Note: This is Part 3 in a series exploring what youth sports can learn from how video games connect with and motivate children. To read the introduction to the series and Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.
Point #3: Video games incorporate game design elements like levels and badges to chart development and motivate children to continue playing. If you’ve played a lot of video games, you know the satisfaction that comes from finally completing a difficult level. After multiple attempts and much frustration, you finally figured out how to maneuver through the pitfalls to reach safety and advance to the next level. Not only do you now get to “level up” to an even more challenging level that builds upon the skills you developed in the preceding level, but your avatar also has earned a “badge” with, for example, a picture of a fox on it that signifies to all other players that you completed the level through a remarkable demonstration of virtual cunning and guile. The better you perform, the more levels you complete and the more badges you earn. Do the badges really mean anything? Not really, but if you identify yourself as a gamer and your performance on the game has socially-constructed meaning for you, then earning badges to be displayed in the profile that others can see serves as an important representation of yourself to a social group about whom you care. Did I lose some of you? For more on the increasing use of gamification and the potential value of game design elements, watch some YouTube videos like this one – or sign up to take a free online Wharton business course on the topic.
How can we improve our youth sport experience? Although we are pretty good at talking about the value of winning in contrast to the experience of losing, we are not great about incentivizing children with smaller, achievable tasks and goals to support the pursuit of excellence. As we described in our last post, we tend to so heavily weight the outcomes of sport performance that we don’t dedicate the type of attention to promoting mastery of the process that would be developmentally ideal. So, how can we take some of the emphasis from the outcomes and shift it toward the process of becoming a better athlete for children? One way to do so is to design a system of levels and badges like we see in video games. To give credit where it’s due, martial arts has been drawing from these principles with its systems of belt- and stripe-promotion long before video games were around. And there is a reason that the practice has persisted. Martial arts belts are like badges you receive for completing a level (hence, demonstrating the skills necessary to achieve that level). They serve both as an outward indicator of accomplishment and a more internal motivator to achieve. We have worked with some youth sport organizations to institute systems of levels and badges for youth basketball players, for example. So, when a child completed a particular developmentally-significant set of skills like being able to dribble down the court and properly execute a layup, she was given a yellow sweat band to replace the white sweat band that all players receive upon signing up. By tying the sweat bands to the achievement of certain levels of skill, we not only create a system where coaches and trainers can clearly see who has or has not progressed toward the fundamental skills we are teaching at that level (so that we can intervene and help move them toward reaching this marker), but the children are motivated socially to want to work toward mastering the skills that will allow them to receive their sweat band promotion like their friends. And, in this way, we shift the focus from simply who wins or loses the games toward a mastery orientation where skill development in practice is given its proper emphasis.
Stay tuned for more ideas about how video games can be used to inform what we do with children in a youth sports setting…