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How this project took inspiration from Pacman to help students study better

A final-year psychology project used gaming principles inspired from games like Pacman and Pokémon to help college students work more efficiently.

Could the future of learning be influenced by games like PacMan?
Could the future of learning be influenced by games like PacMan?
Image: AP/Press Association Images

WHAT CAN GAMES like PacMan and Candy Crush teach us about learning? Could you apply the same principles to work or learning and get the same results?

Such ideas could be applied to college education thanks to a project from one university student. Diego Garaialde was in his final year studying psychology at DCU when he put together a project that would help improve university students’ study habits by using gaming principles.

The project was the winner of the psychology category for the Undergraduate Awards, which is currently in its third year of its international programme.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Garaialde explained that the project was his way of combining technology and psychology, and took inspiration from some classic and modern games. The focus on intrinsic motivation – doing things for enjoyment instead of obligation – and the elements that ensure people play games and want to progress was a key part in this.

“When I was looking at [different games] how using games like Candy Crush to get people to buy more just because they’re at this set level where it’s just good enough to get it but it’s much easier [to complete] if you pay a few cents, explained Garaialde. “I’d say a few of the inspirations would have been PacMan for the earlier ones and then Pokémon because they go up levels and they’re really visual as well”

For those who participated, Garaialde gave them either an app (which he developed himself) or a journal to document their results. Working on a points and levels system, whenever you completed a task, you noted it and received gems as an award. The more gems you received, the more levels you gained.

It’s a simple method but there was one thing that Garaialde made sure to omit: actual rewards for completing tasks.

You didn’t get any intrinsic rewards because what I was trying to do was [to see if by] adding a layer of gaming, does that increase people’s intrinsic motivation? Does it make people want to do tasks more?

The other reason behind it was so that participants didn’t cheat. If they did, all they would be doing is cheating themselves as there were nothing to gain.

The main principle behind it is a concept called Gamification, which is effectively adding gaming elements like points, high scores, badges and levels to normal tasks as a way of motivating participants.

While the idea isn’t exactly new, it hasn’t been used particularly well with many examples of it being tacked onto competitions and ideas without much thought.

The results were positive, but there was a major difference between those who used the app and those who opted for a journal. Those who used the app complete more tasks, but a second hypothesis emerged. Since their motivation of those using the app had increased, they were able to use their study time better instead of spending more time completing tasks.

Garaialde says that the sample size was small, so you can’t take any major conclusions from it, but it does hint that such a system can help in the overall learning process.

For now, Garaialde has finished his course and is hoping to do a masters in Cyberpsychology, but would like to see colleges and universities try to embrace technology more and incorporate it into the day-to-day lives of students.

Colleges should really get onto smartphone games and technology, even if it it’s to give people more info or better assess their learning experience… even if they used technology more like sensors maybe to get students to check in or study in some sort of way since kids are so orientated towards technology these days, that could be a way for colleges to improve learning.

The Undergraduate Awards ceremony will be taking place tonight at Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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