Gaming with a purpose

Spring 2017 Edition

New class challenges students to discover how to use gamification in media applications beyond entertainment

In February, students in Associate Professor Genelle Belmas’ class took part in an experiment to reach a level of concentration called a “flow state,” a state of mind where they are productive and content.

In February, students in Associate Professor Genelle Belmas’ class took part in an experiment to reach a level of concentration called a “flow state,” a state of mind where they are productive and content.

The fictitious characters of the Netflix hit “Stranger Things” playing Dungeons and Dragons for hours in the basement was University professor Genelle Belmas' reality growing up. But it wasn’t until last fall when Belmas decided to merge her career in academia with her lifelong love of gaming. The result was the creation of JOUR 201: Level Up and Game On!: Gamification in the Professions, the first course of its kind offered to undergraduates at KU.

“Being a gamer used to be kind of a geeky thing. You didn’t admit it. But now you’ve got nerd cred or dork cred if you’re a gamer,” Belmas said. “We were looking for a class that would be different than what was normally offered, that would get people into the classroom and see how cool journalism could be but could appeal to a whole bunch of people.”

It did appeal.

The course has 96 students enrolled, ranging from various grade levels and areas of interest.

“We get immersed in games. We are productive in games. We are willing to repeat things in games that we may not be willing to repeat in real life," Belmas said. "Games bring out the best in us. So what is it about games that make us get that devoted and that much into it? And how can we apply this to other issues problems and duties in other areas of our lives?”

The answer to Belmas’ question is the main goal of the course: to create a purpose-driven game through gamification and the application of gaming principles such as rewards, badges and points to areas that these ideas do not naturally appear.

Split into 21 groups of five, each group must turn in a prospective game idea or ideas for Belmas’ approval. Once granted, each team will begin market and audience research for their product, form an assessment of their product, and then produce the game itself.

The product can be a card game, board game, online game, or an app for a smartphone.

 Due to time restrictions of the semester, Belmas gives extra credit if a game can be play tested, but the final grade is accounted on the basis of the prototype. Belmas hopes to have a software developer present during the last class to not only judge the games but also to possibly make offers on the games that he could potentially see professional businesses benefiting from.

The course also informs on the negative side of gaming such as addiction, racism, sexism and homophobia through the assigned reading, lectures and weekly quizzes.

Belmas said her biggest surprise from teaching the idea of gamification was the wild creativity, genuine care and large hearts of the students.

“One group is training people on the stock market. I said to them, 'How much do you know about this' and they were like, ‘We don’t know anything, but we’re going to learn. We are going to learn so we can teach it because we think this is really important.’ Who says, ‘We are going to learn more so we can teach?' That’s just amazing.”

Candice Tarver, a senior in the J-School, is one of the group members creating the stock market app. Tarver said that what drew her to the class was her admiration for Belmas and her interest in video games.

The class allows students the freedom to develop their ideas, a characteristic that Tarver has enjoyed as Belmas has pioneered the course over the semester.

“It’s been really interesting to see how the principles that draw people to games can be applied to broader social applications, which is really awesome,” Tarver said.

Another group is also creating an app that will help children with diabetes learn how to make healthier food choices by having the character go through a grocery store and gaining points based on the nutrition value of the items placed in the cart.

“It’s not only the time and energy spent but the actually mindfulness of the students, the idea that we could do something helpful with these projects," Belmas said. “They’re games that we hope people will have fun with but also serve a bigger purpose, a purpose beyond mere entertainment. That’s what gamification is all about.”

If offered again, Belmas envisions the course evolving into a class that creates and produces products geared more specifically for the journalism industry, such as helping people identify what fake news is through the use of the tactics and principles of gamification.

–– Anissa Fritz is a senior from Dallas studying news and information.