Gamification – what is it and can it be harnessed for education?

Monopoly money

Can the power of games be harnessed in new contexts?

In this blog post, I will introduce the concept of gamification as well as considering whether is a technique that can be used in an education context. I have just completed a tremendous Massive Open Online Course on this subject delivered by Associate Professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School, University of Pensylvania, and much of what I am going to talk about is informed by his course.

What is gamification?

In essence, gamification is the application of game design principles or game mechanics to non-gaming contexts. Gamification, if designed well and with a keen eye on its goals and objectives, can be used to motivate some people to engage with processes or behaviours that they otherwise wouldn’t such as exercise or green awareness. It is starting to be taken seriously by e-business, social media and in organisational or enterprise contexts and early indications are that it has the potential to be a powerful tool.

Some real world examples of the use of gamification include:

  • Fitocracy – a fitness motivation site
  • Foursquare – a successful location based social media platform
  • Practically Green – a sustainability and green behaviours motivation site
  • Stackoverflow– a vibrant programming question and answer website with content is provided by a large developer community
  • Salesforce – a gamified performance management and feedback platform aimed at large enterprises

Why gamification now?

Gamification is heavily influenced by video games design as well as serious games, e-commerce and psychology. Gaming is now a mainstream activity for many people, in part, due  to the success of the Wii in 2006, social gaming on Facebook and cheap and highly entertaining smartphone games such as Rovio’s Angry Birds. According to the Entertainment Software Association in the United States, around 72% of American households play video games and 47% of all players are women. Furthermore, the  average age of a gamer is 30 years old.

Video games it would seem are part of our culture. Massive Open Online Games such as World of Warcraft have demonstrated how highly skilled and motivated teams can be built in a virtual environment and serious gaming has also had some niche success in training workforces and professionals.

Beyond video games, the web has evolved significantly. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have moved the web from an “information platform” to a “people platform” where content is generated daily by billions. Web and business analytics tools mean that online behaviours can be tracked and analysed with large amounts of data stored and accessed through the cloud. Mobile devices with apps also allow ubiquitous connectivity with constant updating of information from any location.

With these technological advances, adding a gamification layer to a business process is now possible. Indeed, there are companies such as Badgeville which specialise in developing gamified approaches to business objectives.


Gamification is deeply influenced by systems thinking, game theory and design and psychology (including the  cognitive and positive psychology disciplines).

A key role of gamification is to encourage or motivate people to adopt specific behaviours that they otherwise would not do. To do this gamified systems need to balance extrinsic rewards such as points, badges and leaderboards with intrinsic motivators such as fun, autonomy and self determination. Points, badges and leaderboards can be useful in motivating people, but ultimately if they do not create intrinsic motivation such as sense of autonomy them they tend to fail in their long term objectives as people get bored or desensitised to the rewards on offer.

Gamified systems need to be designed in a nuanced fashion with a clear understanding of underlying objectives and human behaviour. Fitocracy, for example, is a gamified social media platform where people can sign up to choose specific fitness objectives or quests. On completing the quest,  for example running 800 metres, they will gain an achievement badge that will they can share with friends thanks to deep integration with social media. Over the long term players can level up as they become fitter. The system is designed to allow friends to encourage each other as fitness goals get raised.

Thanks to some clever design mechanics, a sense of achievement, heightened well being and the social nature of Fitocracy can lead to increased motivation. An important design element  is that players are not forced to do anything. They are given choices and are gently encouraged by praise and feedback from other users and the system itself. The likely long term benefits are that players become self motivated to keep fit and the game simply provides gentle positive reinforcement.

Gamification and Education

Some researchers are beginning to experiment with gamification techniques:

  • Lee Sheldon, an Associate Professor in Rensselaer’s Department of Language, Literature, and Communication used XP (Experience Points) instead of traditional grading to try to motivate learners. His collection of student feedback suggested a positive response
  • Quest to Learn is a unique public school in New York that has integrated gaming elements into the curriculum
Gamifying education has real challenges. In theory it offers new tools for educators to motivate learning. As Lee and Hammer (2011) point out:

“Gamification can motivate  students to engage in the classroom, give teachers better tools to guide and reward students, and get students to bring their full selves to the pursuit of learning.”

Lee and Hammer (2011, p.4)

Unfortunately, gamification could have the opposite effect, for if learning is built around competition alone or earning badges and points, then the intrinsic motivation of mastering a subject or discovering new things could be crowded out by these extrinsic and ultimately inconsequential factors. Where gamification does have some potential applications in education is in situations where there is a specific problem that could be addressed. Here’s some examples that could work in the higher education context:
  • Orientation of new students. Coming to university is a challenge for many new students as their first experience of Higher Education begins to unfold. Gamification techniques could be integrated within a Learning Management Systems and student intranets to help them better understand what being at university constitutes and what is expected of them in terms of managing their own learning.
  • Sustainability. Helping students lead a sustainable life at university. A successful example of this approach has been implemented at the University of Hawaii.
  • Peer assistance in learning communities. Using gamification techniques in harness and share knowledge within a learning community. Compare this with the  Stackoverflow website.
Gamification is a new area. Its potential is huge, but its success id dependant on appropriate implementation and good design. Educators should proceed with caution, but not dismiss it.

Some useful resources


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

Neil Martin

Image: Dave Rutt, Monopoly, used under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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