Gamifying the Classroom, Part II: Core Motivations

Hello again, everyone! It’s another month and another blog post on gamification. Last time, we surveyed the foundational aspects of gamification—sketching out a definition, highlighting examples, and covering where to learn more. This month covers the core aspects of gamification and what to consider when applying it to the classroom.

The Eight Core Drives

In his book Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards, Yu Kai Chou itemizes gamification into eight core principles, each of which encompasses an aspect of motivation. These core principles are a solid foundation on which to gamify your classroom.

1. Accomplishment

In classroom gamification, accomplishment often manifests as a leaderboard. For every student atop the leaderboard, however, more students are at the bottom. The result is students working to reach to top of the leaderboard to avoid being last. In your gamified class, create opportunities for accomplishment that stem from a student’s own hard work independent of other students doing poorly.

2. Meaning

Design opportunities for students to work for the benefit of the whole class, not just themselves. Students who do well on an exam could “heal” other players by donating points to a classmate who didn’t do as well, or be allowed to answer a question for a classmate in need. This can motivate student players by showcasing how they can contribute to the greater good or otherwise be excellent to each other.

3. Empowerment

Providing students the space to create and problem solve should be the foundation of your gamified classroom—allow it to be social and allow students to get up and move. When considering empowerment, consider your classroom space and whether you can change it. A classroom in which students can move about freely as they work is an empowering classroom.

4. Ownership

Make use of avatars. These digital representations of players provide the opportunity to exert ownership through customization and characterization. Students can initially create their avatars and then personalize them with items earned through achievements or trading with their classmates.

5. Social Influence

Social influence can be tied directly into ownership and accomplishment to give students a platform for showing their work. Instead of badges, give students an economic mechanism, such as points, coins, or gems that can be used to purchase unique items for their avatars. Social influence can also be encouraged through reward systems that recognize student mentorship, cooperation, and other positive behaviors.

6. Scarcity

Create rewards, achievements, or special events in your classroom that can be hard to achieve or perhaps are only available at specific times. An example of this could be a quest or assignment that can only be accessed by students who come to class early. Be mindful of the difference between something that is challenging to achieve and it being scarce—rare doesn’t mean difficult!

7. Unpredictability

Rewards systems that are unpredictable can foster engagement at higher rates than reward systems at predictable rates. As Tom Chatfield notes in his excellent TED Talk, rewards should be consistently given, but the quality of rewards should vary. For example, 100% of the time players should receive a reward, but 25% of the time earn something rare, and perhaps 1–5% of the time something truly epic. Naturally, earning an epic reward plays back into social influence!

8. Avoidance

Avoidance mechanisms can benefit the classroom if used sparingly. Avoidance encompasses punishment, loss of progress or experience points, or badges/achievements that denote poor performance. Use avoidance sparingly, otherwise students may begin avoiding your gamified class.


Which of these core drives have you found useful in your classroom, and how have you used them? Please share in the comments, below.

I hope this month’s blog has helped kick start some gamification ideas beyond points, badges, and leaderboards. Next month, we’ll look at some tools that you can use to help bring your gamification ideas to life in the classroom. 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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