Gamification refers to the application of game design to contexts not normally thought of as play, like education and essays.

Students who are new to the UK higher education research context can feel intimidated by the realisation that understanding other people’s ideas is no longer enough.  Suddenly they are also expected to independently evaluate references, analyse issues and build arguments within their course work.  In the early stages of a research career the process of developing persuasive arguments can be nerve-wracking.  Whereas anxiety can be useful when it’s a low-level stress (Shih and Lin 2017), when anxiety combines with low-level confidence it  creates a cocktail of uncertainty (Judge and Bono 2001).  From what I’ve observed in my classes, anxiety about academic writing can become so intense that it’s de-stablising.  Student researchers can feel so overwhelmed and confused that they either fail to write well, or struggle to write anything at all.

That is why I wanted to develop a gamified essay writing application for my LITE teaching enhancement project at the University of Leeds.  I wanted to make something that could support students through the evaluation process.   My own experience, both as researcher and teacher gave me a clear idea of the sort of functionality that I wanted in an essay writing helper application, but what I didn’t know was how to make it.  In order to make the essay writer application a reality I would need to work collaboratively with a coder who could turn the idea in to a working program.

Online wisdom says that on average, custom designed software applications cost between £25 000 to £125 000 to make (Adam, Quinn, and Edmonds 2007) and take between roughly four months to a year of full time work to produce (Soltech 2017).  From the start, the only way I was going to be able to make a prototype, or test/demonstration application, in the context of a part time LITE commission was to employ a capable student intern. Even with their help I knew that we were only ever going to be able to produce a basic prototype.   What that meant in practical terms was still unclear to me however.

In the early stages of the project I was nervous about the fact that I would not be able to help my student collaborator resolve the sorts of coding challenges that inevitably arise in this sort of project.   I also had to trust my collaborator to be self-disciplined.  For various reasons, including the fact that I don’t work in the computing department and that this was to be a summer internship, the work needed to be conducted remotely and largely independently.

Happily Dominic Kay, the third year Engineering student who came on board the project was well suited to that working method.   Creative and easy to communicate with, he had little experience of essay writing in his engineering course, but soon caught on and didn’t seem too nervous when I sent him the design for the entire gamified essay writing application.. Not knowing the extent of his skills at that time, I didn’t know what might be a fair expectation of his capacity..,so  it was up to Dominic to signal which parts of the program he felt might be achievable in the few months that he had available.. Sensibly, Dominic narrowed down the task considerably in order to focus on an aspect of the program design dedicated to the creation and use of reconfigurable notes… Unlike Mendeley, for example, which enables the filing and keyword search of downloadable, referenced papers, I wanted the essay writer application to drill deeper in to the research process.  Rather than focus upon the referenced sources, the essay writer prototype instead highlights (by fore-fronting) the notes that are accumulated in the research process..

Narrowing the brief in this way meant that a few items on my wish list had to be put aside. For example, the prototype is not gamified, largely because the essay writing game is designed with a broader process in mind … In the end, it’s much better to focus upon what you can achieve and do it well, rather than try and stretch your efforts in to something that’s less than best.. The program Dominic carved out from the project brief, which he has named the Research Aid program, is independently functional and occasionally ingenious..

With the scope of the project clarified, Dominic set about finding the best way to achieve the functionality that I had in mind.. This is where his coding knowledge was such an asset.. He suggested his preferred java coding language and using that language devised a handy method for students to be able to easily copy and file referenced notes from web pages.. He also devised a way to transfer downloaded pdfs in to page-numbered files.. When students copy and paste from journal articles, the page numbers are automatically saved along with the notes.. This is a functionality that I was particularly keen on so I was delighted when Dominic was able to make it happen.. To finish the task, Dominic also ensured that those notes could be pasted back in to Microsoft word’s free online program.. Effectively, Dominic managed to develop a working mini-software program over the course of just a few months.. which is impressive.

What is gamification?  

Game based learning activities, or serious games as they are often called, are a way to transform intimidation in to competency.    Viola Spolin, who pioneered the use of games within actor training described it as an explosion of possibility: “(T)he energy released to solve the problem, being restricted by the rules of the game and bound by group decision, creates an explosion – or spontaneity … everything is torn apart, rearranged, unblocked” (Spolin 1999: 6). By alleviating anxiety, play invites fresh experience.  In other words, a gamified essay writer helper application can distract writers from their own fears and turn the task of analysis in to a much more enjoyable challenge.

Gamification in the context of academic research and writing first involves breaking down the process in to a series of small, achievable challenges with meaningful rewards that include points, but can also more fundamentally result in a better essay.  These tasks range from something small like rating the relevance and strength of a paper out of 10, through incremental tasks, like rewriting quotes, to synthesizing all points raised during an argument in to the one logical conclusion.