Gamifying Education

Gamifying Education

The use of game technology in the service of educational ends can be understood as “gamification.” Gamification is “an informal umbrella term for the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems to improve user experience (UX) and user engagement” (Deterding, et al., 2011). These non-gaming systems can exist in business, government and education sectors. Put simply, any utilitarian activity that involves the completion of tasks to achieve desired outcomes can be enhanced by making the work into a game. The gamification movement partially defines itself in response to the criticism that games isolate people and provide a deleterious means of escaping reality.

“Instead of fixing reality, we’ve simply created more and more attractive alternatives to the boredom, anxiety, alienation and meaninglessness we run up against so often in daily life,” writes Jane McGonigal (2011, p. 115).

Consequently, gamification seeks to transform games from their status as frivolous escapisms into socially meaningful ways of learning and living more happily. “It’s high time we start applying the lessons of games to the design of our everyday lives. We need to engineer alternate realities: new, more gameful ways of interacting with the real world and living our real lives,” explains McGonigal (2011, p. 115).

The foundation of gamification, according to Michael Wu, Ph.D. (2011) and Principal Scientist of Analytics at Lithium Corporation, can be found in the axiom “play is not the opposite of work.” As he defines the term, “gamification is the use of game mechanics to drive game-like engagement and actions . . . Gamification is the process of introducing game mechanics into [everyday life’s] abhorred activities to make them more game-like (i.e. fun, rewarding, desirable, etc.), so that people would want to proactively take part in these tasks.” Despite the chagrin to fellow educators, “learning” is often classed among these “abhorred activities.” As McGonigal (2011) believes, “schools should work more like games” (p. 127).

Using games to enhance educational experiences is nothing new; Horace advocated it in first-century BCE: “Instruct by delighting.” Limiting the discussion to advanced computer-assisted technology specifically modelled after video games reveals the contemporary trend, starting decades ago with the classic edutainment games that have received dubious reception and application. By contrast, gamification “suggests adding far more sophisticated game mechanics to applications – no matter how stuffy or serious the application has been,” says Elizabeth Corcoran (2010), who founded Lucere (, a non-profit organization devoted to helping educators find and use the most appropriate technology for inspiring students.

Corcoran identifies three approaches to using games in education: (1) the “just-make-it-fun” approach, (2) the build-it-yourself approach, and (3) gamification.



She dismisses the first as unsustainable because it focuses on keeping students entertained rather than making substantive enhancements in their ability to learn. Like many other gimmicks designed simply to occupy time so that educators don’t have to deal with the consequences of having students who are bored and restless, many edutainment games fall into this category. The build-it-yourself approach is more desirable. Students learn by creating games using computer software such as Scratch. Corcoran argues that Scratch is empowering because is allows youth to control their own environment and be in charge. Similarly, Professor Magy Seif El-Nasr discusses “modding” – (modifying) existing games as a classroom strategy for teaching diverse subjects, including math, physics and computer science.

More and more, game designers are coming to appreciate that players are more engaged when they have control over narrative outcomes. When applied to an educational context, engagement is even more critical, as any good teacher can testify. Introducing games as something students create on their own to achieve desired educational goals works because students become more invested in the content. This strategy also works because they post their games online and receive limitless interaction and feedback from the online community. The downside is that students must come to the process motivated to engage in the process in the first place.

For Corcoran (2010), gamification is far superior because it “assumes the player isn’t especially motivated – at least at the beginning – and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.” Therefore, it “doesn’t rely on internal motivation . . . using [instead] the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition and rewarding even tiny steps of progress” (2010).

One interesting aspect of gamification is the synergy it creates among researchers in the gaming and education professions, thus drawing on expertise from both disciplines. Cross-disciplinarity is a two-way street in this enterprise. Educators are learning how to engage students by modelling their lessons using game dynamics. But, equally useful to game designers is the wealth of pedagogical study on learning outcomes assessment, which gamers can translate into products even if they do not purport an educational dimension. The fruits of educational research may be as simple as equating learning with play and recognizing that different students/players learn in different ways at different rates. Thus, making games that appeal to different types of players amounts to making lesson plans that teach to the needs of different types of learners.

Wu (2011) cites game researcher Richard A. Bartle’s belief that game players can be thought of in terms of their personality types and recognizes that “different gaming dynamics are required for different types of gamers.” Bartle is perhaps best known as a founder of the Massively Multiple Online (MMO) game industry. But, he is also a professor, having followed a complementary career path merging game research with teaching at the University of Essex, where he started as a lecturer and currently works as a Fellow in the Department of Computing and Electronic Systems degree program on game development. The intellectual paths that join gaming and education run parallel courses in his case and likely in many others, thus making gamification a natural union of research interests from compatible fields.

Courtesy Photo: Apple, Inc.

Courtesy Photo: Apple, Inc.

Both education and gaming – both instruction and entertainment – share the need to keep audiences engaged.

Making gameplay more interesting thus mirrors the educational need to make learning more interesting. Gamification achieves this end by importing game mechanics and gaming dynamics to the technological delivery of information for educational purposes. As Wu (2011) distinguishes these features, “Point and achievement are game mechanics used to motivate behaviours, but how and precisely when the badges are unlocked over time and the precise reward schedule are gaming dynamics. Clever game designers can create new gaming dynamics by combining various game mechanics over time to make game play more interesting and engaging.”

For example, the World Peace Game ( is a hands-on political simulation that invites players to explore the connectedness of the global community while understanding economic, social and environmental crises in light of imminent war. The game imparts skills, such as collaboration and communication. With these types of projects, gamification is sure to have an impact on the educational front worldwide