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Report from Coursera’s Gamification class

I recently completed a MOOC on the topic of Gamification, delivered through Coursera and taught by Kevin Werbach, a professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. The course ran for six weeks and had around 40,000 registered students. The primary course content consisted of video lectures organized into 12 units (two units were viewed per week), with each unit comprising five or six videos of around 10 minutes duration each. The activities in the course included three homework quizzes, three written assignments, a final exam, and a (mostly optional) discussion forum.

The course began by setting some context: Werbach explained the concept of gamification and presented examples of its implementation, both historically and in the present day. Gamification was defined generally as the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts, and then throughout the rest of the course, Werbach explored each component of that definition (game elements, game design techniques, and non-game contexts) in more detail.

One unit of the course explored the question: what is the definition of a game? In another course that I took at NC State last year (CSC 281, “Foundations of Interactive Game Design”) we delved into this topic in much more detail, but Werbach did a good job of summarizing this complex question to explain its significance within his course, and in setting the broader context for gamification, he discussed important concepts like the “lusory attitude,” the “magic circle,” and the “player journey.” For a more comprehensive discussion of topics in this area, a good source is Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2003).

The course also addressed the idea of approaching a gamification project by thinking like a game designer. Although in practice, participants in a gamified system are often customers or employees (or students), a thoughtful designer of a gamified system will also think of the participants as players and will design the system with the players at the center of the action; from the perspective of the player in a game, the entire experience is centered on them. Players in a well-designed game are autonomous actors that make meaningful choices to affect the game’s outcome. In addition, games (and by extension, gamified systems) should also be fun. Defining what fun is may be even more difficult than defining what games are, but the course discussed several frameworks from relevant literature and provided a wide range of examples that defined different kinds of fun in a variety of ways.

The course lectures also discussed the psychological aspects of gamification. In a gamified system, the designer is typically trying to motivate users (players) to take some kind of action, and so when thinking about how one might design such a system, it is useful to consider the psychological basis of motivation. The course presented an overview of behaviorism, and discussed how some behaviorist ideas can inform gamification design, while also emphasizing some of the limits (and potential dangers) of purely behaviorist approaches. Gamification techniques that align with self-determination theory and that appeal to the development of players’ intrinsic motivation were also emphasized throughout the course.

The course also presented the “Gamification Design Framework” that is discussed more fully in the book that the instructor co-authored, For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. This framework is based on applying design principles to gamification in a way that attempts to connect the experience of playing games (the user’s sense of fun and play) to the business objectives (the measurable and sustainable outcomes) of the gamified system. Werbach’s Gamification Design Framework consists of six steps:

  1. Define business objectives: what are the specific objectives that we hope to achieve through gamification?

  2. Delineate target behaviors: what are our specific objectives for modifying the behaviors of our users, and how will we measure success?

  3. Describe your players: who are our users (demographics, psychographics, etc.), and what kinds of game elements and techniques are likely to be effective for this population?

  4. Devise activity loops: how will we motivate users using engagement and progression loops, and how will we provide effective feedback?

  5. Don’t forget the fun: how is fun incorporated into our gamified system? How well would our game function in the absence of any extrinsic rewards?

  6. Deploy the appropriate tools: what game elements will our system include and how will they be implemented?

Werbach’s framework is similar in some ways to instructional design principles that frequently come into play in my job supporting instructional technologies at NC State. Instructors who are new to online teaching sometimes want to integrate some specific technology into their teaching, but a better practice is not to start with the technology; instead, start by identifying an instructional need and then determine whether a technology matches that need. Werbach’s Gamification Design Framework doesn’t start with the idea of applying points, badges, and leaderboards; it starts by identifying objectives and target behaviors, proceeds through analysis of audience and selection of motivational strategies, and it is only in the final step that specific game elements are selected for use. This framework is meant to be a general approach that can be applied to different situations. The course did not try to provide a fully realized gamified system that would work in any situation; rather, it provided a theoretical foundation and a set of tools, and asked the learner to take it from there and apply the knowledge appropriately in a particular context.

In general I enjoyed this class, and I think the content was appropriately thorough and well presented. I will definitely consider using Coursera again if another one of their courses is of interest to me. The Gamification class has provided me with a solid foundation in this subject matter, and I look forward to finding ways to apply this knowledge in my own design projects and consulting activities in the future.