School Gamification – will we level up?

15 June 2011 11,444 views One Comment

A colleague shared this Slideshare presentation with me on the topic of gamification – – and while it is certainly not the only presentation/article on the topic it does include most of the main points that I’ve seen in other presentations and articles, so I thought it was worth giving my two cents.

The author identifies several gaming elements as being relevant for education, and I think all fall into the same category – motivation. Adding points, XP, leveling up, acheivements, etc all help students feel more excited about their accomplishments. This is important in education, and as the author points out this is not really a new concept. We are using new terminology, and perhaps new technology, to create a new outlet for techniques that have worked well in the past based on behavioral theories. And it’s true that this is a great way to extend proven educational techniques and opportunities.

But I think presentations like this miss the point when it comes to games and education. Motivation is only one aspect of games, and I think the least revolutionary. Teachers have used external motivators for decades, whether it is edible, wearable, boastable, or fridge-hangable. Yes, children who enjoy games will initially be excited about class turning into a life-size game console that they can play every morning. However, this type of extrinsic motivation can wear off quickly as soon as kids realize they are working as hard as they were before and the activities they are getting XP for are the same activities that they got stickers for the week before. This is exactly what Ke (2008) found in his study of gaming in a math class – students get excited about playing because they think they’re getting a break from learning, and disappointment sets in when they realize the game they are playing isn’t any more fun than sitting in a regular class. This is NOT fundamentally going to change education.

So am I saying that the concept of gamification is irrelevant to education? Definitely not. But I do think we need to focus on game elements that are unique to gaming, and can be ported to education in an INTRINSIC way. By that I mean (and this is by no means an exhaustive list, merely representative):

  • Rules – Rules are guidelines which provide boundaries for player actions and decisions, they are not specific intructions such as that you would find in a typical classroom worksheet. Intructions are meant to be followed step-by-step, rules encourage creativity by allowing enough freedom to make individual choices while being restrictive enough to keep players from wandering aimlessly
  • Goals and Objectives – In games these are often designed to be progressive. Goals start off small and easy, so the player can get used to the game and learn the system. As the player achieves, goals are increased and larger game objectives are introduced. This is similar to the progression found in schools, both within the academic year and as students progress from grade to grade, but games differ in being able to offer more individualized pacing. Very often in education there are goals that are either hidden from students or simply not understood by them whereas in games it is easier for players to understand why they are doing what they are doing. This idea of providing context for learning content is actually very important, and warrants a separate post of it’s own, so I won’t elaborate on it here.
  • Outcomes and feedback – Again, context is very important here. In schools, the outcomes are general extrinsic to the learning – I study so I can get a good grade. Getting a good grade means my teacher will be proud of me, I can share achievements with friends, my parents might take me out to dinner, my grandparents may give me pocket money as a reward, etc. All good things, but unconnected to any reason why the learning itself is important. On the other hand, if I’m playing a game, success means killing the boss so I can advance to the next level – if I don’t master this particular skill I die and my game ends. Clear outcomes, immediate feedback.
  • Interaction – this is not just interaction of a player with the game, but the interaction of the game with the player. Games respond to increases in player skill by increasing challenges, and maintaining challenges on the same level if the player needs more time to master whatever level they are on. Again, this is the individualization that is so hard in a classroom environment.

So, am I saying that by simply following the above recipe any teacher can gamify any classroom? Definitely not. But I do think it’s possible to use what we know about gaming and gamers to improve the way we currently teach. Games are not just motivators, games like Roller Coaster Tycoon, Civilization, Oregon Trail, and Sims, among (many, many) other examples can actually be a better way to teach certain concepts than chalk-and-talk, worksheets, or even live debate. Games provide context for learning, they provide a live practice ground for new skills, they provide a safety net for learners who have yet to master new skills, and they provide immediate feedback. These are all things that can make learning exciting – through gaming – as opposed to using games as a break from “real learning.” Kids like games because they’re fun, and dislike learning because it’s boring. Yet they learn new skills every day in a fun way by playing games – this is what needs to be brought into the classroom experience.

Gaming is not a new-fangled technique that will someday replace teaching as we know it, and it won’t be the way to teach everything to every child. However, it does have it’s place in education as a powerful tool, made more accessible through technology, that can be utilized by every teacher. Now to get buy-in from administrators and parents…. 🙂


Ke, F (2008). “A case study of computer gaming for math: Engaged learning from gameplay?”. Computers and education (0360-1315), 51 (4), p. 1609.

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One Comment »

  • Maria Droujkova said:

    I think using gamification DIRECTLY for motivation is tricky and unreliable. I think of gamification as a set of tools for smooth time and task management, including progress tracking and group acknowledgment tools. When task and time management is smooth, people are motivated. But trying to apply reward/punishment system directly through gamification is unreliable and often somewhat evil.

    You can use gamification in games. I think it’s funny.

    But making a game purely out of gamification is probably not a good idea. And, when you think about some “math games” the whole issue becomes sad rather than funny.

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