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The Gamification of Education



There are many definitions of gamification, the simplest defining it as "the use of gaming elements in nongame contexts" (Nwogu, 2019, p. 20). A more in-depth definition of gamification, defines it as the use of game mechanics, dynamics, and frameworks to promote desired behaviors  (Lee & Hammer, 2011). Gamification attempts to harness the motivational power of games and apply it to real-world problems (Lee & Hammer, 2011). It can be further defined as "using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems" (Kapp, 2012, p. 7) . At its core, gamification uses the elements that make games attractive to youth to engage them in learning. 


Best Practices for Gamification


Features of Games and Gamification


There are many features, characteristics, or elements, that make games what they are. They can include interconnected systems, players, abstracted reality, challenges and goals, rules, feedback systems, measurable outcomes, and emotional reactions, as well as levels, points/badges/scoring systems, and sometimes time constraints (Kapp, 2012; McGonigal, 2011). Researchers argue that players become immersed in games because of these defining characteristics (Kapp, 2012). As such, these are the exact characteristics that need to be applied to our lessons and teaching practices. 

When applying game mechanics to your teaching practice, four game features have been identified which are of particular importance: goals, rules, feedback systems, and voluntary participation (McGonigal, 2011). Goals orient players’ participation in the game, and provide players with purpose (McGonigal, 2011). This is the same for students. Clear, achievable, goals must be identified. Rules set limitations on the game play and push players to explore (McGonigal, 2011). When planning learning experiences for students, rules, boundaries, and limitations, require pupils to work creatively to solve problems by providing structure. This provides students with direction, and helps them to focus their energies on the task at hand. If you give students too much freedom when tackling a challenge, they can become overwhelmed with the number of possibilities, but providing rules and limitations eliminates this problem. Feedback systems allow players to track their progress toward achieving the goal, and thus provide motivation to continue playing (McGonigal, 2011). Timely. relevant, feedback is vital within the world of gamification. Providing students with feedback, and providing them with time to act on this feedback, is a key facet of gamification. Finally, voluntary participation requires all who play to accept a common set of rules, and ensures players are intentionally participating in challenges that are a balanced combination of fun and stress (McGonigal, 2011). This feature of gamification translates into student choice and voice, agency in learning, and appropriately leveled assignments that meet the needs of your students. 


Additionally, there are 16 learning principles that good games incorporate (Gee, 2005). Check out the document below to learn about them! 




Motivation in Gamification


Additional considerations when using gamification to motivate students are the types of rewards used in your practice. There are two types of reward systems: intrinsic and extrinsic (Kapp et al., 2014). Extrinsic rewards are rewards that come from outside of oneself. They can include prizes, badges, points, and even grades (Kapp et al., 2014). Intrinsic rewards on the other hand are rewards that come from enjoying what you are doing, and include feelings such as satisfaction in work, the hope and experience of being successful, social connectivity, and meaning (being a part of something bigger than ourselves) (Kapp et al., 2014; McGonigal, 2011). Intrinsic motivation can be achieved by providing learners with a sense of control and agency, providing them with confidence in their own abilities, setting up a clear path to content and skill mastery, rewarding incremental and long- term goals, and to helping learners to connect to others through social interaction (Kapp et al., 2014; McGonigal, 2011). Teaching students to value intrinsic rewards will help them to remain motivated in the long term, as they do not rely on others for their sense of achievement.'

When using gamification to motivate students, there are four features of games that require careful consideration on the part of educators (Morris et al., 2013).

  1. Foster Curiosity & Exploration

    • Achieve this by providing optimal levels of uncertainty to students. It is recommended that a knowledge and skills gap of approximately 50% is maintained.

  2. Praise

    • Focus praise on student effort. By doing this you are encouraging a growth mindset in students.

  3. Belief in Success

    • Foster self-efficacy in students. They must believe they are capable of successfully completing the task at hand. 

  4. Feedback 

    • Feedback used must negate a student’s fear of failure and eliminate the stigma attached to imperfection. Celebrate failure in your classroom as a learning opportunity! 


(Morris et al., 2013)


The Mastery Process


Games provide opportunities to experiment through a mastery process in which players try, observe outcomes, reflect, plan, and try again (Lee & Hammer, 2011). A similar process called the Cycle of Expertise essentially provides players with multiple attempts at success and practice through scaffolded learning opportunities that adapt to different levels of player knowledge and motivation (Gee, 2005). Games provide players with challenges that are perfectly tailored to their skill level and have multiple routes to success (Lee & Hammer, 2011). Gee (2005) describes this as ‘well- ordered problems’, in which early easy levels and problems in games help players to form skills/knowledge for future, complex problems. It is how players move from novice, to expert. This can be applied to tasks and assignments in school, and in EE, and will improve student learning experiences and performance. This is because the promotion of practice through the mastery process results in the development of persistence and resilience in students (Lee & Hammer, 2011). 




Games and Gamification allow students to experience a state known as flow. Flow can be defined as “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning” (McGonigal, 2011, p. 35). Flow keeps players within the limits of their skill level. Games are pleasantly frustrating, they are doable, but challenging, and they continually adapt to keep the learner in a constant state of interest (Gee, 2005; McGonigal, 2011). They maintain the precise challenge level required by the learner; never too difficult, never too easy (Kapp, 2005). They position the player within an optimal state characterized by intense focus, high sense of agency, and the merging of action and awareness (Morris et al., 2013). There are eight components that make flow possible that educators should apply to their teaching practices: achievable tasks, required concentration, clear goals, feedback, effortless involvement, agency, disappearance of concern for self, and loss of sense of time (Kapp, 2012). Flow is the final piece of the puzzle in education, the optimal state between boredom and anxiety that is achieved through video games, and can be applied to learning (Nwogu, 2019). If educators could induce a state of flow through their teaching practice using knowledge of games and gamification, students’ educational experiences would be greatly improved as they would be more motivated to learn, and gain more satisfaction from the act of learning.


Relationships with Failure


Moreover, flow combines low levels of anxiety with an optimal skill gap (Morris et al., 2013). Low levels of anxiety are indicative of a positive relationship with failure. Many sources suggest that video games promote positive relationships with failure because players are allowed many attempts at low stakes (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Gee, 2005; Morris et al., 2013; McGonigal, 2011). In games, effort is rewarded, not mastery of skill, and risk taking is encouraged (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Gee, 2005). In games, there are lower consequences when players take risks, which encourages exploration (Gee, 2005). Additionally, players’ perception of failure in games is changed from negative criticism to positive constructive feedback which fuels players to keep trying again and again (Morris et al., 2013). Unfortunately, many researchers agree that school on the other hand provides students with few attempts at high stakes, allowing little room for exploration and risk taking (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Gee, 2005; Morris et al., 2013). As such, educators can learn from video games and strive to improve student relationships with failure by implementing the same structures that exist in games.


Emotional Responses


As you may have guessed, games also result in a number of emotional outcomes, such as joy, frustration, pride, and curiosity (Lee & Hammer, 2011). As a result of evoking these strong emotional responses, games create episodic memories which cause players to more richly encode lessons from the game in their memory (Kapp, 2012). Emotional responses improve engagement and thus improve learning (Kapp, 2012). As such, educators should strive to evoke emotional responses in their students through lessons.

Additionally, games allow players to engage in something called ‘hard fun’ because they are voluntarily played (McGonigal, 2011). As a result, players experience positive stress, which means they are confident and optimistic (due to low risk of games) and have entered the stressful situation on purpose (McGonigal, 2011​). This type of stress, or hard fun, leaves us feeling better than when we started (McGonigal, 2011​). If players are lucky, they may even feel a primal emotional rush called fiero, which is defined as the emotional high humans feel after triumph over adversity (McGonigal, 2011). Educators should provide students with opportunities in their classrooms to experience fiero, and overcome difficult challenges!

Experiencing ‘hard fun’, fiero, and other mentioned emotions, are not the only emotional outcomes of playing games. Games can also invoke prosocial emotions - positive feelings directed toward others - such as love, compassion, admiration, and devotion, which are crucial to our long-term happiness (McGonigal, 2011​). Games allow players to build strong social bonds and to participate in active social networks by playing together, and thus cause the side effect of prosocial emotions (McGonigal, 2011​). Games bring players together with a common goal, thus promoting collaboration, teamwork, and cooperation (McGonigal, 2011; Kapp, 2012; Morris et al., 2013; Nand et al., 2019; Nwogu, 2019​). The richness of the collaborative environment in games is added to by something called  ‘distributed knowledge’ or virtual collaboration (Gee, 2005). This type of collaboration occurs in games as different players are able to offer their unique and individual knowledge and skills to aid in the completion of a task (Gee, 2005). In this way, games promote collaboration by allowing players to utilize their strengths. So, not only do games cater to players’ skills and knowledge, encourage collaboration and teamwork, and build social bonds and trust, but they also encourage and nurture players’ unique strengths and talents as well. Educators should apply this to their lesson planning, being sure to use group work, class discussions, and mentorship opportunities in their practice. 


Identity and Avatars


Within games, every player is unique and has their own identity, values, and beliefs. These individuals each possess their own ‘epistemic frames’ which are "ways of knowing about the world that are influenced by specific disciplines" (Morris et al., 2013, p. 8). Whether playing a video game or learning in school, a student’s way of knowing influences their attitude toward learning. Interestingly, games have a tried and true method for shifting thinking in players and allowing them to experience new epistemic frames: avatars (Kapp, 2012). Avatars are a crucial component of game structures and can be utilized during the process of gamification. Games allow players to try on new identities, and thus, to try on new attitudes, values, beliefs, and perspectives that belong to said identity (Lee & Hammer, 2011). In games players assume their new roles, and act as they believe their character would, which can lead to the adoption of values that may not be the same as their own (Morris et al., 2013). Experience as an avatar can change a person's real-life perceptions, and help them with the formation of their own identity as they add to their belief systems (Kapp, 2012). This process can also reduce personal bias and fear, regarding marginalized professions such as scholars or scientists (Gee, 2005; Lee & Hammer, 2011). Research suggests that watching your avatar perform an activity, may influence you to pursue similar activities in the future (Kapp, 2012). In a fascinating development, it turns out that behavioral changes that occur in virtual environments can transfer to a player’s real life (Kapp, 2012). Knowing this, the implications for education are incredible. Students can become mathematicians, environmentalists, scientists, and scholars, simply by ‘trying on’ that avatar.

The Benefits of Gamification

There are numerous benefits to gamification. Gamification...

  • Increases student engagement

  • Facilitates assessment

  • Boosts enthusiasm

  • Lessens disruptive behaviours

  • Encourages growth and development

  • Improves attention span 

  • Improves ability to follow directions

  • Increases motivation

  • Development of technological skills

  • Increases student ownership of learning

  • Increases intrinsic motivation

  • Increases comfort levels

  • Encourages inquiry

  • Provides students with deeper understandings of concepts and their applications 

  • Instant and authentic feedback which allows the students to learn, adapt, and succeed

  • Increases problem solving skills

  • Results in new and innovative solutions 

  • Fosters creativity 

  • Results in urgent optimism

  • Builds trust, bonds, and cooperation

  • Leads to blissful productivity

  • Provides students with an opportunity to take an active role in producing content

  • Provides students with agency in learning

  • Effectively provides information just when it is required for learning

  • Anchors new concepts and understandings to experiences

  • Encourages system thinking 

  • Makes education a joyful experience

Please note that this list is comprised of findings from the resources listed below.


Bruder, P. (2015). Game On: Gamification in the Classroom. Education Digest, 56-60

Gee, J. P. (2005). Good Video Games and Good Learning. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 85(2), 33-37.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. Pfeiffer. 


Kapp, K. M., Blair, L., & Mesch, R. (2014). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice. Wiley.

Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2), 1-5.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: The Penguin Press.

Morris, B. J., Croker, S., Zimmerman, C., Gill, D., & Romig, C. (2013). Gaming science: the “Gamification” of scientific thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-16.

Nand, K., Baghaei, N., Casey, J., Barmada, B., Mehdipour, F., & Liang, H. -N. (2019). Engaging children with educational content via Gamification. Smart Learning

     Environments, 6(6), 1-15. 


Nwogu, C. (2019). Embracing the Power of Gaming In Education: Substance, Engagement, and Flow. Information Today, 19-20.

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