-based educational service and online kids game company Tribal Nova.

For starters, you don’t earn badges, rewards or power-ups (temporary powers) at school, nor do you have any real sense of your progress. So much of what makes gaming rewarding and engaging simply doesn’t exist at school, he said.

But by sifting out what makes gaming engaging, you can use those elements as a template to make education more relevant, and therefore more effective, for kids, he said.

And it’s not just the mindless kicks that make gaming so much fun, he said. “The fun in games is all about the learning,” he said, “That notion that you are getting better at it and that after time you will master it.”

Other key design elements of games for educators to consider are:

•    Goals and challenges are clear
•    There is well-calibrated difficulty and pacing
•    You can make continuous progress
•    You receive feedback regularly
•    You receive continuous positive reinforcement
•    You can earn points and use them for something (purchase things, etc.)
•    You earn badges, power-ups and other status rewards
•    You can earn improved social status with success
•    Games have well-developed meaning
 

Points system replaces goal system

While well-designed games do a good job of creating clear goals and challenges, schools don’t do a good job of this with kids in school, Le Lann said.

“And in school the goal system has been replaced by the point system,” he said, where kids get grades, instead of hitting goals.

Meanwhile, games show users their progress continuously, through such things as a progress bar at the bottom of the screen. “But in school if you get a B after you get an A, you get the sense that you are regressing,” he said. “This is something that is not motivating.”

As for well-calibrated difficulty and pacing, games keep the difficulty level in the area that keeps the user between a state of anxiety and boredom so it’s not too hard, but keeps them on their toes.

“We do a pretty good job at this in games,” he said. “In comparison school is a highly standardized program.”

Kids need more timely feedback

While it may be hard for teachers to give every student the continuous positive reinforcement that games do, this is an area to be worked on, he said.

Schools do a good job of giving regular feedback, but he suggests this should happen more in ‘real time’ so the students can get a more immediate sense of how they are doing.

Points and use of points is another area of great opportunity, he said. “What is most important (to the kids in the games) is what can they do with those points, whether it's that they can buy stuff... This is such a big part of getting kids engaged. You can't do anything with your grades.”

Doing well at school offers negative 'badge'

There also remains no opportunity to ‘level up’ at school and the social status of doing well at school isn’t good.

“Being good in school is actually a negative badge in school,” he said. “This is just a shame. This is something I think we can change.”

Meaning is also critical to making a game successful, he said. We need to do the same for school, he said.

“What's really driving (the popularity of gaming) is the intrinsic stuff, mastery, power, belonging, this is more powerful than points,” he said.

And with student disengagement and drop-out rates as high as they are, particularly among males, schools need to reconsider their approach, he said.

“What I know for sure is that there's a lot at stake,” he said. “What we're talking about is creating games to help kids not drop out of school.”