The Classroom Teacher, winter 2014-15

If you’ve ever had a card punched at Subway to earn a free sandwich or “checked in” using FourSquare, you’ve experienced gamification — the application of game mechanics and design techniques in non-game situations to engage and motivate. But lately the idea of gamification (which goes beyond game-based learning, or students simply playing games to learn content) has gained popularity as a classroom tool.

Understanding gamification

“Gamification has most frequently been used as a clever way to promote a business or product. For instance, players can earn badges, discounts and other rewards for visiting real-world shops and ‘checking in’ to the mobile phone application FourSquare,” writes Joey J. Lee, assistant professor of technology and education at Teachers College Columbia University in, “Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?” (a must-read article for educators interested in gamification.)

Even exercise (think Fitbit) and online auctions (eBay users’ points and badges allow them to show their status on the site) have been gamified to engage users and customers. “Games, in any form, increase motivation through engagement,” according to the educational technology company Top Hat, “Nowhere else is this more important than education.”

Low stakes make practice fun

One benefit of gamification is that it makes often-dreaded practice fun. “Because games involve repeated experimentation, they also involve repeated failure,” Lee writes. “In fact, for many games, the only way to learn how to play is to fail at it repeatedly, learning something each time. Games maintain this positive relationship with failure by making feedback cycles rapid and keeping stakes low.

“… In schools, on the other hand, the stakes of failure are high and the feedback cycles long. Students have few opportunities to try, and when they do, it is high stakes. Little wonder that students experience anxiety, not anticipation, when offered the chance to fail.”

Understanding game mechanics

If you want to try gamification, know that it is more than just handing out badges or points, warns Vicki Davis, a computer fundamentals, computer science and IT integrator.

“Game theorists have uncovered 24 ways for truly motivating gamers to participate and engage. If you’re going to engage your students using any form of gaming, you should understand game mechanics.” (See for Davis’ Edutopia article, “Gamification in Education,” which provides links to information on game mechanics, game-player types, and a video by a sixth-grade teacher who has gamified his classroom.)

Gamification tools

The five most used mechanics in gamification, Davis says, are points, levels, leaderboards, challenges, and badges. For example, according to Top Hat, the Khan Academy awards students with points and badges as they watch instructional videos and complete problem sets. (Study up on these tools using the resources listed below.)

Of course, remember context is key. “Receiving a badge for a job well done is meaningless without an understanding of what specific skills this badge rewards,” writes Top Hat. “Games can’t be used to replace pedagogy, but they can be used to enhance the overall learning experience.”

More resources

Gamification: Where to Begin?

Six Ways to Look at Badging Systems Designed for Learning

Gamifying Student Engagement