Rowan Tulloch (image courtesy Optus Future Makers)

Fair game: finding the point of gamification

How do you go from being a gamification sceptic to having to call a student ‘Ramses Niblick the Third Kerplunk Kerplunk, Oops Where’s My Thribble’ as part of a class game you’ve designed? Oh, and winning a $50,000 Optus Future Makers prize? You tell us, Dr Rowan Tulloch…

Rowan, you’ve just won an Optus Future Makers prize to develop and expand your Game Change software. Have you always been a gamification fanboy?

I came in very cynical about gamification in education, because it’s such a buzzword. So much gamification is done so badly; it is all about earning points, and assuming that the points are the motivation in themselves. In video games, points aren’t the goal in themselves. They are a signifying mechanism that you’re doing the right thing. You’re happy if you get a high score in a game, but that’s because you’ve done well and it reflects that.

The main thing with gamification is to shift it beyond the gimmick, to the use of feedback and refinement. For 50 years, video games have tried to train players into doing things they couldn’t otherwise do, like fly spaceships and command armies. They have had to develop quite sophisticated mechanisms for teaching, that parallel what we use in traditional pedagogy, but are also a bit different. If we can bring those into traditional pedagogy, that opens up new possibilities. Done well, gamification is about a dialogue with students, helping them to understand what we’re wanting from them.

How do video games do that?

Take the concept of ‘health’ in video games. If you get injured and lose 10% health in a video game, you know you’ve made a small mistake. If you die, then you know you’ve done something significantly wrong and you have to change how you are doing things. On the surface having ‘13% health’ signifies nothing in the scheme of things, but it’s actually a really finely calibrated teaching mechanism, it’s an unambiguous signifier of correct and incorrect actions.

Health in the game Eternal Lands
Health in the game Eternal Lands

But games are also really complex and sophisticated things, and you can’t easily translate video game logics into non-gaming tasks easily. Video games are also really expensive – Destiny had a $500 million budget. Obviously in the learning and teaching space we don’t have that kind of money to kick around, so students are going to ask ‘what’s this cut-priced thing pretending to be a game that seems so backwards and so ancient?’ So gamification is successful when it takes the middle ground – it uses some of the game mechanics, but it’s not pretending to be an entire game.

You’re already using a prototype of Game Change, in your teaching. How does it utilise those game teaching mechanisms?

Game Change is not about giving students points, it’s giving them directions as to where they can improve, where their strengths and weaknesses are. Too often with students in a university setting we assume students know what we want from them, and because they often don’t get a lot of feedback until the end of session, they don’t have the time to change within the course of a unit. It’s important as we decrease the number of assignments due to workload and other reasons – and particularly if students come from a background where no one in their family has gone to university. And it’s really important to provide those feedback mechanisms in a way that is actually saving teachers’ time.

And that’s how the idea for your game started?

It came out of the dilemma that so many staff face at the end of each session. How do I assign individual class participation marks in a way that is fair to 200 students? I started writing a little description of how each student had gone each week. But that got too cumbersome, and I was really just giving them a score. And I thought, why don’t I make an online system where I could record scores, where a student can log in and engage from the start of session in real time and see how they are doing? And I thought, how can I create an incentive for them to log in? What if they could spend points that they’ve earned on different rewards?

The prototype was originally funded through a Macquarie internal Learning and Teaching grant, and I put the original software together for about $5000. Over multiple iterations, I’ve introduced lots of different mechanics and rewards. For instance, with enough points, a student can ‘buy’ a teammate so that student is always in their group for the rest of semester.

Another thing students love to earn is titles. They can spend points on me calling them by a name of their choice when I’m marking the roll. I had a student who, over the course of four sessions, went from being a Pass-level student to an HD level student, all because he wanted me to call him Ramses Niblick the Third Kerplunk Kerplunk, Oops Where’s My Thribble, a reference to the TV show Red Dwarf. You pay by the word, so he had to put in all this effort. And it was great to see, because he got better at the class, people wanted him to join their group and he made friends – it transformed him.

How can students earn points?

Staff using the game can set their own categories in which students get points, but personally I use three main categories: ‘individual engagement’, ‘group work’ and ‘multiple choice’. With individual engagement I’ll give students points whenever they say something particularly smart in class, or if they ask a great question, or answer a classmate’s question. Group work is pretty self-explanatory, it is a mark given to every member of a group for how well they tackled a particular task that week. For the multiple choice, I start every class with a quick two question multiple choice quiz, it is based on the readings and the lecture, and quickly shows who has engaged with the unit material and who hasn’t.

I also give out various cards based on classic trading card games like Magic: The Gathering that give you various rewards or powers. There’s one where you introduce yourself to a new classmate, and get five points. There’s one where your classmate has to speak like a pirate for two hours – students work really hard to get that. Obviously this is opt out, and if anyone doesn’t want to do it they don’t have to. Other ones have some educational content, like getting to quiz a classmate in APA referencing.

And is the concept something anyone could apply to their teaching?

There are two things that points do: they are a signal to the student – each week they are getting a mini-report card, real-time feedback. And because it becomes a currency that they can spend on rewards, then there is a tangible value to the points. That idea that points should have this dual function is something that anyone can use.

What has been the impact on your students’ learning?

I’ve been amazed just how effective Game Change has been. Because it’s optional, not all students have to bother with it, but the majority do in their own different ways and they understand it is helping their education. One of my units has gone from 90 students to 350 students in three years. There are other factors involved of course, but it’s good word of mouth. The new software I’ll be developing with the prize money is scalable, which makes life easier when you’ve got a big cohort.

Tell us about winning the Optus Future Makers Award.

Rowan pitches - images courtesy Optus Future Makers
Rowan pitches – images courtesy Optus Future Makers

Future Makers is about leveraging technology to help disadvantaged and vulnerable youth. The competition was all about the strength of your pitch: can you communicate your idea in 3 minutes to a group of judges? Leading up to that was ten days of training in business skills, start-up economy, social impact – I learned so much. So my pitch was that gamification is great in those situations – a lot of people don’t quite know what is expected from them at university or school, but they are already very familiar with game logic because that’s the main way they’re learning – games teach complex skills.

Were the other finalists academics as well?

There was only one other academic. Optus didn’t really advertise through academics circles because they didn’t think it was totally compatible with what academics do. And as an academic I really struggled with the idea that it all comes down to a 3 minute pitch. But doing that sort of pitch that really makes you distill your idea and think it through. Carly Evans and the Research Office have been excellent in supporting me through this process. And it has totally shifted my thinking on the scope – going from what could be useful for me in my teaching, to what could be useful across the board in secondary and tertiary education?
Dr Rowan Tulloch is an academic in Macquarie’s Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies. Rowan would love to hear from others in the university community – or beyond – interested in using the Game Change software or collaborating: contact

4 thoughts on “Fair game: finding the point of gamification”

  1. Love this future forward integration of technology – great to see committed and innovative teaching practice.

  2. Congratulations Rowan!! This sounds like a really cool idea. If you’re looking for volunteers to test out Game Changer in other faculties let us know. Thanks for sharing your story and thanks Lucy for giving it space to be heard.

    1. Thanks Sherrie! We are also planning to feature Rowan’s work (and others’) in an LTX session on gamification – hopefully coming soon.

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