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Play and Learn: Why It’s Time to Gamify Educational Video

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When I was a kid in the early 1980s, I was very excited by the announcement of a new video game that promised to merge broadcast-quality animation with real-time action. Practical digital video was still years away at the time, and most video games still wowed us with resolutions that were half as good as those of TVs. So this game, “Dragon’s Lair,” relied on traditional cartoons recorded on LaserDiscs, which featured much faster random access than videotape.

When the game finally arrived in my local arcade, it was quite a disappointment for me. While the graphics -- produced by former Disney animator Don Bluth -- were impressive, for a kid raised on “Pac-Man” and “Asteroids” the action was pokey, with moves accompanied by waiting for the LaserDisc to queue up the next sequence.

Despite the challenges of creating an action-packed game using a LaserDisc, the idea of interactive video took off, fueling an educational multimedia boom that lasted into the early 1990s. I got my start in instructional video just as the multimedia boom crashed while interest and grant money ran out. Digital video was on the precipice of its ascendency, but many of those LaserDisc-based educational applications and games that had been created were truly impressive and fun to play.

Twenty years later, with the ability to watch video anywhere on powerful little computers, why are students still watching mostly lecture videos? Even when featuring HD video and motion graphics that make “Dragon’s Lair” look like Steamboat Willie, your average instructional video conforms to a model that was as current in 1983 as it was in 1963. It seems as if somewhere on the way from “Dragon’s Lair” to YouTube and MOOCs, we stumbled off the interactive path.

At the same time, there’s a word that we’re hearing with increasing frequency in both Silicon Valley and in classrooms: gamification. Put simply, gamification means turning some process or activity into a game, using rules, challenges, and rewards in the same way as Monopoly or Candy Crush. Author and game designer Jane McGonigal popularized gamification with her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, which has become a bible of sorts among educators and entrepreneurs taking up the cause.

In app form, Foursquare turns finding and visiting businesses into a game by rewarding you when you check in to a place. Go to a coffee shop enough times, and Foursquare will make you the mayor of that caffeine purveyor.

You might have participated in all sorts of gamification in school too; we just didn’t call it that. Maybe your teacher kept a scoreboard where students earned stars next to their names for good behavior or for finishing assignments on time. Today’s gold star is called a “badge,” and it isn’t a grade or a replacement for it. Instead, a badge is awarded to recognize progress, such as completing a certain number of exercises or winning a game.

These days innovative teachers are creating and sharing card games and other techniques for bringing gamification into the classroom. Yet, it seems as if online video still lags behind. What passes for playing a game in too much online courseware is taking short quick-recall quizzes interspersed during a video lesson or playing with the online equivalent of flash cards. These activities might break up the monotony and help re-engage a learner, but they’re not the kind of game a student will ever beg to play.

Back in 1983, the excitement about “Dragon’s Lair” was about the potential for the player to control the cartoon movie, to take control of the storytelling. The promise is that it would be a video Choose Your Own Adventure. Now we have the technology to actually pull it off, seamlessly. It’s time to gamify video.

For inspiration and ideas, look to the Gamification Wiki and the Institute of Play, and read about game-based learning at Edutopia.

This article appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "It’s Time to Gamify Video."

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