Gamification: the use of game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.

We’ve seen gamification alredy in a variety of settings: completing a punch card to win a free sandwich, receiving a badge for being the first of friends to check in at a particular restaurant, or expanding our profiles on LinkedIn to bring the “completion bar” up to 100%. Gamification has even worked its way into the automotive industry with the innovative dashboard of the Ford Fusion hybrid. A high-resolution display features a rendering of vine-like leaves. Waste gas, and your vines wither. Conserve, and they blossom. The idea is to encourage brand loyalty, so how will gamification impact the education sector?

Gamification of education

Games, in any form, increase motivation through engagement. Nowhere else is this more important than education. Nothing demonstrates a general lack of student motivation quite like the striking high school dropout rates: approximately 1.2 million students fail to graduate each year (All4Ed, 2010). At the college level, a Harvard Graduate School of Education study “Pathways to Prosperity” reports that just 56% of students complete four-year degrees within six years. It’s argued that this is due to current systemic flaws in the way we teach; schools are behind the times. Watch a single lecture on innovation trends in education, and the presenter likely notes the striking similarities of a modern-day classroom and one of centuries past. It’s been proven that gamifying other services has resulted in retention and incentive. For example, website builder DevHub saw the remarkable increase of users who finished their sites shoot from 10 percent to 80 percent. So, in theory, it should work for schools as well.

How can I gamify education in my classroom?

Educators have tested this theory and seen positive results. There are a variety of ways to introduce your classroom to the gamification of education and we’re providing you with just a few ideas. We hope to spark a discussion on gamifying education so that educators can discuss the topic more thoroughly and provide examples in which they have used gamification to make learning more engaging.

  1. Gamify grading

    One success story is Lee Sheldon, a professor at Indiana University, who gamified his course by abandoning grades and implementing an “experience points” system. Students’ letter grades are determined by the amount of points they have accumulated at the end of the course, in other words, by how much they have accomplished. Because of the extracurricular interests of the current college-age generation (games!), Professor Sheldon attributes success to the fact that “the elements of the class are couched in terms they understand.” Students are progressing towards levels of mastery, as one does in games. Each assignment and each test feels rewarding, rather than disheartening. Using experience points allows educators to align levels with skills and highlight the inherent value of education.

  2. Award students with badges

    For each assignment completed, award students with badges. This may seem like a regression back to Kindergarten stickers of gold stars, but it’s working for Khan Academy. As students watch instructional videos and complete problem sets, Khan Academy awards them with points and badges to track progress and encourage perseverance. Western Oklahoma State College is implementing this form of gamification into their technology classes, with badges like “Moodle Noob No More,” or, a personal favorite “Drop It Like It Hot” to indicate mastery of Dropbox. However, as previously noted, it’s important to add value to the badges, like bonus points, skill levels, etc.

  3. Integrate educational video games into your curriculum

    The use of games allows students to fail, overcome, and persevere. Students are given a sense of agency—in games, they control the choices they make, and the more agency students have, the better students do. Instantaneous feedback and small rewards (or big ones, like winning) are external motivators that work. Case in point, Mr. Pai, a 3rd grade teacher on a mission to make learning fun. He disrupted the traditional classroom setting by introducing the Nintendo DS, among other technology, into his daily curriculum. Students practiced math and language through the use of computer and video games. In just eighteen weeks, his class went from a below 3rd grade level to a mid fourth-grade level.

  4. Stir up a little competition

    Top Hat is adopting game mechanics by including a “tournament” module in our platform. Professors have found that the tournaments incentivize students to learn the material and practice. After all, everyone wants to see his or her name on the leaderboard, right? Celine Petsche, a teaching assistant in the School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University, uses Top Hat’s tournament module to engage her students. Previously using iClicker to quiz her students on the assigned reading, Celine found that the use of the tournament function egged on some competition, boosted morale and got her students excited about demonstrating their understanding. Celine additionally noted that the tool worked as a great equalizer among students. Introverts were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the material and participate without having to raise their hands. Most of all, “gamifying” the review of readings simply boosted the general energy of the class. Something that can be particularly challenging during the early morning seminars!

Other ideas

Implement a class-wide rewards system: Encourage camaraderie among students by setting up a rewards system where students achieve something as a team. For example, set a goal of 80% of the class passing an exam. As a reward, give the entire class bonus points or even a party. That way, students are working to master the material together instead of competing, and the highest-achieving students will help those around them.

Gamify homework to encourage informal learning: Ultimately, educators hope that games translate learning into informal environments. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day for an educator. Games allow the curiosity—and the learning—to continue after the bell rings. How about a treasure hunt? Quests?

Create a digital, customizable classroom management system built on role playing themes: Okay, maybe this one is a little more challenging. But read this Wired article on how six grade teacher Ben Bertoli is gamifying his class by doing exactly that.

Those who resist gamification in education often cite its improper use of rewards as a motivator. Critics argue that relying on games can be detrimental to intrinsic motivation. Receiving a badge for a job well done is meaningless without an understanding of what specific skills this badge rewards. We agree; games can’t be used to replace pedagogy, but can be used to enhance the overall learning experience.


Suzanne Holloway

Suzanne Holloway

Suzanne Holloway is a writer based in San Francisco.