Level Up, Not Drop Out: Game-based Learning and Student Support Services

By Stephanie Ivezaj, William Patterson University

This week’s guest blog talks about the value of applying game-based and design thinking to student support services and gives voice to some of the students in various disciplines working on applied games. I met Stephanie with her advisor Dr. Thomas Heinsen at the CUNY Game Conference in January. Dr. Heinsen is a major proponent of applying games to student support and retention.

If you will look carefully, the faces of an entire freshman class of undergraduates are both eager and nervous. These are faces freshly transitioned from high school to almost-adulthood. For many, this is their first time functioning as independent young adults. What you probably don’t know, is that 57% of them will not graduate in four years. And of those that do not complete their degree in four years, 33% of them will drop out and 28% will not even make it to their sophomore year.1

Bill Gates (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) calls these dropout rates “tragic,” and rightfully so.2 Among the factors reportedly contributing to this picture are lack of motivation, feelings of isolation, and lack of interactivity in the classroom. How can colleges and universities alter the experience their students receive, in a way that will be beneficial to all involved? Well, if the problem is motivation, then game design just might be part of the answer.

Game-based thinking is a distinctive way of approaching social problems such as low graduation rates. Its techniques, often called “game mechanics,” create experiences that strengthen student engagement and seduce reluctant students into unimagined levels of persistence.  Self-determination theory provides a sound, theoretical grounding but it is not a mysterious formula.3 We love activities that require competence, autonomy, and relatedness: intrinsic motivation.

Much of higher education is already “gamified” but with little regard for self-determination theory. We employ point systems that undermine intrinsic motivation. We require leveling up without meaningful rewards. We design obstacles that punish failure. For most students, higher education is experienced as a badly designed game – and students know the difference.

A well-designed game integrates activities in a particular kind of learning environment. We learn through mastery learning – the same way a toddler learns to walk and young adults learn how to navigate romantic relationships: by failing forward. Achieving a pure chemical reaction is fun; understanding a statistical analysis feels good; knowing that you know something is a thrill. But they all require practice, which in game design is failing forward. As a student, I am (almost) begging you: let the experience do the teaching.

There is one day – only one – in which the game of higher education reliably provides the motivating experience of pure joy: graduation day. But you only allow students to experience it after it is too late to use it. As I approach my graduation, still fresh-faced and eager, I urge you to layer principles of game design onto the complex problem of student retention. I miss all those who left. More game-like designs could have helped them level up instead of drop out.

Game designers know how to make and keep a promise. How? They induce extraordinary degrees of a variable critical for student success: perseverance.

About the author

Stephanie Ivezaj is in my fourth and final year as an undergraduate at William Paterson University. She is a Psychology major with a minor in Critical and Professional writing. For the past two years, she been working with the Game-Based Experience Lab to figure out how to apply games and game design to the many issues higher education institutions face. Having played video games most of her childhood and young adult life, Stephanie uses these game further investigate how to use game mechanics to better the lives of others.


  1. https://postsecondary.gatesfoundation.org/bill-gates-us-college-dropout-rates-tragic/
  2. https://www.collegeatlas.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/college-dropout-2017.jpg
  3. http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/


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