Game-based learning improves training, engagement

November 8, 2017  - By

Grown-up Gaming

Most of us know about serious games that teach real-world applications.

Flight simulators are the most well-known example. Learning to fly multi-million dollar aircraft is simply too costly and too dangerous to train in the real world. Pilots spend hundreds and thousands of hours in flight simulators going over basics and learning to deal with emergency situations.

Doctors are another profession that spends many hours doing simulated procedures.

The military is another.

So are police and emergency responders.

The risks are too great in those professions for real-world training. Immersive training in virtual, simulated environments is the only way to become fully proficient.

The term serious games describes a type of game-based learning, but serious games don’t have to be associated only with jobs that are high cost and high risk. Other examples of fields using serious games include fleet logistics operations, air traffic control, shipping port operations, unmanned aerial systems and driver training.

In all of those games, GIS is a crucial component because it allows game-based learning to transition from the virtual world to the real world.

Back to the Classroom

What was became what is because someone asked what if.

“What if,” two words the dogmatists abhor and the idealists herald. The idealists (aka visionaries and dreamers) drive change at an ever-increasing pace. There is never a respite.

I am admittedly a dreamer, but only in my waking hours. From midnight to sunrise I am very much a conservative (aka dogmatist and traditionalist), lest in my sleep I am overtaken by a swifter, stronger, more technically savvy idealist and awaken a dinosaur: Tewelowsaurus Rexus.

So it is in this age of disruption, an economic stalwart in one quarter and a bearish pariah in the next. The archeological rubble of traditional industries piles up.

The education system is such a behemoth, sluggish and dying, unable to compete with emerging technologies and immersive learning. Education RIP — another victim of the internet. But it is more than the battle of brick and mortar versus e-commerce. This extinction is happening because of style over substance.

Traditional schools simply are not attracting the generations of students who grew up in an increasingly connected digital age. What’s in it for me? Is now, what’s here, relates to me? We screamed when we were young and going through the system, but the alternatives were not there. Now, the alternatives are fascinating, engaging and wondrous. Students and the curious line up, wanting to participate.

To understand the difference between the two schools of thought, let’s consider a traditional subject: algebra — a favorite of millions of students year after year. Perhaps you too recall the joys of X over Y and the endless hours enraptured in sheer delight solving for “why,” as in why in tarnation does anyone need to know this?

If you were like me, then you too believed the title mathematician was synonymous with masochist, except that these instruments of mental torture were leaked to the government and, through public schools, were inflicted on innocent children posing as students.

But I digress. Probably due to latent psychosis: Post Algebraic Stress Disorder (PASD). It doesn’t have to be that way, except dogma dictates that our successors suffer the same.

A GIS Classroom Tale

The following example illustrates what a typical game-based learning environment might look like.

Professor Hamill, wearing a sports blazer over a dark blue T-shirt that reads “Data, the new bacon” and a comfortable pair of jeans, stands in front of the class. The Earth slowly rotates behind him on a large, multi-panel screen. It is the students’ second year of their Geospatial Science curriculum.

The professor addresses the students warmly and asks if anyone knows Xnite21? He explains it is his online gamertag and his GitHub user name. Most of the students, being coders and gamers with a background or an interest in GIS, immediately identify and begin calling out their own callsigns.

After a brief open discussion about favorite games and name familiarity, Professor Hamill explains their first assignment. They will be mapping all the trees in the campus commons — a typical task for an Applied GIS class, but this time is different.

The class is going to be using game-based learning. Each student is issued augmented reality (AR) glasses and a GPS-enabled tablet loaded with geospatial software. The students form into five six-person teams, each assigned a color. Each team has to geospatially tag unmarked trees by collecting attributes about the types and estimating height and diameter.

Looking through the AR glasses, if a tree has been tagged a translucent, colored column, the height and diameter taken from the attribute table will appear around the tree in the color of the team that captured it. When a total of all the tagged trees reaches 120, the assignment (game) is over.


Back in the classroom — converted to a command center — the students focused on a large, multi-panel screen showing the color-coded players as they moved around the campus and color-coded trees as they’re added. The overall score of each team is in the upper right corner. Individual stats on players are in the left.

The green team was ahead by a sizable lead. The red team and white team were fighting for second place, while the purple team trailed behind and the yellow team struggled to get started. The professor knew that he would have to spend some time with the students on the purple and yellow teams. The goal wasn’t to win, but to learn and have fun while doing it. By looking at the individual student’s metrics, the professor could see where the students were having challenges and then teach to improve those areas.

In the above example, the assignment usually takes five to six hours, but the gamification of the task cut the time in half. The students were more engaged, more motivated and had more fun; additionally, they learned leadership and teamwork and how to use the technology more creatively.

Students also develop camaraderie faster, usually beginning with the first assignment. Another added benefit is reduced absences. Students look forward to their assignments, and because they are usually part of a team, they feel a sense of interdependence that helps to motivate them to make it to class.

Because the students were able to finish the assignment faster than their traditional learning counterparts, they were given another assignment. Usually, that would be met with angst. But in game-based learning, as long as the assignment is fun, won’t take an inordinate amount of time, and has a relevant purpose, the students are more than often happy to do it.

After meeting with the class and going over the areas that the professor saw the students having the most difficulty, he sent out the same teams as before. This time they were tasked with sectioning off the student parking lot into five equal areas. Each of the teams were then to collect information on the each of the cars in their area: GPS location, make and model, and estimated value. After collecting the information, the students were then able to calculate the average value of all the vehicles, and thus, an average net worth. They were also able to run geospatial analytics to visually look for patterns and anomalies.

The students did not see the assignment as work so much as a game of discovery about themselves and their school, and appropriately enough how to apply GIS to everyday life.

The knowledge and experience acquired through game-based learning happens at a deeper level. The students are actively engaged in the learning process rather than passively engaged and emotionally charged with higher levels of energy.

Speaking with Giants

Phaedra Boinodiris

Phaedra Boinodiris

Writing this article gave me a great opportunity to interview Phaedra Boinodiris, a 20+ year leader in the game-based learning industry. She led IBM’s first serious gaming venture into a multi-million-dollar business unit. She is an expert in how to use game theory to promote user engagement and motivate students and employees to modify behavior toward more positive outcomes.

Phaedra is the author of the book Serious Games for Business: Using Gamification to Fully Engage Customers, Employees and Partners. Phaedra explained that elements of gaming are typically thought of as points, badges and leaderboards; but in reality, what motivates most people for long-term engagement is autonomy over their own lives, mastery of their craft and having a sense of purpose greater than themselves.

Phaedra-book-cover-WPhaedra also said that gaming is entering the workforce. It is beyond just training and education. Companies are already using game-based systems to engage employees. The return on investment (ROI) to the company is greater employee engagement, better moral, a more appealing workplace and higher retention rates, especially for Millennials and Gen-Xers.

Phaedra went on to say other advantages of game-based systems are the ability to curate user data to learn what motivates them. Knowing what drives a person means the system can hone the user’s experience.

Phaedra explained that game-based systems make data science actionable. She said what fascinates her the most is the intersection of artificial intelligence and play, and the advancements in human-computer interface. There is so much happening right now; it is an exciting time to be in the field.

See Phaedra Boinodiris at the 2014 gSummit in San Francisco speaking on gaming the workforce.

Nathan Elequin

Nathan Elequin

In addition to interviewing Phaedra, I also had the opportunity to interview gamification specialist Nathan Elequin, a graduate research assistant at Syracuse University. Nathan’s primary interest is moving the education system toward a more robust learning experience using game-based design. He authors an online column, EduGames.

According to Nathan, training is most effective when game theory is applied to learning. Gaming is the synthesis of science, skill, behavioral psychology and art, and when done right allows a student to figure out problems on his or her own, ensuring the learning is experienced internally, and thus, to a much deeper level than rote and recall.

GIS in gaming is important because rich gaming environments deal with massive amounts of information, and GIS has already overcome that challenge by creating spatially aware interactions of different types of complex variables to visualize patterns.

In regard to GIS and gaming, Nathan shared that one of the most popular games of the past several years was Pokémon GO, which made national news several times. It is an augmented reality game built on a geospatial platform.

A far better game is Ingress, where players are in one of two teams battling for world domination. The whole world‚ the real world, is the gameboard.

Ingress is a geospatially augmented reality game. It is described as bringing a video game into real life. Seeing the world through the lens of Ingress is to see magical things in the world around us that otherwise would go unseen. It is a fascinating game; you can see the trailer here.

Nathan spoke about a fascinating future using a geospatial-like system described as an objective-based navigation system similar in design to a GPS-based navigation system that takes a person from point A to point B along a course the computer determines based upon available data.

The objective-based system helps steer a person towards their chosen objectives, or goals. The person selects their own objectives. Using an artificial intelligence-based information system similar in design to a GIS allows complicated and massive amounts of data to interact and plot a course of action, helping navigate the person towards their objective.

Let sleeping dogma lie. Awaken the lucid dreamers of tomorrow. We exist on the precipice of potential, and it only takes a few of us to turn what if into what is. Find ways to teach that are more active, more immersive, and more engaging.

If it’s worth learning, then it’s worth spending the extra time to gamify the experience. It’s a win-win for students and teachers. This is a future we need only open our hands and grasp, for it is within our reach.

So, let the games begin.

Encore: The Cutting-Room Floor

Games in School

Returning from her first day back to school her phone rang as she opened the door. The familiar voice of her friend Conner asked in a hopeful voice, “Hi Jill. Want to come over?”

Sadly, after a moment’s pause she had to decline. “I can’t, Conner. I’ve got so much math homework. I can’t believe how much they gave us.”

“I do too, Jill,” said Conner explaining he was in a game-based learning curriculum. “My homework is to finish level 1 called Euclidian Dreams. Some of my friends are over and we are all playing, plus we’re going online later to compete against the rest of the class to see who’ll be the champion tomorrow. I was hoping you could come over, too.”

Jill sighed. In her voice was a tinge of disappointment. “It sounds fun, Conner, but I don’t know how well you’re going to be able to learn algebra playing games.” Jill’s answer sounded more like what his mother or father might’ve replied. Or the more harsh, disgruntled criticism of his grandfather who would’ve added how the world is going to pot playing games instead of studying.

Dejected, Conner hung up with Jill. He knew there was more than just a “no” in Jill’s refusal to come over. It was accusatory, as if she were judging him to be a miscreant because he was in the test program.

Conner went on that evening to have a great time with friends playing the games that were teaching algebra without actually doing math. The game taught algebraic concepts using a storyline, puzzles and challenges. There were characters, of which Euclid was the main one, guiding the journey and revealing insights and clues to find and reach the Elements, Euclid’s treasure.

As Conner progressed through the course, the games incorporated races, battles, adventures, stories, philosophies and mysteries of the ancient mathematicians whom he had to come to know through the games. The great mathematicians became friendly figures as they guided him through games with names such as The Riddle of Archimedes, The Mystery of Cheops, Code of Pythagoras, Plane of Descartes, Newtonian Revelations and the Visions of Einstein.

By the time each level was completed, the formulas didn’t seem like math so much as they appeared to be keys to unlock the secrets of the world around us.

NOTE: The characters in the story are fictitious. The games mentioned in the story are not real, but are based on DragonBox’s educational games.

Please provide your feedback. Specifically, are you interested in more on this subject? Did you enjoy the article? What topics would you like to see covered? All feedback is appreciated. Thank you.

This article is tagged with , and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Opinions