Gamification as a tool in the online classroom


Gamification in Education graphic

 What is Gamification?

For years the tradition in higher education was for the teacher to lecture and the students to listen and take notes. There may have been some discussions, but much assessment took place in the form of tests, quizzes, and papers. While this format is still in play in many college classrooms, more and more professors are beginning to change their approach in an effort to better engage and motivate the students. One tool that is being tossed around as a way to improve things in the classroom is gamification.

According to Andrzej Marczewski in his book Gamification: A Simple Introduction & a bit more, gamification is “the application of gaming metaphors in non-game contexts to influence behavior, improve motivation, and enhance engagement (2013).” Gamification is not playing games in the classroom, but it is adapting elements of game play and using them to make real world tasks more interesting and engaging. If you are interested in learning more about the use of games in the classroom and how that is different from gamification, you can watch this prezi. It includes an interesting video on gamification in general.

Many people think that gamification is simply adding things like badges and points to something and making it a competition. While these are certainly an element of gamification, if this is the only tool that you use, your gamification attempt is not likely to be successful. Points and badges tend to provide extrinsic motivation, and while they can be successful in engaging people in the short term, they won’t necessarily provide sustainable interest. Points and badges are especially popular tools in marketing. If you are interested in where this trend is heading, you can watch this video called Gamepocalypse. Points, badges and leaderboards tend to be a quick fix, not a long term problem solver. All games have some way of keeping track of points and positions, but they are only a minor element of the game itself, and don’t result in meaningful gamification. As Scott Nicholson said in his paper on gamification “the concept of meaningful gamification is that the primary use of game layers is not to provide external rewards, but rather to help participants find a deeper connection to the underlying topic (2013).”

What is it about games that make them so appealing? If you have ever played a video game, you know that there are several things that keep you playing. You have control over your character and get to decide the path that you take through the game. If you die, you can start over and try again. They are challenging, but if done right, you will progress to a level just above what you are actually capable of – you are pushed to stretch and grow, and if it is a multi-player game you are doing it in conjunction with other people. Marczewski uses the acronym RAMP to explain what it is about games that can motivate people.


In this video he explains and clarifies how these can be used as motivators:

How to Use Gamification in the Classroom

There is no one right way to implement gamification in the classroom – every class is different as are the strengths off the teacher. There are several things that need to be taken into consideration. To begin with, points and badges are important, but should not be the only tool that you introduce. The excitement generated by these tends to be short term and cannot sustain interest in a class for the whole semester. Also, students may find leaderboards demoralizing if they aren’t near the top. Knowing how far behind they are can cause them to give up. Also, because a grading system based on points is probably new to the student, they are likely to get confused especially if the correlation between points and grades is not explicitly clear.

Allowing the students autonomy to choose their own path through the course can be very motivating for the student. Although more work for the teacher, giving the student choices in what they do and how they learn can give the student a sense of ownership that gets and keeps them engaged. This could be implemented in different ways depending on the classroom. You could have alternatives for the way an assignment is presented (paper, presentation video submission), or you could give some control over what order the students complete the work that they are doing. Closely tied to this is permission to fail. Allowing the student to continue to submit an assignment until they have shown mastery of the subject, and/or not allowing them to progress until they have demonstrated a certain level of mastery is a great way to ensure that learning takes place. Many classrooms today are run on a schedule. Material is covered for a certain amount of time, the students are tested on it, then the class moves on to the next topic. If a student didn’t master the material in the time allotted, they were out of luck. This would never happen in a well designed game – the players have to master the skill set before they can beat the boss and progress to the next level. It is through failing that we learn, and unfortunately our current educational system seems to have forgotten this.

If you can build a social element or sense of purpose into your gamified class, it can even further enhance the experience for the students. If they are working together to “defeat the boss” (even if the boss is just a big test), they will be supportive and encouraging of each other. This is a wonderful environment for the classroom.

An Example of Gamification in Use

More and more teachers are starting to try gamification in their classroom and many are blogging or writing about their experience. Scott Nicholson presented a paper called “Exploring Gamification Techniques for Classroom Management” at Games+Learning+Society 9.0, in 2013 where he shared his experiences. He decided to apply what he was learning about gamification to two courses that he was teaching. One was and online,, asynchronous course called Meaningful Gamification, the other was a fact to face course on public speaking.

He structured his  Meaningful Gamification class as a points based gamification system where students designed a character then “played” the game by earning points for the different tasks that they did. Eventually the leaderboard became dominated by a few players and everyone else had quit trying. After 6 weeks he gave the students the option of continuing with the system or changing. They voted overwhelmingly to change. He allowed the students to design how the remainder of the class would go. They developed a meaningful game narrative and each student chose their own path to the desired learning outcomes. Although frustrated at first, the students learned first hand what makes a gamified experience meaningful.

His other course was not game related and a majority of the students were not gamers. He tried several of the methods recommended in Lee Sheldon’s book “The Multiplayer Classroom.” He found that having an overarching narrative was a great way of getting and keeping the students engaged. Also, rewarding students for in class participation helped motivate them to prepare. He also allowed students to redo assignments on specific dates. Based on this approach, he recommended assigning grades as A, B, or redo. Areas that didn’t work as well were mostly associated with grades. He used the start at 0 and earn your way to an A method that Sheldon used, but this frustrated the students because they didn’t know where they stood in the class. He also made assignments above those required for a C optional (meaning that if you successfully complete only required work you get a C even if you get an A on all of the work submitted. If you want an A or a B you must complete the optional assignments required to take you to that level). This generated a lot of confusion for the students.

To summarize his findings:

  • Not all students are gamers, so keep this in mind when introducing game elements into your classroom.
  •  A narrative can be useful and motivating if it is relevant, but can otherwise be a distraction and source of frustration.
  • Choices are empowering. Options are not – especially for weaker students.
  • Failure based models work especially well for weaker students.
  • Gamification is more work for the teacher.

For another example, you can check out how Michał Mochocki gamified his classroom. His situation is completely different because where he teaches, lectures are optional. He wanted to find a way to get more students involved and engaged in the learning process. The following three posts explain how he did it:

Gamification is currently a hot topic in both business and education and is not likely to disappear any time soon. When implemented thoughtfully by a a teacher who is willing to shoulder the increased burden that gamification tends to cause, the tool can result in a real win for students.


Marczewski, A. (2013). Gamification A simple introduction & a bit more [E-reader version]

Marczewski, A. (n.d.). The Intrinsic Motivation RAMP. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from

Nicholson, S. (2013, June). Exploring Gamification Techniques for Classroom Management. Paper Presented atGames+Learning+Society 9.0, Madison, WI


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