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Gamification and Autism Resources Part 1 - Where Are We Going?

Gaming blocks, some lit up in bright colors

At a Glance

In this post, we'll be defining what gamification is and how it can be used in autism resources.

Gamification gets lots of buzz around educational resources and materials. We're here to discuss some additional ways that gamification is used in our resources without making everything a game all the time!

Our hope in this series is to look beyond just the points and progress bars and consider other mechanics and elements from games that can enhance both educational resources and executive functioning tools.

In the ever-growing and evolving world of educational strategies and resources for autistic students and individuals across ages, the concept of gamification has increasingly gained traction as a valuable tool for creating resources that boost student engagement and provides an alternative to a traditional learning model. 


As with many topics gaining traction in a new field, the concept of gamification can have differing definitions depending on who is talking about it, what perspective they are approaching from, and what types of mechanics under the broad umbrella of gaming most catch their interest.

Examples

The literature review Gamification in Autism focuses on how games themselves as well as some of the reward mechanics built into gaming such as points and new levels could help motivate students to work on a wide variety of skills that they might otherwise find challenging. 


This news snippet from Research Autism also speaks to motivation and the ways actual games can help with various skills in addition to pointing out how gamification can create a lower stress environment in which autistic students feel more empowered to learn on their own terms. 


This post from Zafer Elcik, the CEO of an educational gaming company, hones in on a specific example of developing a game to match a specific set of educational needs and then zooms out to discuss some of the broader ways the term can be applied.

 

All three of these works at least allude to the ways gamification can help personalize educational experiences.

Our Working Definition of Gaming

For the purposes of this blog series, we think the following working definition from Elcik best illustrates the point of focus we want to take: 

“Gamification is taking something, anything that is not a game, really, and implementing and applying game mechanics to increase engagement or solve another specific problem.”

Another way of putting it for the purpose of this series is that we want to focus on the incorporation of game mechanics into different types of resources, supports, and tools rather than the creation of new games or focusing on existing games.


Don’t get us wrong, we still love games and think they are great tools for teaching all sorts of concepts across all skill levels! We have games in our resource library and will continue to release them over time. 


But the thing that has caught our attention the most in exploring these methods is the deliberate choices and methods that designers can apply within games to orient players, cue their attention to specific details, encourage trial and error, set nonlinear paths, and parse out tools at a pace that allows for comfortable adjustment periods.


Game designers may attempt to achieve these goals through a variety of methods, from lengthy exposition to layering in the rules of the world via story events, but the very best ones help us get where we need to go while feeling like a natural part of the experience. 


The best games also empower players to use the tools at their disposal to navigate situations based on their needs and preferences.


While individual activities and tools much like games do have inherent limits to their applications, the best games enable multiple valid approaches from different users, even if those users are headed in the same general direction. 


Our hope in this series is to look beyond just the points and progress bars and consider other mechanics and elements from games that can enhance both educational resources and executive functioning tools.

Example: Showering Visual Support

For our very first post on the topic, we are starting with a fairly straightforward hygiene checklist - in this case for taking a shower -  that presented a somewhat thorny design problem. 


The core balance we try to strike with checklists is to keep them simple enough to be quick and handy while simultaneously thorough enough to fully describe all the most common and important steps within a routine. 


This balance gets trickier for steps within a hygiene routine that may occur regularly but not necessarily every single time for every single person. In the case of shampoo and conditioner, some people use it every day while for others doing so might be damaging to their hair. 


For people relying on this checklist as an executive functioning tool, it could simultaneously be considered an unfair expectation to ask them to mentally cross off as many as 6 steps off their list if it happens to not be a shampoo day or to exclude those steps entirely when a person expected all the common components of taking a shower to be included on the checklist. 

Images of the AGU Shower Checklists - written and visual checklists

Quest Assignment

How do we simultaneously include those steps and make them reasonably easy to skip over, while also reminding the user that they are deciding whether to complete or skip these steps, all without adding a huge amount of explanatory text that would only compound the original problem of having too much happening at once?


In this case, we’ll be highlighting the quest assignment system found in many role-playing games. This demonstrates ways of combining design and mechanical cueing to illustrate user choice and how it might apply in a given situation. Mechanical cueing is a series of naturally occurring cues; they could be suggestions, recommendations, and choices.


Broader quests within role-playing games (RPGs) are often composed of a series of smaller steps that would be incredibly confusing if mixed up with smaller steps from other quests and presented like one big to-do list. 


In addition to using design choices like headers to make quests easy to parse, RPGs deploy all kinds of tricks to emphasize the importance of some quests over others, from a character hinting that a given quest is very important to the game making a particular quest a priority the moment it is assigned to the player. 


A checklist does not have room for lengthy exposition or complex mechanical cueing, but it can make use of headers or questions to guide the user without excess exposition that they are being prompted to make a decision to complete or skip a given series of steps.


In this case, the prompt is in the form of a question. The checklist actively asks the user if they are using shampoo this time, with the design implying that the subsequent steps should be followed if the answer is yes and with another easy header to jump to if the answer is no.

Why Is Gamification Important Here?

Some reading this may look at such a design challenge and wonder why it’s such a big deal just to have the shampoo and conditioner steps and letting the user skip them when needed. but the purpose of creating this kind of tool in the first place is to assist people who need some support in carrying out this particular hygiene task. 


For example, when someone needs an executive functioning tool, it takes more executive functioning, and processing to figure out and think through the steps. Learning and knowing when to skip these steps takes time and a concrete way to establish this process.


If you’ve made a task analysis or a checklist before, you know that you could spend a lot of time getting into all of the details and steps for a given task, like showering. Before you know it, a checklist could be 5 pages long and end up taking longer than before to shower because you’re reading through the whole checklist!


Solving problems that impact ease of use are crucial to making effective tools because the whole purpose of the tool is to make life easier, not present a new set of user interface challenges. 

Conclusion

As we continue to explore the concept of gamification as it pertains to enhancing activities and tools in this series, we hope to share some ways that we think about and use game design elements to help us to resolve resource design challenges in our own resources without necessarily turning every resource into a full fledged game.


As of right now, our plan is to update this series when we have some interesting updates pertaining to a given mechanic and its application to a resource we are creating. 


But if you are interested in getting into the minutiae of our exploration into this topic we would love to hear from you so we know there is some interest in going more in-depth. 


Just drop us a line at hello@autismgrownup.com, and we hope to be back soon with more exciting developments in the world of our particular definition of gamification!

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