Gamification of learning

Gamification of learning

The gamification of learning is an educational approach to motivate students to learn by using video game design and game elements in learning environments. The goal is to maximize enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning. Gamification, broadly defined, is the process of defining the elements which comprise games that make those games fun and motivate players to continue playing, and using those same elements in a non-game context to influence behaviour. In educational contexts, examples of desired student behaviour which gamification can potentially influence include attending class, focusing on meaningful learning tasks, and taking initiative.

The gamified music learning platform, Rise of the Rhythm.

Distinguishable from game-based learning, gamification of learning does not involve students in designing and creating their own games, or in playing commercially produced video games. Within game based learning initiatives, students might use Gamestar Mechanic or GameMaker to create their own video game, or play Minecraft, for example, where they explore and create 3D worlds. In these examples, along with games such as Surge and Angry Birds, the learning agenda is encompassed within the game itself. The gamification of learning, in contrast, occurs when learning happens in a non-game context, such as a school classroom, and when a series of game elements is arranged into a system or "game layer" which operates in coordination with the learning in that regular classroom.
A gamified unit in a high school English course designed to teach the novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.


Game elements which can facilitate learning

Some elements of games which may be used to motivate learners and facilitate learning include:

    Progress mechanics (points/badges/leaderboards, or PBL's)
    Player control
    Immediate feedback
    Opportunities for collaborative problem solving
    Scaffolded learning with increasing challenges
    Opportunities for mastery, and leveling up
    Social connection

When a classroom incorporates the use of some of these elements, that environment can be considered "gamified". There is no distinction as to how many elements need to be included to officially constitute gamification, but a guiding principle is that gamification takes into consideration the complex system of reasons a person chooses to act, and not just one single factor. Progress mechanics, which need not make use of advanced technology, are often thought of as constituting a gamified system. However, used in isolation, these points and opportunities to earn achievements are not necessarily effective motivators for learning. Engaging video games which can keep players playing for hours on end do not maintain players' interest by simply offering the ability to earn points and beat levels. Rather, the story that carries players along, the chances for players to connect and collaborate with others, the immediate feedback, the increasing challenges, and the powerful choices given to players about how to proceed throughout the game, are immensely significant factors in sustained engagement. Business initiatives designed to use gamification to retain and recruit customers, but do not incorporate a creative and balanced approach to combining game elements, may be destined to fail.[9] Similarly, in learning contexts, the unique needs of each set of learners, along with the specific learning objectives relevant to that context must inform the combination of game elements to shape a compelling gamification system that has the potential to motivate learners.

A system of game elements which operates in the classroom is explicit, and consciously experienced by the students in the classroom. There is no hidden agenda by which teachers attempt to coerce or trick students into doing something. Students still make autonomous choices to participate in learning activities. The progress mechanics used in the gamified system can be thought of as lighting the way for learners as they progress, and the other game mechanics and elements of game design are set up as an immersive system to support and maximize students' learning.


Gamification initiatives in learning contexts acknowledge that large numbers of school-aged children play video games, which shapes their identity as people and as learners. While the world of gaming used to be skewed heavily toward male players, recent US and Canadian statistics show that 55% of videogame players are male, while 45% are female. Within games and other digital media, students experience opportunities for autonomy, competence and relatedness, and these affordances are what they have come to expect from such environments. Providing these same opportunities in the classroom environment is a way to acknowledge students' reality, and to acknowledge that this reality affects who they are as learners. Incorporating elements from games into classroom scenarios is a way to provide students with opportunities to act autonomously, to display competence, and to learn in relationship to others. Game elements are a familiar language that children speak, and an additional channel through which teachers can communicate with their students.

Game designer Jane McGonigal characterizes video game players as urgent optimists who are part of a social fabric, engaged in blissful productivity, and on the lookout for epic meaning. If teachers can successfully organize their classrooms and curriculum activities to incorporate the elements of games which facilitate such confidence, purpose and integrated sense of mission, students may become engrossed in learning and collaborating such that they do not want to stop. The dynamic combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators is a powerful force which, if educational contexts can adapt from video games, may increase student motivation, and student learning.

Some of the potential benefits of successful gamification initiatives in the classroom include:

  •     giving students ownership of their learning
  •     opportunities for identity work through taking on alternate selves
  •     freedom to fail and try again without negative repercussions
  •     chances to increase fun and joy in the classroom
  •     opportunities for differentiated instruction
  •     making learning visible
  •     providing a manageable set of subtasks and tasks
  •     inspiring students to discover intrinsic motivators for learning

Referring to how video games provide increasingly difficult challenges to players, game designer Amy Jo Kim has suggested that every educational scenario could be set up to operate this way. This game mechanic which involves tracking players' learning in the game, and responding by raising the difficulty level of tasks at just the right moment, keeps players from becoming unnecessarily frustrated with tasks that are too difficult, as well as keeps players from becoming bored with tasks that are too easy. This pacing fosters continued engagement and interest which can mean that learners are focused on educational tasks, and may get into a state of flow, or deeply absorbed in learning.


Three key ways in which a classroom, course, or unit can be gamified are through changing the language, adapting the grading process, and modifying the structure of the learning environment. With regard to language, instead of referring to academic requirements with the typical associated terms, game-like names may be used instead. For example, making a course presentation might be referred to as "embarking on a quest," writing an exam might be "defeating monsters", and creating a prototype might be classed as "completing a mission." In terms of grading, the grading scheme for a course might be adapted to make use of experience points (XP) as opposed to letter grades. Each student can begin at level one with zero points; as they progress through the course, completing missions and demonstrating learning, they earn XP. A chart can be developed to illustrate how many XP is required to earn a letter grade. For example, earning 1500 XP might translate to a C, while 2000 would earn a B, and 2500, an A. Some teachers use XP, as well as health points (HP) and knowledge points (KP) to motivate students in the classroom, but do not connect these points with the letter grades students get on a report card. Instead these points are connected with earning virtual rewards such as badges or trophies.

The structure of a course or unit may be adapted in various ways to incorporate elements of gamification; these adaptations can affect the role of the student, the role of the teacher, and role of the learning environment. The role of a student in a gamified environment might be to adopt an avatar and a game name with which they navigate through their learning tasks. Students may be organized into teams or guilds, and be invited to embark on learning quests with their fellow guild members. They may be encouraged to help other guild members, as well as those in other guilds, if they have mastered a learning task ahead of others. The role of the teacher may be to take responsibility for tracking student achievements with a web-based platform such as Open Badges, the WordPress plug-in GameOn, or an online spreadsheet. The teacher may also publish a leaderboard online which illustrates the students who have earned the most XP, or reached the highest level of play. The teacher may define the parameters of the classroom "game," giving the ultimate learning goal a name, defining the learning tasks which make up the unit or the course, and specifying the rewards for completing those tasks. The other important role of the teacher is to provide encouragement and guidance for students as they navigate the gamified environment.

The role of a gamified learning environment may be structured to provide an overarching narrative which functions as a context for all the learning activities. For example, a narrative might involve an impending zombie attack which can be fended off or a murder mystery which can be solved, ultimately, through the process of learning. Learning is the focus of each gamified system. Sometimes the narrative is related to the content being learned, for example, in the case of a disease outbreak which can be stopped through learning biology. In some cases the narrative is unrelated, as in a case of music students who learn to play pieces as the means to collectively climb up to the top of a mountain, experiencing various challenges and setbacks along the way. Other ways in which gaming elements are part of the role of the learning environment include theme music played at opportune times, a continuous feedback loop which, if not instantaneous, is as quick as possible, a variety of individual and collaborative challenges, and the provision of choice as to which learning activities are undertaken, how they will be undertaken, or in which order they will be undertaken.



Without adding extra gaming elements to the classroom, schooling already contains some elements which are analogous to games. Since the 1700s, school has represented opportunities for students to earn marks for handing in assignments, which are like points, and students who achieve certain marks may earn certificates or scholarships. Since the early 1900s, with the advent of psychoanalytic theory, reward management programs were developed and can still be seen in schools. For example, many teachers set up reward programs in their classrooms which allow students to earn free time, school supplies or treats for finishing homework or following classroom rules.

While some have criticized the term "gamification" then, as simply a new name for a practice that has been used in education for many years, gamification does not refer to a one-dimensional system where a reward is offered for performing a certain behaviour. The gamification of learning is an approach which recently has evolved, in coordination with technological developments, to include much larger scales for gameplay, new tools, and new ways to connect people. The term gamification, coined in 2002, and becoming popular in 2007 is not a one-dimensional reward system. Rather, it takes into consideration the variety of complex factors which make a person decide to do something; it is a multifaceted approach which takes into consideration psychology, design, strategy, and technology. One reason for the popularization of the term "gamification" is that current advancements in technology and, in particular, mobile technology have allowed for the explosion of a variety of gamification initiatives in many contexts. Some of these contexts include the Starbucks and Shoppers Drug Mart loyalty programs, location-based check-in applications such as Foursquare, and mobile and web applications and tools that reward and broadcast healthy eating and exercise habits, such as Fitocracy and Fitbit. These examples involve the use of game elements such as points, badges and leaderboards to motivate behavioural changes and track those changes in online platforms. The gamification of learning is related to these popular initiatives, but specifically focuses on the use of game elements to facilitate student engagement and motivation to learn. It is difficult to pinpoint when gamification, in the strict sense of the term, came to be used in educational contexts, although examples shared online by classroom teachers begin appearing in 2010.


The research of Domínguez and colleagues about gamifying learning experiences suggests that common beliefs about the benefits obtained when using games in education can be challenged. Students who completed the gamified experience got better scores in practical assignments and in overall score, but their findings also suggest that these students performed poorly on written assignments and participated less on class activities, although their initial motivation was higher. The researchers concluded that gamification in e-learning platforms seems to have the potential to increase student motivation, but that it is not trivial to achieve that effect, as a big effort is required in the design and implementation of the experience for it to be fully motivating for participants. On the one hand, qualitative analysis of the study suggests that gamification can have a great emotional and social impact on students, as reward systems and competitive social mechanisms seem to be motivating for them. But quantitative analysis suggests that the cognitive impact of gamification on students is not very significant. Students who followed traditional exercises performed similarly in overall score than those who followed gamified exercises. Disadvantages of gamified learning were reported by 57 students who did not want to participate in the gamified experience. The most frequent reason argued by students was 'time availability'. The second most important reason were technical problems. Other reasons were that there were too many students and that they had to visit so many web pages and applications at the university that they did not want to use a new one.

Another field where serious games are used to improve learning is health care. Petit dit Dariel, Raby, Ravaut and Rothan-Tondeur (2013) investigated the developing of serious games potential in nursing education. They suggest that few nursing students have long-term exposure to home-care and community situations. New pedagogical tools are needed to adequately and consistently prepare nurses for the skills they will need to care for patients outside acute care settings. Advances in information and communications technologies offer an opportunity to explore innovative pedagogical solutions that could help students develop these skills in a safe environment. Laboratory simulations with high fidelity mannequins, for example, have become an integral element in many health care curricula. A recent systematic review found evidence suggesting that the use of simulation mannequins significantly improved three outcomes integral to clinical reasoning: knowledge acquisition, critical thinking and the ability to identify deteriorating patients.

In the study of Mouaheb, Fahli, Moussetad and Eljamali an American version of a serious game was investigated: Virtual University. Results showed that learning using this serious game has educational values that are based on learning concepts advocated by constructivist psycho-cognitive theories. It guarantees intrinsic motivation, generates cognitive conflicts and provides situated learning. The use of Virtual University allowed the researchers to identify the following key points: from its playfulness combined with video game technologies, the tool was able to motivate learners intrinsically; the simulation game also recreates learning situations extremely close to that of reality, especially considering the complexity, dynamism and all of the interrelations and interactions that exist within the university system. This is a major educational advantage by encouraging 1) an intense interaction that generates real cognitive or socio-cognitive conflicts, providing a solid construction of knowledge; 2) an autonomy in the learning process following a strong metacognitive activity; 3) an eventual transfer of acquired skills.




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