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Gamification in Education: Time to (Not) Get Serious

  • January 11, 2016|
  • 2 years ago

by Sam Morris

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Global Education Solutions Architect

This is the age of entertainment. People, including students, want fun, and they want it on demand. Kids ages 2-12 spend an average of two hours per day on mobile games. That’s up 57 percent from just two years ago, according to a recent study by the NPD Group. A few assumptions can be drawn from this uptick in average gaming: kids enjoy playing, their access to mobile and game systems is increasing, and they are likely pretty skilled at it.

Seeing the engagement that gaming inspires amongst kids should be of note to teachers. What is really going on when they are consumed by a game and what place can gamification, or more specifically the strategies that underpin it, have in the classroom? How can teachers tap into that intrinsic motivation to grow student engagement and promote learning?

Gartner defines gamification as “the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.” Gamification in education is not necessarily about technology, though technology can certainly play a role. Instead, it is about tying gaming principles in with learning initiatives.

Teachers can bring the benefits of gaming into the classroom using game mechanics, or the tactical building blocks of any game-like experience. Some common game mechanics include points, badges, levels, bonuses, behavioral momentum, community collaboration, status, and infinite game play. Different mechanics and combinations of mechanics appeal to defined gamer personalities: hunters, explorers, socialites, and achievers.

It can’t be all fun and games, though. No matter what teachers are trying to gamify, the end goal should not be a good time, it should be time well spent. To borrow the words of Sasha Barab, Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact at Arizona State University: “The game is a tool. The goal is the impact.” Some attributes of games that can help kill two birds (engagement and impact) with one stone include:

Narrative-driven. Games often have a story behind them, which can help pique students’ interest long term.

Iterative process. If a game is created correctly, winning, or progressing, should not come easy. Instead, this aspect of gaming helps students learn the value of failure and repetitive attempts. These challenges, which hopefully eventually lead to perceived success, forge problem-solving, critical-thinking, and risk-taking skills.

Choice. Games often have more than one possible outcome, meaning that there are multiple paths and options along the way. This can contribute to efforts of personalization, as well as help students to learn at their own pace.

Reward. The same way that an “A” feels good on a report card, unlocking that next level or collecting a badge is somewhat addictive. Recognition of success breeds confidence and motivation for continued success, hopefully ultimately leading to knowledge mastery and fine-tuned skills.

Since gamification first emerged in the late ‘80s with characters like Carmen Sandiego and games such as The Oregon Trail, it has evolved. Today, gamification could mean anything from an original teacher-created game to apps integrated into lesson plans. Although gamification is not a regular method in every classroom, there are success stories out there.


DreamBox Learning is an online learning system designed to help students in grades K-8 with math. The main draw of DreamBox is its unique ability to analyze each student’s responses as they go, allowing them to forge their own learning path, of which there are a multitude of different options. As students learn, they reap rewards in the form of higher levels, badges, and coins that they can use to buy new background music, login icons, and more. The DreamBox site showcases a variety of case studies that tackle a number of challenges such as changing standards, effectively reaching students, reducing the risk of dropouts, and more. Brad Larson, an experienced educator teaching at Sioux Center High School comments on his experience with the DreamBox system:

“A little bit of success can go a long way in helping students re-engage. When students who are ready to drop out come into school earlier or find time to log in to DreamBox after school hours, something is working.”


Classcraft comes from the imagination of Shawn Young, a web developer and 11th grade teacher at Le Salésien High School in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Currently a website, and soon to be an app, Classcraft transforms any subject into a role-playing game. The game encourages collaborative learning through a system of real-life rewards and risks where students first have to choose their “class,” which largely pertains to their personality traits (i.e. social kids might choose to be “healers”). A FastCo article, “How One Teacher is Making High School – and Physics – Fun by Gamifying the Classroom,” details:

“Good performance in the classroom nets experience points (XP) that students can use to learn abilities like “hunting,” which gives them permission to eat in class, but negative behavior leads to consequences such as less time to finish an exam or even detention. Students have to work together to win.”

While both of the above examples could lead to success, every scenario and classroom is different. At the end of the day, gamification needs to be rooted in helping kids to embrace learning, not in simply getting the medicine to go down. If we are just sugarcoating necessities such as algebra, who is that really helping? Gamification’s potential might be undervalued – but so could its tendency to be a slippery slope. As teachers attempt to gamify lesson plans, they need to pay careful attention to where each game will end.

A game in the classroom should lead students to lessons learned – not just rewards. When contemplating how to make learning more fun, teachers should keep learning at the core. We want kids to play – and learn – for their own betterment, not just because games are enjoyable. Whether you start with supporting apps, dive into custom curriculum activities, or work with your school or district to map out an integrated vision, gamification can offer unique engagement, learning, and impact opportunities that are worth serious or, in this case, not-so-serious consideration.

Reference Articles:

“Kids under 13 spend an average of 2 hours a day playing mobile games” Gigaom Research. January 28 2015.
“How One Teacher Is Making High School – and Physics – Fun by Gamifying the Classroom” Fast Co. Create. March 27 2014.
“The Gamification of Education” Knewton.
“Using Gaming Principles to Engage Students” Edutopia. October 14, 2014.
“The Why’s and How’s of Gamifying Your Classroom” EdSurge. December 12 2014.
“The Ultimate Guide to Gamifying Your Classroom” Edudemic. July 30 2015.
“Review of DreamBox Learning” Homeschool Math.
“ELL Students Back on Track for Graduation” DreamBox Learning.
“Gartner Redefines Gamification” Gartner. April 4 2014.