Gamifying the Classroom, Part I: The Basics

Recently, Ohio University held its annual CALL Conference featuring a keynote from TESOL President Deborah Healey. During her visit, she found time to delivered a fantastic primer on gamification to our graduate students. As a result, I thought it would be a great time to explore the topic of gamification for this month’s blog post.

It can be challenging to pin down just what gamification is, how it works in the classroom, and how the traditional roles of teacher and student change in a gamified class. This month’s post is the first on gamification, and over the next few months we will continue to explore gamification and how it can be implemented in classroom practice.

What Is Gamification?

Gamification is the application of game mechanics to nongame contexts, often for the purpose of amplifying motivation and engagement. Gamification has seen considerable buzz in education with advocates declaring a transformative learning experience for students and educators alike. Opponents of gamification frequently lament its misuse due to an excessive focus on extrinsically motivating rewards, such as points, badges, and leaderboards.

What’s an Example of Gamification?

Wearable health trackers, such as Fitbit, utilize game design elements to make fitness more engaging. They do this by leveraging the way games create short-term objectives that lead to long-term goals. Get in shape is a vague long-term goal that can be challenging to accomplish, while walk 10,000 steps today is a more manageable short-term objective that builds to the goal. Health trackers combine this with frequent feedback, such as the steps counter displayed on your wrist, and social challenges, such as walking more per day than your friends. Trophies or achievements may be presented to users for accomplishing more, such as walking 20,000 steps in a day. This combination of short-term objectives leading to long-term goals, frequent feedback, and a reward system are the most frequent mechanics used in gamification.

How Does It Differ From Game-Based Learning?

Game-based learning is the use of games for education as part of the traditional classroom structure. A classroom using Trace Effects, Minecraft, or Quandary would not be considered gamified because the game mechanics stay within the video games and are not applied to nongame contexts. Compare these video games with a quiz delivered through Kahoot or Socrative. At its core, Kahoot is a multiple-choice quiz that has been amplified using a points system, a leaderboard, and rewards: all typical game elements.

How Is Gamification Applied to Education?

One of the first educators to implement gamification in the classroom was Lee Sheldon, who documented his endeavor in The Multiplayer Classroom. His premise began with students starting his course with an F. Students then spent the semester working toward an A. Sheldon utilized the game design principle of leveling up by inverting his grading process. As a result, students witnessed grades increasing over the semester instead of seeing the traditional decline of a grade over the semester. Since then, this has become a fundamental aspect of gamification in the classroom: Students should always see a way forward, even during times of failure.

Students who failed over the course of the semester were allowed repeated attempts to succeed. This opportunity to try, receive feedback, and try again until mastery is achieved is a foundational component of games, and one that is critical to effective gamification. Next month, we will use Lee’s approach as a starting point to explore how to apply gamification to our own classroom.

Where Can I Learn More?

One of the foundational texts of gamification is Yu Kai Chou’s Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards, which outlines a framework for using game mechanics and game design as a form of human-centered design. Though not exclusively focused on education, his book is an excellent primer on gamification as a whole.

Dr. Deborah Healey’s Gamification white paper is another must-have resource that outlines approaches to gamification and research into effective applications of it in education.

What resources have you found useful in implementing gamification in your classroom?


In next month’s blog post, we will take a granular look at applying gamification in the classroom and some tools that can help us in our quest to gamify learning. Until then, play more games!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn
Jeff Kuhn serves a split appointment at OHIO University, working for the Office of Instructional Innovation and in the Games Research and Immersive Design (Grid) Lab. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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