“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
Motivation is challenging to maintain even for the most driven individual. Achieving success requires perseverance, stamina, and determination. Success also requires establishing goals and measuring benchmarks. For many adults, the idea of returning to school often seems like a pipe dream. Overcoming fear can be the greatest hurdle, but once it is conquered, adult students battle against distractions brought on by life that threaten to derail their academic dreams. So, if education is a common good, why then, are more people—adults—unable to finish what they started and how can we—higher education—make it easier? For this answer, we look to gaming.
Now, likely you’re thinking this is a ridiculous analogy because chances are adults interested in possibly returning to school are generally not spending their time trying to beat Call of Duty. It is not so much the games themselves, but the gaming characteristics that are important to understand. In general, if we look back some of the greatest challenges we overcame were because we “gamed the system.” When we are faced with what appears to be an impossible task, our minds kick into survival or productivity mode by playing games, a skill we learn as children. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, we set achievable mini-goals that allow us to accomplish or be rewarded for our efforts before continuing forward. While on the surface this sounds childish, the realities are any seemingly insurmountable task can be achieved by pressing “game mode.”
There are four characteristics that gaming provides which propels gamers to commit hours in play. Some may think this is a waste of time, but individuals who engage in game play activate parts of their brains such as teamwork, problem-solving skills, and creativity, all of which also happen to resemble characteristics employers seek during the hiring process. Games are winnable, have novel challenges, integrate goals, and provide immediate feedback.
Winnable: Games allow winning by design. They have clear rules. The knowledge and understanding that there is a winner promotes perseverance along with trial and error. Games offer “justifiable optimism” which turns something tedious and frustrating into something that is rewarding and fun. Just because a game is designed to be winnable does not mean that it is winnable on the first try. A well-designed game causes the player to pursue several different attempts, try new strategies, and figure out the most efficient path to accomplish the objectives. Although games are winnable, they equally promote failure as part of the learning process. We learn more through failure than through the win. Adult students need to have the freedom to fail, learn, and succeed, but most of all they need to understand that the system is designed to allow them to win.
Novel Challenges: Games engage players with challenges. They offer new levels, enemies, and achievements. To entice gamers into spending hours interacting, designers need to ensure flow. Flow is what draws gamers into an alternate reality and forget about life for a while. A game that has good flow eliminates boredom and prevents gamers from becoming overwhelmed. In other words, well-designed games provide the perfect balance between being overly difficult causing frustration and ending in abandonment and being too easy resulting in a lack of accomplishment. Solid curriculum development should follow similar best practices and be designed for its intended population. Traditionally, curriculum design follows a progression that assumes students begin at the same point and continue without interruption from one academic level to another. This is not always the case for adult students who may have been out of school for years. When serving an adult population, it is a mistake to assume that every individual is starting from the same point. Adult students need institutions to design curriculum that offers good flow and encourages engagement while recognizing that students arrive from various starting points.
Goals: Games integrate objectives. For games to be fun, there needs to be rules. A set of “do’s and don’ts” that all players respect. Rules provide the structure needed within games to determine the value of the win. Goals provide progress points that allow the gamer to measure how much they improved their skills, developed their strategies, and achieved their objectives. While higher education institutions create objectives or outcomes that are reflective of the curriculum they offer, it is important for students to have individual academic goals aligned with the curriculum. By developing personal goals, adult students are invested in their education. Every student knows areas in which they struggle. For some (like me) it is math, for others it is English or science. While these subjects may present challenges, it is necessary for students to see their knowledge increase following a design structure that allows for learning flexibility. Adult students need a fair playing ground that clearly communicates the rules and establishes attainable goals to win.
Feedback: Games offer rewards. They provide instant satisfaction when goals have been accomplished and consequences for poor decisions. This feedback is manifested through points earned, number of lives left, and powers gained. Games are designed to always show players how well they are performing. Players can instantly see the results of their decisions and the steps they need to take to improve their performance. Students need the same level of feedback. Adult students have generally been out of a formal educational setting for many years. They can experience anxiety and self-doubt. Institutions can help eliminate this barrier by increasing student support and providing immediate feedback. Students need to understand how they are performing in order to implement corrective action before it is too late. When adequate feedback is not received in a timely manner, the result may be a feeling of defeat. Adult students need effective feedback so they can better control their performance to achieve their academic dreams.
We can use these fundamental gaming concepts to encourage adult students to return to college while offering opportunities for them to see they can win. As the world around us continues to change, education continues to be increasingly important. Academic opportunities need to be attainable for everyone, but that does not mean individuals should feel as though they are playing a game that is designed to watch them fail. Higher education can use these basic principles in a game frame perspective to allow adult student to “level up” by designing winnable programs of study that present novel challenges with achievable goals by maximizing timely feedback.
“…you always know where you stand in a game, how you’re doing,
and what you need to do to perform better. Research shows that the most
motivating thing is progress in meaningful work.”
~ Aaron Dignan
How can we more effectively help adult students “level up” in life?