What is Gamification and Why Use It in Teaching?

A few weeks ago The Innovative Instructor had an inquiry from a reader who wanted to offer an online gamified Gothic art history class and was looking for models. Today’s post seeks to provide information on gamification, why you might want to consider using it in your teaching, and how to go about implementing gamification.

Gamification is defined as the application of typical elements of game playing (rules of play, point scoring, competition with others) to other areas of activity, specifically to engage users in problem solving. [Wikipedia and Oxford Online Dictionary] It has been used in marketing, but also has applications in education. In addition to promoting specific learning gains, games are a form of active learning. In some cases gamification includes the use of badges – think scouting merit badges in digital form – to promote learning and recognize competencies (e.g., Khan Academy has a badging system).

My own introduction to gamification came last October when I attended the annual Educause conference. One of the keynote speakers was Jane McGonigal who has a Ph.D from UC Berkeley and is a world renowned game developer.  Her 2012 TEDGlobal talk has had 4.5 million views, and her website is a great place to start learning about the value of games. “She points out that we like people better if we’ve played a game with them; we bond and build trust. And contrary to popular thinking, she explains that games are not so much a tool for escapism but rather a way to use our best selves. Gamers are extremely productive and collaborative within the realm of a game.”  [Friedman, Stan. “Finding the Future: Inside NYPL’s All-Night Scavenger Hunt.” Library Journal. July 13, 2011.]

It’s not all just fun. Games can be about finding solutions to serious problems as McGonigal states: “Many of my games challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace, for example (see: EVOKE, World Without Oil, Superstruct).” [http://janemcgonigal.com/]

A search for scholarly articles on gamification [Google Scholar gamification in education] will get you to research on why gamification is an important teaching and learning strategy and how to incorporate gamification into your curricular planning. “In today’s digital generation gamification has become a popular tactic to encourage specific behaviours, and increase motivation and engagement. Though commonly found in marketing strategies, it is now being implemented in many educational programs as well, helping educators find the balance between achieving their objectives and catering to evolving student needs.” [Huang, Wendy Hsin-Yuan, and Dilip Soman. “Gamification Of Education.” 2013. p.5]

Huang and Soman define a five part process for applying gamification to the instructional environment.

Flow chart defining the steps to implementation of gamification in instruction.

The flow chart starts with knowing who your students are and where the course/training/instruction fits into the larger curricular framework. Context also refers to the type of instruction and where it will take place (individuals, groups, class size, face to face, online). Identification of “pain points” (factors that prevent learning advancement) will help the instructor define learning objectives and structure the placement of game elements in the curriculum. Then you can begin to identify resources – pre-existing games or ones that you will develop, which can range from complex to very simple. Finally, you will implement the gamification strategies.

Keep in mind that the objective is to gamify the process not the outcome. “Ben Leong, Assistant Professor at the School of Computing, National University of Singapore (NUS) states that there should be a clear understanding that gamification is independent of knowledge or skills. Gamification directly affects engagement and motivation and it indirectly leads to acquiring more knowledge and skills. Gamification encourages students to perform an action; for example, motivating students to practice computer programming will increase their skill and motivating students to memorize consistently can increase their knowledge.” [Huang and Soman. p. 15]

For many the big question will be “What games should I use?” There are a number of already developed, sophisticated games applicable to a variety of disciplines – STEM, humanities, social sciences – out there. For example, Entering the Education Arcade  [Jenkins, Henry, E. Klopfer, K. Squire, and P. Tan, “Entering the Education Arcade,” ACM Computers in Entertainment, Vol. 1, No. 1,
October 2003, Article 08] describes three games made by the Microsoft-MIT iCampus project, namely Supercharged!, Environmental Detectives, and Revolution. “Has education become nothing but fun and games? Not exactly. In each case, the games are being integrated into a range of other curricular activities. Games are enhancing traditional educational tools such as lectures, discussions, lab reports, homework, fieldtrips, tests, and textbooks. Games are being allowed to do what games do best, while other kinds of teaching support those lessons.” [Jenkins et al. p.2]

These links will take you to the games cited above and others developed by the MIT Education Arcade.

Also check out Games Learning Society, another developer of innovative educational video games, which “…promote engaging ways of learning about biological systems, civic activism, pro-social behavior, programming, and many other STEM domains.”

You don’t have to rely on existing video games, online simulations, coding your own games, or having students code in order to bring gamification to your teaching. Keep in mind that you are looking to identify a “pain point” and find a way to help your students learn that material. Role playing, research-oriented scavenger hunts, adapting classic television games or shows (e.g., Jeopardy, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Mission Impossible) to the classroom, are low-barrier methods to consider.  As this video demonstrates, it can be as simple as bringing buckets of ping pong balls to class. Here at Johns Hopkins, Professor of Biology Vince Hilser demonstrated the concept of equilibrium to students in an introductory biochemistry class by having them throw ping pong balls across the room. Specific rules, timed segments, and a spirit of competition fulfill the requirements for the activity to be a game.

Now, Innovative Instructor, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to develop a game to help students conquer a learning obstacle in your class.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Macie Hall adapted from Huang, Wendy Hsin-Yuan, and Dilip Soman. “Gamification Of Education.” 2013. p.7.

34 thoughts on “What is Gamification and Why Use It in Teaching?

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  9. Thank you for presenting very insightful information on the value of gamification in the classroom. After viewing her Ted Talk presentation, Dr. Jane McGonigal has also been my introduction to the value of gamification in the classroom. I particular like her games that are built on solving real-world problems. Getting our students involved with designing and coding games to add to our daily instruction is an excellent idea and one that many of our students would be experts at creating these valuable tools that will only enhance their learning environment and give them an opportunity to take part in the creation of their own learning material. What better way to demonstrate what you have learned! Gamification in the classroom, it motivates, captures and retains our students’ attention, it challenges them, it engages them and entertains them, and most of all it teaches them using various modalities which is a critical part of preparing them for 21st Century Learning.

  10. Hello! Thank you for sharing so much knowledge and enthusiasm about gamification in classrooms. I think the idea of “active learning” is so important. As an 11th grade teacher, I find it necessary to make lessons engaging and relevant. I agree with Jane McGonigal (what a great TedGlobal Talk!) that gaming can challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale. Creating real-world scenarios for students is vital to their development as productive citizens of a global world. Particularly, with 21st century Digital Learners, it is a challenge to maintain students’ attention. Gamification can resolve that issue by adding competition, fun and critical thinking to lessons. It is so true that students learn by doing and gaming is a fantastic way to motivate and encourage student achievement. You’ve packed this article with great resources, tools, articles and games… thank you, again!

  11. I love the TED Talk by Jane McGonigal because she points out that the benefits of gaming go far beyond an individual winner. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve often seen how sportsmanship and a a respect for an opponent can be as, if not more, productive in the long run than team work. While I think it would be difficult to get everyone playing sports to solve problems, getting a large enough group gaming together to solve them seems much more achievable.

    • As a veteran educator it seems we are again pandering to students that have grown-up in a gaming world rather than teaching human relations skills. Life is NOT a game! To turn valuable learning opportunities into games and miss the opportunity to develop students as learners (not gamers always looking for fun and competition) is a sad state of affairs and does not bode well for business and industry. We are setting theses students up for failure.

  12. Hi, thank you for the very informative article. I am currently writing a paper on gamification for one of my classes and am wondering if any proper research has been done on the efficacy of gamification.
    It’s not exactly a new concept (I remember playing Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego back in mid-90’s in junior and high school) but I’ve not seen any studies that actually show gamification to be an effective and valuable tool.

    • Agreed! As a veteran educator it seems we are again pandering to students that have grown-up in a gaming world rather than teaching human relations skills. Life is NOT a game! To turn valuable learning opportunities into games and miss the opportunity to develop students as learners (not gamers always looking for fun and competition) is a sad state of affairs and does not bode well for business and industry. We are setting theses students up for failure.

    • Go to a library that has a database service like EBSCO Host or Education Full-Text and search for peer reviewed work on gamification. There has been some work studying this method.

    • Also, it is easy to immediately think of video games when we hear ‘gamification’ but there is much more to it than that. Video games can be great ways to break up the monotony of sitting and listening to lectures or reading texts, but don’t let your thinking be limited to digital gaming. As the article pointed out, you can use things like a jeaopardy style competition. I am looking into possibly converting one of my CAD classes into a year long game in which I offer students a variety of pre-selected projects they can attempt to build with points assigned to them based on the difficulty of the project or “level”. They will need to accumulate x amount of points in order to level up to a new rank. Every level up will have rewards like a 3D printed badge and/or a perk like getting 30 minutes of free time or perhaps a gift card. The projects themselves will not be turned into games, but the course itself will have elements of gaming incorporated into it.

      In fact, I am considering using my experiment as my graduate capstone project. I plan to measure the engagement and motivation of my class before and after the change to see if adding gaming concepts to my course decreases the amount of time students spend off task.

      You are only limited by your imagination and willingness to research what others have done in order to draw inspiration. Ignore the Debbie Downers that clearly have not even done the most cursory examination of what gamification is or it’s benefits and have fun cooking up creative ideas to engage your students.

      • Thanks for these comments. All good points. I know of faculty who are doing really interesting things by incorporating some simple exercises that fall under the gamification category into their curriculum. It energizes the students, and encourages active learning and participation. We are not talking about students just playing video games in class when we talk about gamification, it covers a broad range of activities.

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  17. As a educator I experienced a positive result in gamification approach among middle school students rather than traditional method.

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