Gamification: Using game-like elements to redesign our classrooms

What is gamification?

There’s been a pretty big hype lately about “gamification” in both the business and education spheres. Gamification is a fancy term for the use of game design, mechanics, and frameworks in non-game applications and settings to get individuals to change behavior, learn skills, or engage in a particular topic. For example, Foursquare is a gamified platform, using game elements such as a leaderboard and competition. Educators are increasingly borrowing game frameworks for their classrooms. For instance, this recent article suggests using sandbox video games (open gameplay worlds) as a template for curriculum design.

Importantly, gamification is NOT about playing video games in the classroom or using games for learning (although I’m an advocate of these things in moderation as well!).  That conversation is for another blog post. Gamification IS changing the atmosphere of the classroom to make it more game-like, which can affect greater student engagement and promote a variety of critical learning skills and values.  I’ve been working on a gamified learning project recently, and in this post I hope to better explain the potential of gamification and how it can be incorporated in the redesigning of education.

Advocates of gamification see a huge potential for increasing student motivation; adding game-like elements to a paradigm can potentially make even the most tedious tasks rewarding and engaging. Motivating and engaging students is a constant struggle in our education system, but gamers devote hours to solving problems and honing skills within game contexts (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Gee, 2007). Games promote values that are vital for 21st century education, such as persistence, creativity, collaboration, and resilience.

There is definitely a time and a place for the applications of game elements- it won’t work for everything or everyone. However, I believe that the incorporation of fundamental game mechanics to make learning more motivating and engaging has the potential to make a huge impact in the way teachers teach and students learn.

How do you “gamify” learning and what would it look like?

Many make the valid argue that our education system is already a very gamified place. Student’s receive points for completing projects and “badges” for specific achievements; test scores are very similar to leaderboards; and grades, scores, or academic tracks are very similar to game levels that quantify academic success. However, gamification is more than mapping game elements on to existing classroom elements. It should offer real ways to engage students, to create a world of play within the school environment rather than be simply a stream of extrinsic motivators. You can do this by experimenting with the rules, emotions, and social roles of the classroom. One of the most important factors for a gamified system is making in playful. Gamification systems that elicit playfulness and enjoyment provide intrinsic motivation for learning.

Many teachers are already doing these things to make their lessons more motivating and engaging and to help their students learn. For example, one way to gamify is to incorporate levels, creating personal learning environments tailored to children’s’ unique pacing with quantifiable ways to increase one’s level. Another way is to give students multiple solutions and route to achievement, allowing them more freedom to subgoal. This freedom can elicit more engagement and motivation as well (Lee & Hammer, 2011). Applying these mechanics to the classroom, students can choose from multiple clear subgoals with immediate results, and the reward for accomplishing one goal can be a slightly more difficult challenge.

Another aspect of games that can be brought into the classroom is the development of new identities. Scholarly or powerful leadership roles can be transformative for students who don’t see themselves as “good at school” or who are more shy (Lee & Hammer, 2011). And while the competition of games can be paramount to learning, gamified classrooms also promote collaboration and interaction. Adding peer validation elements to promote scholastic achievement (such as upvotes, likes, and other symbols of popularity) can be one of the strongest driving forces of long-term engagement and community building (Kelly, 2012).

While game mechanics have been incorporated in small ways to make classrooms, some educators are testing the potential to completely transform pedagogy based on gamification principles. For example, Quest to Learn, a charter school in NYC, “uses the underlying design principles of games to create a highly immersive game-like learning experience” to promote twenty-first century thinking skills such as systems thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, time management, and identity formation (;

Games give permission to fail.

At their core, games involve experimentation and failure. The way to learn how to play a game is to fail repeatedly, learn from failure, and eventually succeed. Importantly, failure in games is low-risk and feedback cycles are immediate with “just-in-time” feedback so that players are motivated to try again and again until they succeed (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Gershenfeld, 2011). In contrast, failure in school is often high-risk with real repercussions, and feedback on tests or papers is often delayed. Under these conditions, it is unsurprising that students are anxious about trying, afraid to fail, and often unwilling to try again (Lee & Hammer, 2011). This “permission to fail” framework is a large part of the design process and something that rethinkED believes is very important to promote both innovative teaching and innovative learning.

I ultimately believe that while a gamified classroom is a promising way to motivate and engage students, there is still a lot of space for further research into how, when, and why it should be applied before we can ensure that it would be effective.  While it has the potential to be widespread, no single gamification framework will work in all educational settings. As Lee and Hammer (2011) conclude, gamification is “not a universal panacea.” Gamification can successfully engage and motivate learners, but as educators, game designers, and researchers, we have a long way to go in making this a pervasive reality.

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