Dr Barry Herbert and the Gamification of Learning in Virtual Worlds

On Thursday 19th March and approximately four years after beginning his research, my Phd student Barry Herbert successfully defended his thesis entitled “the gamification of learning in virtual worlds”. Prof David Brown and Prof Sally McClean acted as examiners and both conducted a detailed and insightful investigation of Barry’s method and contributions to knowledge. Barry passed with no changes required, which is an excellent result for Barry and his supervisory team.

I’m sure Barry would like me to thank his supervisors Dr Adrian Moore and Dr Therese Charles for their insight contributions at key moments and not forgetting Dr Michael McNeill who acted as Barry’s supervisor during the first two years. Michael will recall numerous fun white board sessions in Uni and more informally in our “Bat Cave” in Portstewart! One of the highlights for our team being the trip to Athens for the ECGBL conference during the strikes/riots! Tear gas during Cappuccinos and roof-top views of petrol bomb attacks on the Greek parliament.

I have been working in the area of gamification (though I was unaware of the label initially) from around 2003 when after the 1st Digital Games Research Conference I starting thinking about the impact of games outside the space of a game. I had a short paper accepted for ICEC 2004 which explored this notion; the way I thought of it (and still do) was that game elements and game design patterns could be used to inspire the design of more effective interactive systems (typically for learning or exercise in my research). My focus has been on games enhanced design rather than game based design, subtle perhaps but initially it differentiated my approach from game-based learning and serious games research. This emphasis is at the heart of Barry’s research and particularly the use of game metaphors within virtual worlds to provide rich feedback and guidance for learners. He built on my original idea of a virtual learning landscape (see my BJET journal paper), which considered the use of physics, 3D space and spatial design, effects, barriers, avatars, and other feedback mechanisms to co-locate learning content with information on learning state. Barry constructed several interesting virtual learning worlds specifically to explore the impact of aesthetic feedback on learners within the virtual world. Some of this world was published at ECGBL 2011, though further results will be available in his thesis and in a future paper that we have planned.

One of the important new ideas explored in Barry’s thesis is gamification types – most people using gamification don’t consider that people are motivated differently. It is obvious when you think about it as there is a lot of existing research on types of people (e.g. psychology and temperament) as well as on types of players (e.g. see Bartle and Bateman). The approach that we took on Barry’s PhD was based on Andrzej Marczewski types (his original 8 types), which were based on underlying research on the differences between people. In the key experiment in his thesis a gamified virtual world was constructed for both delivering content and providing feedback via gamification to 2nd year computing students. The results of a gamification questionnaire (designed to establish gamification types) and in tracking behaviour in the virtual world allowed for a detailed investigation of differences between learners in the ways that they are motivated. The final contribution of Barry’s thesis is the proposal of a more refined gamification typology, which we hope to present in a future journal paper.


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