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Gamification in the Classroom – What it is and Why it Matters

In the fast-paced world of Education, there is a tendency toward putting the latest and greatest method of teaching into practice in the classroom. As a relatively recent University graduate, I’ve witnessed first hand the front-lines of research in Education and can attest to the fact that it moves quite quickly. Critics of this field might say (and sometimes rightly so) that the field of Education doesn’t advance so much as it simply recycles. Old ideas are often rebranded and dished out to teachers as new ones. Speak to any teacher who’s been in the profession for a while and you’ll likely hear them say something like, “the methods we use now are the same as what we used when I first started 25 years ago, they’re just called something different.” But it’s not fair to paint the picture of research in Education wholly in this way. There certainly exist fronts in this field which have been under-explored, under-researched and under-utilized in real classrooms. To me, one of the more intriguing ideas to have emerged in education in recent years is that of gamification. The following article is intended to highlight what gamification is exactly, what some of the research says about it, and why it should be taken more seriously.

To be clear, the notion of gamification was likely used in education in the past, albeit without an explicit name for it. Over the last few years however, gamification has really exploded in the field of Education with many researchers examining the idea in detail. I was first introduced to the concept in a University course over three years ago and have been interested in it ever since. For many, the idea of gamification can initially be off-putting because the concept is so closely tied to the idea of playing video games. And although playing video games for the goal of learning can in fact be a big part of gamification, I think a broader definition is better suited. Gamification in Education can be defined as: the use of games to enhance the process of learning by evoking behavioural and psychological responses necessary for motivation [1]. In other words, the goal of “gamifying” a learning activity is to evoke the same psychological and behavioural phenomenon which you might experience yourself when playing a card game with friends. Feelings of engagement, self-motivation, community, teamwork, camaraderie, accomplishment, determination, and fun are just some of the things people experience when engaged in gameplay [2].

As a review of the literature on gamification highlights, this concept has been closely tied to several theories on learning which help to explain how and why gamification can be effective as a method of teaching. As Kim et al., explains, gamification has been linked to ideas such as self-determination theory, achievement goal theory, social learning theory, and flow theory. Without diving too deep into an analysis of these learning theories, the basic takeaway from this research is that gamification can activate numerous pathways for student learning and engagement which have been shown to have positive benefits in the classroom environment [2]. Take, for example, the concept of flow theory. Flow theory is in many ways similar to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. The idea is simple: a student who is performing a task or challenge which is neither too easy nor too hard is in the ideal environment to experience a state of mind known as flow state [2]. Everyone has experienced this in their lives at one time or another — have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time and became fully entranced by the task at hand? That is flow state, and researchers have shown that it can be achieved easier through gamification then through normal means of teaching and learning. The improved concentration achieved in flow state lends itself to greater development of skill, achievement, and enjoyability.

But the benefits extend beyond this. As Ashley Deese of the Smithsonian Science Education Centre suggests, “gamifying” activities can contribute to cognitive development in students by activating areas of the brain related to things like concentration, it can increase and sustain student engagement in the classroom, and can help increase the productivity of students [3]. Further, gamification can enhance student’s higher order thinking skills, test performance and various social skills related to team building, leadership and cooperation [2].

So what are some of the ways that we as educators, parents or caretakers can successfully “gamify” learning so that our students can begin to experience its many benefits? For starters, it’s no secret that we live in an age of tremendous technological growth which makes adding specially designed video games for certain learning tasks far easier than it was in the past (technically, using video games in the classroom for learning purposes is called “game-based learning” however for the purposes of this article, I will include it under the catch-all of gamification). With a little bit of creativity, educators can take established video games and appropriate them for use in the classroom. One example is the game Portal 2. As Don Labonte shows, this unique puzzle game is perfectly designed for math and science class. For his purposes, Don introduced the game to his class and posed a challenge. The student’s were to use the game’s built-in puzzle maker to come up with a question, design an experiment, test that experiment in the game and reflect on their findings [4]. Another wildly popular video game that can be adopted to classroom needs is Minecraft. Minecraft is a building game with seemingly infinite possibilities for creative expression. The game can be adopted to make history come alive by uploading replica structures of real historical buildings. It can be used for reading comprehension by asking students to physically recreate a scene from something they’ve read or as a tool for writing by asking students to create a world and then provide a written backstory for their imaginary place [5]. With video games like these, the options seem endless for constructive use in a classroom setting.

Other ways to “gamify” a classroom include implementing aspects of games into everyday routines. Strategies for this include using reward systems or point systems as a way to motivate student’s and increase desire for achievement. Simulations or “quests” can be created to turn an everyday topic of study into something much more engaging. One example from my own practice is a simulation designed for a Gr. 10 history class. Student’s learning about the causes of World War 1 are brought into the classroom and introduced to the concept. In small groups, the student’s participate in a scavenger hunt of sorts where they are detectives tasked with finding clues that will ultimately lead them to answering the question: who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Needless to say, simulations like this require an immense amount of planning and forethought, however the results speak for themselves. Student’s feel engaged with the course material and are motivated to participate in ways you seldom see in regular classrooms.

To me, it seems as though the idea of gamification is one which deserves to be taken seriously by educators. The research continues to pour in, showing how aspects of gameplay can help to create an environment of intense focus, engagement and achievement while helping to grow student’s cognitive and social skills. If a primary goal of education is to make learning fun and engaging then it seems obvious that “gamifying” the learning process is a strategy which should be deeply explored by teachers, parents and coaches alike. If you have any experiences in a “gamified” learning environment and would like to share, please comment below!

Written by Nick Mehring. Owner and Director of Education at Prep Academy Tutors Kitchener-Waterloo.


[1] Hamari, J., et al. Does Gamification Work? A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In proceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, USA, January 6-9, 2014.

[2] Kim, S., et al. Gamification in Learning and Education: Enjoy Learning Like Gaming, Springer International Publishing, 2018.

[3] Ashley Deese, “5 Benefits of Gamification,” Smithsonian, Jan. 8, 2019, https://ssec.si.edu/stemvisions-blog/5-benefits-gamification.

[4] Don Labonte, “Game-Based STEM Instruction,” Edutopia, Sept. 9, 2014, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/reinventing-science-fair-portal-2-don-labonte.

[5] Andrew Miller, “Ideas for Using Minecraft in the Classroom,” Smithsonian, Oct. 24, 2016, https://www.edutopia.org/blog/minecraft-in-classroom-andrew-miller.