Professor Benjamin Balak is using video games to teach economics.
Gamification is a pedagogical practice that involves structuring a course as a game. It can include using computer or video games as part of the course, but it need not.
The office phone on Assistant Professor of Economics Benjamin Balak’s crowded desk has been shoved to the side, buttons facing the wall. The receiver is off the hook, dangling over the edge, just above the carpeted floor.
“I haven’t answered that phone in years,” says Balak, an associate professor of economics who uses video game techniques to teach economic theory. “A traditional office telephone is so archaic. I use more efficient methods of communication—like SMS, Facebook, and email. My students love it.”
Those gaming techniques stimulate the production of the chemical dopamine in the brain. In turn, according to neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones, dopamine “helps orient our attention and enhances the making of connections between neurons, which is the physical basis for learning.”
Indeed, Balak believes a case can be made for structuring all courses like a game, a practice known as gamification. For him, games like World of Warcraft are not a frivolous diversion, but a way for students to immerse themselves in a subject.
So a desk phone may be too old fashioned for him. Those random rings get in the way of juggling tasks, all of which brings Balak back to the topic of fast-moving online games with their multiple scenarios, requiring intense focus and continuous learning. It’s not just entertainment, he says. In the right hands, it’s a teaching tool for the modern age. “In computer games, you don’t read the manual; the game teaches you as you play,” he says.
A self-described gamer, Balak has now incorporated gaming into all his classes. Computer games have shown him that “the fun is the learning. That’s why you pay for video games.” And pay they do. Computer gaming now generates $100 billion in annual revenues and is larger than all other entertainment sectors except for sports, which reels in more through merchandising and media rights.
Although his office phone may be off the hook, Balak definitely is not off the grid or cloistered in his ivory tower. He’s online nearly all the time, staying available to students with questions and concerns through texting, email, course-related Facebook groups, and on the virtual platforms he creates for his economics classes. Balak believes that it’s only natural to use new technology to communicate with students—and to teach courses like Economics, Media, and Propaganda.
“It’s a real-world, multi-disciplinary approach,” says Balak, who has been testing these techniques for 10 years. “We need to teach mastery of technological skills, and how to use them to figure things out for yourself. That’s a real-life job skill.”
A screenshot form Civilization V shows the general scenery of a small part of the world, which offers exhaustive details on diplomacy, trade, and resource allocation.
Games Offer Many Paths to Success
“Gamification is starting to become more accepted,” says Balak, who notes that gamification doesn’t reject past knowledge. “It builds on liberal-arts and teaching traditions while modernizing them and connecting them to the 21st century.”
Throughout the course, students can keep track of their progress, so they always know what grade they have in the course.
As in video games, his students all start out with zero points—the dreaded “F.” Students then take on the challenge of completing tasks, or quests, to accrue points and advance to other quests. The quests—from demonstrating knowledge of completed readings to stimulating online debate between classmates to creating artwork, videos, or blog entries to explain certain economic views—all build upon the students’ interest and offer multiple paths to success.
The syllabus for Economics, Media, and Propaganda is incorporated into the gamified learning management system, know as an LMS.
“For instance, core quests may be centered around reading and analytical writing or problem sets, but side quests could involve [a student] selecting a favorite quote or passage, then writing a shorter response with connections to outside ideas, or even creating media about it,” says Balak in a paper he coauthored with Connor Neve ’14. “Through open-ended side quests, gamification provides students the ability to interact with the material on their own terms, and in ways that appeal to their individual style of learning.”
Indeed, gamification can be used more broadly to solve scientific problems. The University of Washington’s Center for Game Science, for example, worked with biochemists to develop an online game called FoldIt. The goal was to win points by creating a protein structure that had special characteristics. Thousands of gamers competed and, in less than two weeks, they helped identify the structure of a complex protein that had baffled researchers for more than a decade.
He notes that play is a natural form of learning for humans and animals. “I’ve always been something of a geek,” he says. “However, even Socrates was playing games [while he instructed] in ancient Greece.” That fusion of new geek and ancient Greek may make for a potent mix in the future.
Games Convey Real-world Complexity
Balak is already thinking of how to advance to the next level. He is constantly tweaking his courses and developing new tools using Facebook groups, wikis, websites, RSS feeds, Youtube, and blogs. Everything is now brought together under an innovative gamified learning management system, known as an LMS, he is helping to beta-test (3DGameLab.com), where his students can post their work, debate each other, and collaborate on projects.
As they work their way through assignments, students can receive badges, achievements, and awards for work completed.
It also allows students to track their progress, much as they would in video games or popular wearable technologies like Fitbit. Their progress, however, comes in the form of experience points and awards, including the Dr. Spock badge for rationality, the Che badge for radical creativity, and gold stars for peak performances.
There is no single, regimented syllabus, although some readings are mandatory. In keeping with the idea that the best economic environments stimulate innovation, Balak allows students to find different paths to the same knowledge. “If you don’t like my assignments, then make up a better assignment and defend it.”
Motivated students may finish their quests weeks ahead of their classmates. Moreover, Balak is toying with the idea of posting a leader board to show the top point-getters in class. “Designing rewards that address both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and balances them is very important,” he says.
For now, his students do not move avatars through various action scenarios. However, they might in the future. Balak believes that the popular Civilization and World of Warcraft games offer clues on how to convey a sense of teams operating simultaneously on many pressing problems in various locales. That, he says, also describes the global economy, beset with a vast variety of problems and a cluster of partial solutions.
“We have multiple simultaneous crises interconnected with each other, so we are forced to tackle all these problems at once,” he says of the economy. What better way to learn about the challenges of a world in flux, than through a complex, fast-changing game?