APR Update: Gamification of Learning in Family Life Education: A Worthy Pursuit or Not?

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A colleague of mine, Janice Malak, who teaches a Marriage and Family course, has updated, embellished and refined The Marriage Game (Greenblat, Stein, & Washburne, 1977). Each semester, when she teaches this course, she encourages students to play her game, The Marriage Game 3.0. She not only believes the game supports the stated learning outcomes of the course, but also demonstrates what Jane McGonigal, noted gamification expert and game designer, says are four key characteristics of a well-designed game: achievable goal(s), rules, frequent feedback, and voluntary participation (2011).

Janice encouraged me to read McGonigal's book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Upon reading the book's introduction, I was hooked. I wanted to read the book in its entirety in order to find out 1) why games make us happy, 2) ways to reinvent reality, and 3) how "very big games" can change the world. I also wanted to visit and peruse her website, including viewing her TED Talk. Additionally, I wanted to play a game, SuperBetter, she has invented for purposes of helping players tackle real-life health challenges such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and traumatic brain injury. I also wanted to investigate some of the other games highlighted in the book that deal with topics like hunger, global oil supplies, housework, cross-generational conversation, kindness, and volunteerism. As a result of Janice's and my enthusiasm for the book, we decided to offer a workshop for faculty across the college. Participants from varying disciplines (e.g., family science, sociology, psychology, health, English, and art) read and discussed the book, watched a webinar co-sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Lynda.com called "Gamification and Learning," and began adapting existing and/or creating new games and simulations to use in their own classrooms.

As family professionals, we have likely heard it said that emotions are neither inherently good or bad; rather it is how we humans choose to act on our emotions that lead to good or bad outcomes. Similarly, I think McGonigal would support the idea that games are neither inherently good or bad; rather it is why and how we play specific games that leads to good or bad outcomes for individuals and relationships.

As McGonigal's academic and professional career has unfolded over the last decade and a half, she has studied the long history of human game playing: kinds of games played; contexts/settings for playing games; motivations to play games; amount of time devoted to playing games; and the impact of playing games. Regarding game playing today, she suggests we have reached a tipping point, particularly when it comes to the amount of time and money devoted to playing games, primarily electronic games, by an ever-growing number of gamers for the end purpose of escaping reality.

Gaming is a multibillion dollar industry. Recently, Robert Morris University, Illinois, and the University of Pikeville, Kentucky, have kicked-off their new eSports programs by extending scholarships to gamer-athletes. Rather than succumb to this phenomenon or try to inhibit it, McGonigal suggests: "We have to start taking this growing gamer majority seriously. We are living in a world full of games and gamers. And so we need to decide now what kinds of games we should make together and how we will play them together. We need a plan for determining how games will impact our real societies and our real lives. We need a framework for making these decisions and for shaping these plans" (p. 12). She is optimistic this can be accomplished and reports that she and many other game developers are committed to the creation of "games for personal and social change," "positive impact games," "social reality games," and "serious games" (p. 9).

When members of the Academic Program Review Committee and I review syllabi submitted for purposes of first time approval or renewal of approved status, we assess the learning activities and assignments that have been devised for students. Of course, we look for how well these correspond to stated course objectives or student learning outcomes. We also assess their variety, meaningfulness, level of challenge and engagement, innovation, and creativity. It is heartening to see courses that utilize well-designed case studies, simulations, and games. For example, there are poverty simulations, often carried out with the assistance of a local or regional Cooperative Extension or United Way offices. How can family science faculty come to know about these and other simulations and games which could then be incorporated into their own courses?

Our NCFR annual conference and state affiliate conferences often feature presentations about educational simulations and games, as does the Teaching Family Science Conference sponsored by Family Science Association. Upon perusing the program for the most recent The Teaching Professor Conference, I noted at least four sessions pertaining to game-based learning. Books, journals, and newsletters are sources of information about new educational simulations and games. The CFLE listserv could be another source of such information. Over the next few weeks, as the fall semester gets underway at our various campuses, I invite readers to utilize the CFLE listserv to highlight the well-designed educational simulations and games you actively utilize with students or otherwise know about. Summarize their goal(s), rules, means by which players get feedback as they engage in the game, means of acquisition, cost, and so on. Identify the course(s) for which they are best suited. Describe the impact you have seen these simulations and games to have on the students who play them.

I like to play games and I suspect most of you readers do, too. In Appendix 2 of Reality is Broken, McGonigal offers this practical advice to us and other gamers (pp. 365-369):

  • Don't play games more than twenty-one hours a week.
  • Playing with real-life friends and family is better than playing alone all the time, or with strangers.
  • Playing face-to-face with friends and family beats playing with them online.
  • Cooperative gameplay, overall, has more benefits than competitive gameplay.
  • Creative games have special positive impacts.
  • You can get all of the benefits of a good game without realistic violence—you (or your kids) don't have to play games with guns or gore.
  • Any game that makes you feel bad is no longer a good game for you to play.

Note: Readers wanting to know more about The Marriage Game 3.0 can email Janice Malak, Ph.D.


Greenblat, C.S., Stein, P.J., & Washburne, N.F. (1977). The marriage game: Understanding marital decision-making. 2nd ed. New York: Random House.

McGonigal, J. (2010). Gaming can make a better world: A TED Talk. See https://www.ted.com/speakers/jane_mcgonigal

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Books.

McGonigal, J. (2011). [Game]. SuperBetter. See http://www.superbetter.com

Thomas, D., & Kapp, K.M. (2015). [Webinar]. Gamification of learning. See http://www.lynda.com/webinar/gamification-of-learning.

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