Don’t just teach a lesson...PLAY a lesson!
The idea of turning learning into a game isn’t new. We understand that games are often fun and memorable and that most students would choose playing a game over many traditional classroom lessons.
What Is Gamification in the Classroom?
Gamification in the classroom is the incorporation of game elements into a learning environment. When implemented well, it takes an experience that participants might otherwise not find fun—like a whole-class lesson—and makes it more engaging. In The Fun of Learning: Gamification in Education, we break down just what gamification is and why it’s perfectly suited for education. In this post, we look at specific strategies and examples of how to gamify a classroom.
To start, simply defining what makes something a game is not easy. Games comprise a broad category of activities, and it is tough to pin down a precise meaning. At first glance, hide-and-seek and Minecraft have little in common other than they’re both games. They do share certain features, however, such as immersing players in a world with shared objectives. Researcher Dr. Nick Yee provides a framework for what motivates gamers as a way to think categorically about what can go into a game and why people like to play them:
- Action (e.g., objectives)
- Social (e.g., competition)
- Mastery (e.g., scoring)
- Achievement (e.g., awards)
- Immersion (e.g., roleplaying)
- Creativity (e.g., customization)
This article steps through different categories for what motivates gamers. For each category, it provides examples of existing games that illustrate it, along with ideas of how you, the teacher, can gamify your classroom.
Examples of Gamification in the Classroom
Category 1: Action
Action is all about doing something: striving towards objectives, helping allies, conquering enemies. Plenty of games contain action, though it can be nominal, as in chess or solitaire. An example of a game with constant action is the classic arcade game Space Invaders (here’s a free version), where the player tries to destroy enemy spaceships before they destroy you.
To incorporate the game element of action into a classroom, look for ways to get students doing something continuously. Could you incorporate movement or improvisation into your activity? As an example, suppose you’re a social studies teacher and want to assign a state to each student. Place state names inside envelopes and hide them around the classroom. Then send students on a mission to find an envelope and investigate the state inside. This act adds some agency, movement, and luck into an assignment. The same sort of activity could be adapted to assign writing prompts, historical facts, or math expressions, for example, depending on what you’re teaching.
Category 2: Social
Sometimes gamers are stereotyped as timid and asocial. But the reality is virtually all games have some social element! There are games like heads up seven up, a common U.S. classroom game where seven students touch classmates who have their heads down, then those classmates try to guess who touched them. That game requires social interaction. But across many games and game genres, collaboration and competition among players are features that make the games fun. Even games that are usually played alone, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, can have rich online communities where people share photos, videos, and game strategies.
When thinking about adding a social component to your classroom, consider the full breadth of what that means. Individual practice can have a social element if students discuss responses. Even assessments can have a social element if there is an online forum for students to discuss individual questions afterward. An ELA teacher can gamify a lesson by taking on a social gamer’s perspective, for example, by turning a lesson on writing autobiographies into one where students interview each other and write biographies of one another.
Category 3: Mastery
Part of what makes the classic board game chess persist centuries after its invention is how despite having relatively straightforward rules, there are still more possible variations of chess games than there are atoms in the observable universe. Not all gamers are attracted to the kind of sustained analytical thinking needed for games most associated with mastery. Shouldn’t games be fun?!
But mastery is a spectrum, not a switch. Even games where winning is irrelevant or rely heavily on luck can promote strategic thinking and have the players develop mastery. Thinking critically about what move to make or how to proceed in a game transfers readily to a classroom setting where students (or teachers, for that matter) are constantly figuring out how to solve problems. There is no skill whatsoever in Candy Land, but you can still ask questions like, “what color do you hope to draw?” or “what card would move you the greatest number of spaces?”
Even students who test below grade level enjoy rewarding challenges. It’s fundamentally human to like solving puzzles. A common way to incorporate the gaming element of mastery into a classroom is by playing a class trivia game. Divide questions into categories, assign them point values and have students—either individually or in groups—choose questions and try to earn the points. For an especially fruitful discussion around the game, have students reflect not just on the answers but why they selected certain categories or point values. What strategies did they employ?
Category 4: Achievement
Who doesn’t want to level up? Whether it’s prestige, impact, or accomplishments, all of us dream of status in some way. A game can be a safe and contained space to rack up achievements and accumulate power. It can be within the game, for example by reaching a character’s maximum level, or it can be as part of the metagame, for example by getting a very high score relative to one’s peers. Many gamers also consider themselves “completionists,” that is they seek to complete all of the possible achievements within the game. A popular appeal to the video game Fallout 3 is the volume of quests to complete, locations to explore, and in-game items to obtain. Gamers can play by setting a goal of completing each of the quests, places, or objects available.
To gamify your classroom through the lens of game achievements, find ways for students to earn points and complete educational objectives as a way to develop agency and feel accomplishment. One approach would be to turn assignments into quests: provide rich, open-ended questions that students can choose and complete for points. Quests like “create a short film” or “interview an expert” provide a wide range of entry points and give students ownership of their learning as well as keeping it fun.
Category 5: Immersion
Gamers and non-gamers alike can enjoy new places to explore and escape to, and plenty of people do not find themselves compelled by strategy or competition in games but instead are drawn to narrative. There are even games like Microsoft Flight Simulator where the primary driver of the game is to engross the player in a new, imaginative place. For a non-digital example, you or your students may be familiar with the game “folded story,” where someone writes a sentence to start, and then students continue the story, always looking at nothing apart from the previously-written sentence. Once everyone’s completed a sentence, the paper is unfolded to reveal a complete story. Part of what makes this game fun is the players all contribute to an act of storytelling.
You can gamify learning by finding ways to make students feel as though they are immersed in what they’re learning about. Even something as small as lesson-appropriate classroom decorations can have a powerful effect. One approach that can connect any subject to theater is to structure a lesson so that students playact as historical figures, scientists, or politicians. Alternatively, the classroom itself can be the roleplay. Listen to our podcast with third-grade teacher Autumn Dvorak to hear how she turned lessons into full-fledged experiences such as carnivals or hospitals.
Category 6: Creativity
Lastly, many gamers are drawn to being able to create. This can range from creating characters in sports games (or avatars in Waggle), creating games themselves in Super Mario Maker 2, or creating entire worlds in Minecraft. This form of expression can extend beyond gaming and into learning. A core tenet of MIT professor Dr. Mitchel Resnick’s 2017 book Lifelong Kindergarten is that students of all ages should tinker. Every subject benefits from students being creative, and games are a space where creativity is often rewarded.
Moreover, games do not need winners and losers and can simply be freeform design experiences. Simple acts like encouraging students to write or draw encourage creativity. Try gamifying a lesson by finding a way to get students drawing when they otherwise wouldn’t expect to. Or perhaps you could get students to program a computer app. If you’re a science teacher planning to teach taxonomy this year, task students with creating a new species of animal!
Gamify Your Classroom
Games do not typically fall neatly into one of the six categories above. Instead, they are more likely to motivate gamers using a combination of the above elements. Consider the 2011 game Terraria. This is an open-ended action-adventure game that is wildly popular and as of this writing has sold over 44 million copies. The gameplay appeals to multiple gamer profiles:
- Creative: You can play to build interesting buildings and villages.
- Achievement: You can strive to explore all biomes and collect all materials.
- Mastery and Action: You can play to fight monsters and defeat bosses.
- Social: You can play cooperatively or competitively with other people.
Just as games have multiple elements, people have multiple parts to their profiles. When thinking about gamifying a lesson, your classroom is bound to be full of all the different gamer profiles, even within the same person! So as an example, in a lesson where students create new animals, you could add both immersion and social elements by having students play out how their animals would interact in a fictional ecosystem. What would the food chain look like? How might the animals evolve?
As you can see, the process of gamification is not as simple as “make cards” or “bring a board game.” The category of games includes a diverse range of activities. Sometimes they have winners, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have strategy, sometimes they don’t. But all games fit into a framework of features—features that you can adapt to your classroom. So try it out! Explore the many ways that you can use gamification in the classroom and see which ones leave your students wanting to play—and learn—more!
Explore Waggle, our K–8 practice app for math and ELA. It was designed with the benefits of gamification in the classroom in mind to ensure that learning is fun.
Zoe Del Mar
Dr. Troy Hicks
Professor of English and Education, Central Michigan University