People willingly play games they've played thousands of times before. No one chooses to relearn things they've already learned.
This is one of the reasons that more and more educators are looking at integrating games into their instruction. The fine people over at the Institute of Play, a not-for-profit design studio out of NYC which pairs educators with game designers, are taking it one step further: they are turning curriculum into games. Their site is an amazing wealth of inspiration - I highly suggest spending some professional time, alone or with partners, exploring their work.
The designers at the Institute have put out a fantastic step-by-step guide to presenting your curriculum as a game. This PDF will take you from concept to finished product, from what they call "Mission Prep" to "Mission Reflection." There are specific tracks for teachers/curriculum designers, administration and "curious individuals." If you've ever wanted to give a unit or lesson a new feel or approach, it might just be time.
When many teachers hear about the "gamification" of education (the integration of games into classroom curricular work), they think of modern video games and all of the negative stigmas that come with them. Of course, games have been around for at least as long as humans have been recording history, far predating any computer or gaming console - and also predating any form of formal schooling.
Games have a number of features that have real benefits, but are difficult to implement in traditional learning models:
Games are inherently social.
The vast majority of games are multiplayer and even single player games have their strategies shared and talked about. Players require skills in both competition and collaboration, and often share their strategies with others outside of the time spent playing the game. Unlike the solo work often done in a classroom, success often relies upon teamwork.
Games provide constant formative feedback.
A player instantly knows if she defeats the monster or gains a level. There is no waiting for grading or report cards.
Games attract and retain interest by frequently rewarding players.
The rewards are intrinsically meaningful to the context. Points are nice, but as motivation they pale in comparison to food or medicine that a character needs to survive, or land and riches from which other necessities may be procured later on. By contrast, the importance of grades comes from an external value placed upon them by some "other." Learning itself is not dependent on GPA.
Games engage by forcing the player to make meaningful decisions.
The best games are not linear. Instead, there are multiple ways to achieve a goal. A player must choose the path taken and tools used that are best suited to her own approach at the quest. They are not prescribed by someone else, but instead chosen by the player. If failure occurs, it is up to the player to analyze the situation and decide on a course of action.
Games encourage learning and improvement by offering many chances to try again.
Even death is rarely the end in a game - one can always play the game again. The goals are completion-sensitive, not time-sensitive. Movement forward is not defined by testing dates or term endings, but by acquisition and improvement of skills.
Lastly, it is important to note that transforming your teaching of your curriculum - even a little bit of it - into a game does require some extra time and effort at the outset. What many educators find, though, is that this time is gained back later (e.g. when not spending all that time grading traditional work) and the effort is returned many times over by the engagement, and learning, of the students. So go ahead, give it a try! Start small, grow your gamification slowly, and please let me know of your experiences in the comments.
P.S. Awesome fact: the Latin word for "school," ludus, also means "game." True story.