The Many Faces of Gamification

One of the problems that educators face when considering gamification for their courses is that gamification is a quite imprecise umbrella term which can refer to several different specific “applications” of games to education. That creates several sources of disagreement when none are necessarily present. When someone says “I would like to gamify my course,” they might be thinking:

  1. I’d like to add some games to my course.
  2. I’d like to teach my students using games.
  3. I’d like to make assignments more fun.
  4. I’d like to motivate my students to do more work.

These all represent somewhat different models of “gamification” but have quite different implications for success. So when asked to comment on how gamification affects learning, my first response was that it depends on what you mean by gamification.

Despite common usage, the first two items in my list above are not what I would refer to as “gamification.” Instead, this is the application of “educational/instructional games” or “edugaming”. This is not at all a new concept. Games with learning as their purpose have been around for millennia, back at least to the invention of competitive sports (be faster and stronger than your competitors to be judged as superior by your peers!). Even digital games for learning have been around for decades — the first blockbuster of this genre was Oregon Trail, which was created in the early 1970s. Such games are intended to teach through play within a narrative framework. In the very best edugames, we learn by being pulled into a story that we find compelling, where it is necessary to understand complex relationships within that narrative in order to effect change as an agent operating within it. One cannot win at Oregon Trail by running at a breakneck pace across the American West with inadequate supplies. One only wins by understanding resource rationing, caution, and risk management. And the ability to shoot wildlife doesn’t hurt.

The last two items in my list are a quite different approach from edugaming, and they represent the core of what I would call “gamification.” They involve the use of digital games as inspiration for changing the motivation or behavior of students. The most common gamification systems are badge-based, where students are awarded badges for completion of learning-related tasks. But gamification can take any game-inspired form — for example, one course at Indiana University was gamified by layering a fantasy component over the course, converting “tests” to “monsters” and “grades” to “levels.” As another example, in one research study I conducted recently, we randomly assigned students within a class to experience either a leaderboard or nothing when completing an online semester-long wiki-based class project. In past semesters, we had noticed that most students didn’t work on their wiki entry until the end of the semester, and we wanted to motivate them to work on it more often to bring greater value to everyone. Unlike the use of Oregon Trail, the purpose of the leaderboard was not to teach students about anything in particular — instead, we only hoped to motivate students to access the wiki more often. And it worked exactly as intended — students with the leaderboard on their wiki logged into the project more often, ending up with higher quality projects, than students without a leaderboard.

Just as we should not consider “all edugames” when considering how edugames can affect learning, we should not consider “all gamification” when considering how gamification can affect learning. Some gamification is useless. Some gamification may even be harmful. But value can be found when its use is tied directly to learning objectives. What skills are you trying to develop and how does the edugame teach them? What behaviors you are trying to change, and does gamification change those behaviors? If such ties cannot be made, games and gamification should not be used.

Giving a tablet computer to a child and assuming she will magically learn something is not a useful application of computers, and adding points and badges and levels to a course without any particular purpose is not a useful application of gamification. Yet despite early missteps, few would now question that computers can be valuable to education if properly applied. As we’ve discovered, it is not nearly as simple as “use a computer and learning is improved.” We should not expect the same from gamification, and we should not judge its merit based upon these early applications alone.

Originally published at

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