Unscrambling Gamification in Education

What is Gamification?

Gamification, for the unfamiliar, is using gaming elements to enhance engagement of an otherwise mundane experience. Today's culture suffers from a "crisis of engagement." Entertainment media has overstimulated people to the point where regular everyday tasks are too boring. People are jonesing for their next fix of excitement. Gamification is one strategy to add some more excitement, engage, and even addict people to normally-perceived everyday humdrum.


In marketing, gamification has been used for its addictive qualities. McDonalds gamified it's products by adding the Monopoly game in attempts to capture repeat customers. Nike created Nike+, a running app that quantifies fitness levels, not only to engage customers in their fitness, but to try to escalate brand-loyalty.

In education, teachers, instructional designers, and the like have wondered how gamification can be used to reinvigorate the learning experience. But as we apply gamification to education, we are confronted with some misunderstandings about how gamification is effective.

Again, gamification is a methodology. It uses gaming elements to transform an uninspiring experience into a more exciting one. The most common use of gamification in education is rewarding points and/or levels for task completion. When learners are rewarded points and levels, they are motivated to acquire more points and levels due to a sense of accomplishment and even a sense of high status. (By the way, points and levels can also come in the forms of trophies, achievements, or badges.)

But, gamification isn't only points and levels. Leaderboards allow learners to compare their performance with others. Timers create a sense of urgency. Quests can construct a narrative learners want to follow. They will perform task after task to see how the story develops. Gamification in education seems to have a lot of potential, in theory. But it certainty can sound better than in actual practice.

Criticism of Gamification

Gamification is the high fructose corn syrup of engagement.
— Kathy Sierra

Some game developers take issue with gamification, considering it a fool’s gold of engagement. Professor and game developer Ian Bogost calls gamification bullshit. He describes it as a snake oil sold by sleazy consultants as the be-all solution. According to Bogost, gamification uses something that everyone loves – games – and capitalizes on it in attempts to shine the turd of common corporate practices. Game designer Margaret Robertson renames gamification “pointsification” because it does not capture the true essence of games. Instead, gamification concentrates on the least essential aspects of gaming, like points and levels, and makes them the center-focus of the experience. I happen to agree with these sentiments. Gamification consultants can mystify unknowing clients by exploiting a cultural moment like games, and create "game-like" solutions that don't actually induce any extra engagement. Points and levels can be introduced to any activity. Whether they motivate depends on how carefully they are applied or if the activity can firmly hold a gamified system. 

Game-Based Learning Is Not Gamification

This video describes the differences between Gamification in education and Game-Based Learning in one minute.

Criticism aside, education gamification is still intriguing. But it shouldn't be confused with using actual games. Using games for learning is known as game-based learning, and does not fall under an umbrella of gamification. In game-based learning, students’ learning comes from playing the game. Examples of game-based learning would be learning money management and finance by playing Monopoly, city planning and building by playing SimCity, or governance and diplomacy by playing Civilization. Authoring games, like Minecraft, have numerous applications for learning, like math, geometry, and creative thinking. In game-based learning, the learning is innate in the games, and if utilized correctly, can help achieve learning outcomes.

What to Consider If You Choose to Use Gamification

If you choose to integrate gamification into your curriculum, please remember that not all gaming elements can aid in accomplishing your goals. Points, levels, quests, etc. can act as a fun veneer. Yet, if you are implementing them to motivate your students, please evaluate some of the negative repercussions.

Personally, I have a distaste for leaderboards. They are a superficially convenient motivation tool which exploits people’s propensity to compare themselves with others. In fact, leaderboards can be de-motivating. Mark Twain once wrote “Comparison is the death of joy.” Struggling students can be discouraged and quit when they see how much they are behind on the leaderboard. This type of comparison can wreck students' motivation. They'll think, "why bother?" For education, and especially for young learners, leaderboards are ineffective, and, in fact, destructive.

Using points, levels, and badges as rewards can be de-motivating too. These types of rewards appeal to learners’ extrinsic motivation, the motivation encouraged by external influences, whether positive (money, gifts, or status) or negative (penalties, or punishment). Over time, people become less inclined to perform a task when they are rewarded extrinsically. This is called the Overjustification Effect. If you subscribe to this concept, then you may choose to not use gamification. Or, you may realize that gamification must be sustained, and points and levels must be regularly rewarded during your entire curriculum. A gamification gap, or a point when students are not being rewarded, could have your students' asking "why bother?" too. Nevertheless, I still think you can configure your gamified curriculum to appeal to students’ intrinsic motivation, or their internal motivation to do things without reward. For example, interest-driven projects is one way to appeal to intrinsic motivation. You could overlay interest-driven projects with a gamified system

Incorporating gaming elements into your learning materials can be a creative way to conjure some fun in your curriculum. But, do not slap points or badges on it and call it more engaging. Bogost and Robertson are right. Gamification is exploitation of motivation tactics and tools, which can be ineffectual if not used properly. Think about it thoroughly. Think about it critically. How does gamification best serve your learning objectives? How will your learners respond? If you still think gamification can enhance your curriculum, the next steps are the exciting part! Start structuring the levels or badges. Equate points with certain assignments. Or write the narrative to some compelling quests. You can have as much fun creating a gamified learning experience as your students will completing it!