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What is Gamification

What is Gamification?

Gamification has been an exciting tool in education, corporate training, marketing, and team-building for the past several years now. It is still fairly new, though, and for most people what it is and how it works is still a big mystery. Here’s some information that may help you wrap your head around how it can be useful for learning (and maybe shed light in using it in some of these other areas along the way).


Gamification is the use of game mechanics and game design techniques in non-game contexts.

Why Gamification?

Basic Principles

Game Mechanic: A game mechanic is used to initiate a behavior, to provide feedback or to help move the user (progression) through content.

  • Objectives or “quests” are considered behavioral mechanics, requiring the user to take action for a reward (either feedback or progression).
  • The feedback mechanic is used to keep the user informed of their status. Some ways feedback can be given are through achievements, badges or leaderboards.
  • The last major mechanic type is progression. Progression is what moves the user through content. A user can experience this through leveling, activity release or scaffolding.

These three mechanics can be used to create objectives, goals, or milestones that need to be achieved by the user to trigger an event or reward that will provide feedback to inform the user and progression to manipulate the current environment.

Good development will break large objectives in smaller, easier pieces.

What are good examples of mechanic types?


  • Epic Meaning: Engages the user into a storyline or mission.
  • Objectives or Quests: Gives the user purpose and direction.
  • Collaboration: A social influence, possibly through forums or group work.


  • achievements

    Badges are achievements and received upon specific and identified accomplishments. Used sparingly retains their worth.

    Achievements: Rewards the user with a sense of accomplishment.

  • Leaderboards: Shows the user’s status compared to others, driving competition.

  • Points: A basic currency given for objectives. Points can be used in leaderboards or to track progression.

  • Badges: Similar to achievements, badges are more defined and are obtainable from completing core components.


  • Achievements: Achievements can also symbolize progression depending on context.
  • Leveling or Ranking: Leveling based on experience points or activity completion allows the user to feel that they are moving through the game.

How is Gamification different from Serious Games?

While gamification is using game elements in non-game contexts, a serious game is, well, a true game, but for educational purposes. So, this might be in higher education or K-12 education, in the corporate world for training, or in the health industry or the military for training and education.

Why Gamification and Learning?

Engagement and Re-engagement

Gamification is an important approach to teaching and learning for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the primary reason educators look to it is engagement. We all know that young people (and older people, too!) love to play games, and can play games for hours on end. They’re, well, addicting! And for many years now educators have been looking to games to increase engagement in learning. But game development can be very expensive. And educators are not known to have lots of money to support course design. So, by leveraging what works in games — an understanding of how games are designed, the types of games, the types of game players, the elements and mechanics of games — we can gamify our course design.

Increased engagement isn’t the only “win” for teaching and learning. Engagement speaks to “in the moment” activity, whereas re-engagement keeps them coming back. So, if they’re engaged and having fun, they’ll likely return to the next activity with vigor.

Unique Learning Mechanisms

Educators are always looking for ways to enhance learning, for solutions to teaching and learning challenges. Well, games and thereby gamification affords us unique learning mechanisms. Think about your favorite games. They don’t have to be digital games. It can be a board game or a card game. Why did you enjoy playing? Was it competition? Was it the reward? Later, we’ll learn about the elements of games and see how learning theories actually support games and gamification in teaching and learning if done right. Challenging Game Play “You want me to work to learn something? Seriously?!” Seems like students are often saying this under their breath. Well, the great thing about gamification is that it can be very motivating for students who love to play challenging games. Later you’ll learn about different types of players, and why it is so important to understand that there are different types of players just like there are different learning styles. Most of us really do love a good challenge, though, if it is set up with some good motivators! (Think points, achievements, or a new level or challenge!)

Link Game Experiences to Learning

Linking game experiences to learning is not only a great thing about gamification, it is critical for engagement. Its important not to include a game element or gamify an activity that doesn’t relate to what you’re wanting students to learn. Students know they’re not actually playing a game. For a gamified experience to matter to a learner it must have relevance to their learning.

Supported by Learning Theories

Games and gamification can be leveraged in such a way to be strongly supported by learning theories. Look below for a summary of why this is true:


Games can respond to a student’s choices and provide just-in-time access to learning activities or resources. SELF-

Students can direct their own learning in order to meet a set of learning objectives, access content when they want and where they want, and proceed at their own pace for the time they have available.

Game-based learning gives instructors the opportunity to provide immediate feedback to students, whether it be in the form of a reward or as written, audio, or video feedback.


Games allow students to adopt an inquiry-based approach to address issues, raise questions, and work collaboratively to solve real world problems.

Simulations allow for immersive experiences, such as Sim City, Minecraft, flight simulators.

Augmented Reality Games (ARG) use location-sensors (e.g., GPS, RFID, WLAN) to deliver multimedia content that is both time and place relevant.

Games support collaborative learning by allowing individuals to participate in competition or cooperative play, such as World of Warcraft, Foldit: Solve Puzzles for Science.

In discovery games, students explore content and the world around them in a non-linear fashion.


Chunking is a concept where instructors break up content into manageable bits of information. Games encourage the idea of chunking, where students often have a limited amount of time to play at any sitting.

Scaffolding allows instructors to provide individualized support and incrementally improve a learner’s ability to build on prior knowledge. This is particularly prevalent in games and simulations where the concept of “leveling up” is a common characteristic.


Design Approaches

Time-Based Scenarios

Time-Based Scenarios (TBS) offer an exciting and important design element option for intstructors to consider when gamifying all or part of a course. The decision to use time as a factor in the design should be connected to the goals and objectives that the designer wants players to achieve or experience. If used, TBS allow players to demonstrate mastery of content or skill. It may also result in players taking risks that they might not ordinarily take if time were not a factor. While research indicates that active learning modes are most effective, leisure learners often prefer passive “non-rushed” experiences. When TBS are not used, players are able to learn leisurely, without the threat of a ticking clock, which allows for incremental learning.


As a design approach, Pathing offers players the flexibility to decide their own strategy to complete an activity or task. As in life, there are often multiple ways that you could accomplish a goal. Some paths are easy, while others may be more challenging and require players to demonstrate great creativity and skill. The decision to use Pathing as a design approach can accommodate players who have different learning styles or personality profiles. Instructor-directed Pathing can allow instructors to challenge more skilled players while encouraging and building the confidence in those who need it.


In life, there are often consequences to our actions. Some are positive, while others are negative. As a design approach, the use of Consequences allows for the teachable moment. Do you remember when your parents told you to slow down when you were just learning to ride your bike? Yet, you still rode your bike as fast as you could…until you crashed into the neighbor’s mailbox! Even though an authoritative figure or their own common sense warns that some actions are risky and might have a negative result, many players still are willing to go for it. They are willing to test their skills and the limits to which they can push the envelope just to see if they are capable of doing something that most said could not be done. Results from these decisions vary. Many risk taking players will fail. A few will succeed!

“Risks can lead to great victories or defeats. Even if you are defeated, the lesson will be valuable for the next stage of life.”
― Lailah GiftyAkita


Elements of Games

There is quite a bit of information about gamification in education out there these days. With just a bit of research you’ll soon learn there are many “takes” on how to define the elements of games. Suffice it to say, what we’re talking about here are those descriptors that many games have in common. Its worth noting that not all elements are present in every game. But this is a good thing, because it means you can select those elements that best meet your particular teaching and learning needs. We combine game elements to create gameplay. Some of these game elements and a brief description relevant to education are listed below:

  • Progression – Provide players with a sense of completion towards a clear goal. It is important that players know they’re moving forward toward that goal. For progression, determine how you’re going to provide that feedback.
  • Levels – Similar to progression, you might have distinct levels that are an important part of your course design, or it might be a simple way for your students to advance through your content. Likely, levels will be tied to modules or a series of modules that are a part of a single topic (or vice versa, depending on your personal teaching semantics).
  • Investment – Investment is all about loss. Players invest time and get something in return. Something that matters. In game design, players need to know they’re working towards a goal, and if they have clear indicators they’re getting close to achieving that goal, this can be a huge motivator for some players. They want to safeguard the investment they’ve made – the time they’ve invested, the badges, achievements, or points they’ve earned. They don’t want this to have been for nothing, so will keep pushing.
  • Rewards – Rewards are often tied to both progression and investment. Often, a reward lets a player know they are progressing, and it is a reminder to players motivated by investment that they have earned something. There are different ways you can include rewards in your course design.
    • Points – Players accumulate points for most accomplishments throughout gameplay. Points are typically attached to a higher goal.
    • Badges – Points are often tied to badges or achievements. When a player accumulates a certain number of points towards a given goal, they would receive a badge or achievement indicating a level of mastery.
    • Achievements – You might use both badges and achievements. Achievements could be a higher goal or combination of goals (meta goals), for example.
  • Leaderboards – A visible way to motivate your more competitive players. If you make a leaderboard visible, be sure your activities driving the leaderboard scores are not tied to any graded activities, or are at least a mixture of ungraded and graded activities invisible to the students. This is for FERPA reasons (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).
  • Discovery – Many players enjoy games for the joy of discovery! To pull this off, you’ll want to think of ways to hide content and reward those curious students (hide a link in a content page that includes an extra assignment or self-assessment quiz that has a few extra game points attached to it), or provide a variety of paths through the content to appease those wandering souls.
  • Collaboration – As much as most students hate group work, throw them into a social “game” experience and they’re all about collaborating for the sake of winning! This can be a great motivator and means to encourage students to learn the value of team work and groups.
  • Synthesis – This can be very much like discovery, but a bit more challenging to conceive. It speaks to players learning information over time and putting together new ideas from the variety of information gathered. Remember Myst? Myst worked by giving the player clues that forced them to think about the overall context and come up with the ultimate solution on their own. Imagine how powerful this concept could be for teaching and learning! Higher order thinking on the Blooms Taxonomy scale for sure!


Types of Players

Players can be broken down into several types of gamers. Richard Bartle first wrote a paper on gamer types in 1996 that led to the creation of the Bartle Test. The test consists of several questions that classify gamers into four basic categories (or in more advanced versions, eight). The player type scores 200% spread across these categories with no category receiving more than 100%.

  • The Achiever – Players who prefer to gain points, levels, items or badges to demonstrate their accomplishments and level of success in a game. Achiever player types are generally drawn to collecting rewards, badges, capping out levels and ultimately beating all aspects of the game.
  • The Explorer – Players who like to venture through all aspects of a game. Instead of rushing to the end game, the explorer likes to look for multiple story lines, alternate endings, easter eggs and even glitches in the game. The explorer is drawn to achievements and an open world or one that uses pathing.
  • The Socializer – Players who choose to play games for the social aspect, rather than the game itself. The socializer finds himself engaging a game that friends or family are involved in. The socializer likes to have a friends list or forums to build relationships. Guilds, clans and group objectives draw the socializer into the fold.
  • The Killers – Players who thrive on competition with other players. Best an opponent and winning all forms of competition is where the killer finds his joy. Killers live off of leader boards, competition, rankings or a race to finish.


Player Life Cycle

The Entry Stage

  • Newbie – “Newcomer Euphoria”: The typical new-comer who generally describes their game-play in terms of unlimited potential and the euphoria of being in a whole new world. Early play styles tend to be undifferentiated and more driven by novelty rather than a focus on achievement.
  • Playing with a Friend/Partner: Players in this category typically state that being with their friend/partner, rather than playing the game itself, is their primary motivation.

Practice Stage

  • Ramping Up/Progress: The initial exploration and discovery stage helps players learn the ropes of the game. As they explore more and more of the world (in terms of both geography and mechanics), they start seeing and understanding the boundaries of the game.
  • Joining Groups and Guilds: Players start to understand the value of grouping up with others. Whereas many players tend to favor solo play early on, they come to see that being in a group or a guild is either valuable or necessary due to a variety of game mechanics.


  • Staying for Friends/Casual Guilds: Many players start getting tired of the leveling grind but have established stable friendships which become the focus of their game-play. In other words, these players are mainly staying in the game for other players.
  • High-End Content / Raiding Guilds: Players who love the experience of leveling and progression may find it natural to pursue the next step up via a serious raiding guild. It is typically via the raiding experience that players begin to gain access to more exclusive content or gear. High-end gear is now within reach.
  • Social Leadership: These players enjoy the socializing, but they see that they can play a role in shaping the social interactions in the game.
  • Player versus Player (PvP) / Competition: After developing a moderate degree of mastery, low-level players (often afraid of PvP) become more confident and enjoy the excitement offered by PvP

Burnout Stage

  • Grind Burnout: Players start to lose interest in the game. They begin to ask themselves “What is the point?”
  • Social Obligations Burnout: Players in more serious guilds also burnout, but this tends to be from the social obligations and work-like consequences of raiding.
  • Restarts: Some players try to get around the high-level grind by re-rolling a new character as soon as they hit max-level. They want to feel the sense of progress and exploration again, and the closest thing they can do is to create a new character.
  • Nothing Left to Do: And finally, a very few players make it through all the grinding and much of the raiding, but then find that there isn’t anything left in the game to do and they have no desire to re-roll.

Recovery Stage

  • End-Game Casual: For players who burned out on the grind or the raiding, some are able to find a more casual re-entry into the game. They consciously steer clear of guilds and make sure that the time they spend in the game is enjoyable rather than stressful.


Using an LMS to Gamify

An open-source LMS, such as Moodle, Forma and OLAT (among others) invite getting creative in developing new tools to support gamification for teaching and learning – provided you have the internal resources to do so. If you don’t, that’s okay. There are many standard features in most LMS platforms that support gamification principles out-of-the-box! Below are some examples and how you might use them.

  • Activity Release – This can be associated with most any activity, such as a quiz, assignment upload, or opening an internal HTML page. Think about using the activity release feature as a form of leveling up. Could be you have several activities in a row, each releasing the next one. After the third activity you release a message letting them know they’ve reached the next level. Or, you might award them with an achievement notice of new skills gained or points received. You’ll want to keep track of these some place so you can be strategic in how you use them.
  • Restrict Access – Controlling access to new content can scaffold the material in a course allowing the user to experience progression through the course. Restricting activities that can be both education (books, quizzes) and rewarding (certificates, files, videos) can play into all mechanic types.
  • Database – In Moodle the database feature is sort of like Microsoft Access – it allows the instructor to create a form with fields that have different characteristics. Imagine using this feature to support a role play experience for students in a social studies course learning about different cultures. Students could develop their own characters, filling out predefined fields in your form, and then proceed through a series of activities and reflections, centered around the characters they, and other students in the course, have created.
  • HTML Page – Basic content pages, whether an HTML page or through another content tool such as a Book, can also be used to set the scene for a bit of story around your gamified course. If you’re including role play, you might insert these pages at various locations throughout your course to support a sense of progression after students “level up” (our Activity Release, above), congratulating them and laying the groundwork for the next level. Another way you can use a content page is to link something within your content that takes students to another page not otherwise available in your course. Once on this page, students have access to another, secret assignment that if they complete, they get a special achievement or badge. You can leverage this feature if you’re keeping track of points for a home-grown leaderboard. Just remember not to let students view each others points (even in a leaderboard) if those points are an indication of their grade in your course.

  • Groups – Groups are a great way to support collaboration (both an element of games and of learning!) and particularly attractive to the social gamers. Use groups to set up a competition around an activity. Most LMS have the ability to upload a unique icon for each group. Have your groups or teams design their own icon.
  • Quiz – A quiz is a great activity you can use for multiple purposes. Create many short quizzes to encourage a bit of distance between point totals on your leaderboard, spattered at various points in your content. You can also leverage the element of time in game-play by creating a timed quiz with many questions that, depending on how a player does on the quiz, could result in an activity release letting them know they just received a special achievement. Time and urgency are great motivators in game play!
  • Badges – Badges are a fairly new feature in many LMS platforms. If your LMS has them, remember that these should be earned after completing a series of activities or a very special activity. Use them somewhat sparingly as they’ll then be valued more when received.

Remember, your LMS may have these features but they might be named something different, so take a look around your own LMS and think about how you might leverage some of its features with your new-found knowledge of games and gamification!


I want to gamify! Now what?

The hardest part about gamifying a course is just figuring out how to gamify the course. Ugh! But really, that’s the hard part. Once you figure that part out, actually doing it is the fun part!

So, how do you DO that?!

You need to start with an understanding of the concepts covered previously in this presentation. You’ll want to understand the different approaches to designing a game, the different elements of games and what they’re good for and how they work together. You’ll need to understand your students – your target audience – and anticipate the types of players they might be.

So, start there. Write a short document and describe these things as you see them when applied to your particular course, and THEN….

Create a Course Design Document

This is some standard “instructional designer” stuff, but its important. If you use a Course Design Document to begin thinking about your gamified course, you’ll ensure you’re actually creating meaningful game play. Don’t just apply points and gates. Remember, we want to use technology, and even gamification, in such a way that it supports our learning objectives. A Course Design Documents helps us do that. It keeps us accountable. Basically, you…

  • Identify your course learning objectives and include these at the top.
  • Create a table beneath this where the rows identify each module or topic in your course.
  • Column 1 identifies the topic/module level learning objectives.
  • Column 2 identifies the content (text, video, other, combination) for how you will deliver the learning.
  • Column 3 identifies the activities. This is how a student practices and demonstrates an understanding of or mastery of the learning objectives. These can be graded, though in gamification you’ll probably want some to be merely for fun, rewards and discovery (though still tied to the learning objectives).
  • Column 4 identifies the gamification elements. You’ll likely include extra rows between topics so you can denote levels and specific areas of progression and how you want to handle this.
  • Column 5 identifies the assessments. Some of your assessments might be gamified, so don’t forget to include this in the notes in Column 4. Go back to the top of your Course Design Document and underneath your Course Level Learning Objectives identify the following:
  • Determine Point Categories
    • You may just have one category, or you may have several. But remember, points can be tied to progression, levels, investment, achievements and badges. They are just a piece of a bigger picture and should accumulate to contribute to a greater reward.
    • Identify Levels – You may not have levels or a sense of “leveling up” That’s okay.
    • Identify what badges or achievements you should have. Remember, points most often accumulate to result in a badge or achievement. If you have a particularly challenging activity you might have a special achievement. If achievements are somewhat difficult to obtain then you increase the competition and motivation of your students.

Start putting it all together! Above all, don’t forget to make it fun



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