– Gamification in the classroom

Gamification in the classroom

School is a lot like a board game, but today’s best games aren’t like school. Game designers have found ways to embed mastery learning in flow-inducing experiences that offer learners increasingly self-directed opportunities for goal-setting and problem solving. Moreover, game designers have found ways to provide near constant feedback to learners. Customization is another hallmark of contemporary games, and widespread differentiation in gaming experiences exists across platforms, genres, and peripherals – or add-ons – like the XBox Kinect, PlayStation Move, and Rock Band controllers.

Game designers concern themselves with fun in ways that educators do not; however, the primary aims of both public education in the United States and the game industry are exactly the same:

  • Both industries want their consumers to adopt new behaviors. Games teach through gameplay and feedback; schools teach through teaching and feedback. While games depend on the player to learn from them, schools are largely set-up to depend on teachers to teach.
  • Both industries want repeat business. Game designers want their games to sell so that they have the resources and justification to make new games to sell to their fan base; schools want their graduates to excel so that they are given the resources and vindication to educate the next generation like the last.

While I can see the game industry slowing down console development to speed up game development and maximize profits through the synergy of new peripherals with old hardware, for now the game industry clearly has the edge in what I consider to be one of the single most powerful learning innovations of our time:


How powerful is fun? I think about my students who struggle to memorize the times tables, but master new games in moments. I think about my students who still don’t routinely or accurately capitalize, but have no problem with the grammar and syntax of button sequences. I think about my students who struggle with reading comprehension, but deliver encyclopedic summaries of games’ plots, systems, and characterizations. I think about my students who have resisted self-starting school work for year, but who embrace new challenges in games and routinely teach others the strategies and tricks they have discovered. I think about my students who rush through writing, but spend hours tweaking the characters and levels they create with in-game tools.

We could argue that games appeal to students because they are auditory, visual and kinesthetic, but we’ve all tried auditory, visual and kinesthetic activities that have fallen flat because we stopped designing at that modal level of differentiation, relying on novelty to carry the day. Game designers go a step further and ask how the auditory, visual and kinetic (and sometimes textual) can be made fun, especially when games rely on players to find novel applications for a finite set of sounds, pictures, and gameplay mechanics.

On March 21st, 2011, I’ll host an #engchat on gamification – or perhaps “applied gaming” – in the language arts classroom. Gamification is the application of gameplay mechanics to real world tasks in an effort to change human behavior by taking advantage of our need for fun. Companies use gamification to change consumer behavior through fun. I’d like to ask how teachers can do the same.

I recognize and acknowledge the extrinsic ends of gamification, and I hope that we discuss how to reconcile the use of gamification in schools with the intrinsic motivation that we know drives the most personally meaningful learning. For what it’s worth, I see my students initially attracted to games by ads and word-of-mouth, but I see them stick with games and game culture out of a common, intrinsic drive to master games that they evaluate as worthy of their time. I’m really eager to talk about the ethics of fun and game-design in classroom design and management, as well as in unit- and lesson-planning. How different are achievements and badges from grades? How are they used differently? How is feedback delivered in-game different from that delivered in a traditional class? I think we’ll find that beneath some rather superficial similarities, the how and why of game-based assessment and motivation differ greatly from traditional practices in public schools.

What we do is not fun. Why is that? What can we learn from games if we decide that our work should be fun? Should school be no fun, not ever? What about the language arts classroom? What’s the difference between using games for learning, like using iCivics and Monopoly for a Civics & Economics class, and designing class and/or school to be more game-like? Are game-development and programming acceptable forms of authorship in school? Is playing a game an acceptable form of readership if the student produces response, review, and/or criticism? If so, how should schools curate games and/or resource their authorship?

Check back at for related posts over the next few months, check out this #ncte11 proposal on gamification, and join us on March 21st, 2011, for an #engchat on game design in the language arts classroom – no language arts jacket required.

For readers interested in learning more about gamification from the pros, check out these links, too:

And here are a few app, game- and level-authoring resources:

For anyone interested in our experiments with gaming in the language arts classroom, you can read more about them here.

Have fun reading, learning, exploring, and making.

Please add your favorite games, examples of game-based learning, and gamificiation-in-the-classroom resources below, along with any questions, comments, and/or rebuttals you have!

Comments 5

  1. Kevin Hodgson wrote:

    HI Chad

    I will try to drop into the chat. It’s a great topic and one that many teachers struggle with, I think.


    Posted 23 Jan 2011 at 5:32 am

  2. Chad wrote:

    Awesome – I hope you can make it!


    Posted 23 Jan 2011 at 10:58 am

  3. Jim663 wrote:

    A couple of things:

    According to an interview with her in the February “Smithsonian” magazine, Jane McGonigal has a book coming out: “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change the World.” That might be of some use to you.

    Secondly, you might want to interest your local art and music teachers in your quest for fun. I teach 5th & 6th grade strings; fun seems to be built in to our subject. I often have to lay down the law and throw kids out of my room when it’s time for their next class. There are times when we begin a new piece, or a new concept, when class is more work than fun, but if I can tell then WHY it’s important for their development, why they need it to get to the “next level” of their game, so to speak, and they try it, they usually can see the value and will then buy in. Every now and then I try a new piece, and in the end, it’s not liked by the kids. I don’t even TRY to figure out why; I just ditch it and use another to teach the same concepts.

    Posted 23 Jan 2011 at 8:59 pm

  4. jim663 wrote:

    In discussing this further with my wife, who is also a strings teacher of young children, she agrees that WE (as teachers) are the fun, WE are the game; the subject matter is not the game any more than the bits on the video screen are the video game. A teacher stands in front of the classroom and has a choice of how to present the material: dry and detached, matter of fact, in a monotone, with a powerpoint that doesn’t work right, or with vim and vigor and a sense of humor, with animation and a good smartboard activity, with variety and energy. Some days I find a sense of humor which engages the students simply by amusing MYSELF as I present the same concept for the umpteenth time. Teaching a class full of bored faces must be just like dying onstage as a comedian. Beyond that, students must have a continual sense of improvement; if they have learned something new, they must have some way of immediately FEELING and KNOWING that they have learned that something new. For us music teachers, that’s easy: can they play what we just learned how to play? For other subject areas, that might be harder to do. Can they share that with others? When I have to throw kids out of my classroom because they have another class to go to, it’s usually because they are hanging around playing what they have just learned with a classmate. That’s the sharing of ideas and details of the game you speak about above. Do kids sit around after math class and share what they have just learned, or is that just not inherent in math? Could it be?

    Posted 23 Jan 2011 at 10:17 pm

  5. Chad wrote:

    Jim, thank you for both of your encouraging and thoughtful comments. I’m definitely looking forward to reading McGonigal’s book – I just downloaded it.

    I think that we, as a system, are set up to oppose fun as a condition of learning. Kids so rely on individual teachers to bring fun to the classroom, and, as you rightly suggest, the better we are at relating to students with humor and giving them timely and relevant feedback, the more chance we have of engaging them with our shared work of learning. I work to bring a lot of art – most, but not all, of it visual into my classroom with and without games; I recognize those students of your who need encouragement to move along. I feel like I’ve created a safe and fun place for these kids in opposition to what I’ve been taught about school throughout my life and career.

    I also think that no matter how funny I am, part of the fun for kids is in choosing for themselves things I would not think of, assign, or see the same way. I think choice is a huge part of fun. The best games give us ideas of how to approach lesson design for a massive amount of student choice in a teacher-designed environment. I want to design class structures and learning opportunities that foster fun and responsible choices apart from listening to me. I want to make my class something students choose somewhat independently of me, the same way they would choose to play music or create another kind of art. I’m grateful for your help in looking at that ambition another way.

    I don’t think my students and I should separate our relationships from our work, but I think I strengthen our relationships by looking at ways to design choice before I look for ways to get students to listen to me.

    All the best,


    Posted 24 Jan 2011 at 7:10 pm

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