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Today's schools face major problems around student motivation and engagement. Gamification, or the incorporation of game elements into non-game settings, provides an opportunity to help schools solve these difficult problems. However, if gamification is to be of use to schools, we must better understand what gamification is, how it functions, and why it might be useful. This article addresses all three questions, exploring both the potential benefits and pitfalls of gamification.
Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2).
Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?
Joey J. Lee, Teachers College Columbia University, NY
Jessica Hammer, Teachers College Columbia University, NY
Lee, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Technology and Education. Hammer is a Mellon Interdisciplinary
Graduate Research Fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy.
Today's schools face major problems around student motivation and engagement. Gamification, or the
incorporation of game elements into non-game settings, provides an opportunity to help schools solve these
difficult problems. However, if gamification is to be of use to schools, we must better understand what
gamification is, how it functions, and why it might be useful. This article addresses all three questions – what,
how, and why bother? – while exploring both the potential benefits and pitfalls of gamification.
Games and game-like elements have begun to invade the real world. Gamification, defined as the use of game
mechanics, dynamics, and frameworks to promote desired behaviors, has found its way into domains like
marketing, politics, health and fitness, with analysts predicting that it will become a multi-billion dollar industry
by 2015 (MacMillan, 2011). Some visionaries, like game designer Jesse Schell, envision a kind of
gamepocalypse, a hypothetical future in which everything in daily life becomes gamified, from brushing one's
teeth to exercise (Schell, 2010).
Thus far, gamification has most frequently been used as a clever way to promote a business or product. For
instance, players can earn badges, discounts, and other rewards for visiting real-world shops and “checking-in”
to the mobile phone application FourSquare. Games that are designed to promote positive lifestyle changes are
starting to appear as well. Chore Wars and EpicWin encourage players to complete daily chores, while websites
like Google Powermeter can encourage household reductions in energy consumption through the use of progress
bars and collectible badges.
The potential of gamification, however, goes beyond promoting healthy lifestyles and marketing strategies.
Gamers voluntarily invest countless hours in developing their problem-solving skills within the context of games
(Gee, 2008). They recognize the value of extended practice, and develop personal qualities such as persistence,
creativity, and resilience through extended play (McGonigal, 2011). Gamification attempts to harness the
motivational power of games and apply it to real-world problems – such as, in our case, the motivational
problems of schools. Motivation and engagement are major challenges for the American educational system
(Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morison, 2006). American schools also face a shockingly high dropout rate:
approximately 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school each year (All4Ed, 2010).
Intuition suggests that gamification may be able to motivate students to learn better and to care more about
school. Making the case for gamification, however, requires more than intuition. We must clearly define what is
meant by gamification, evaluate it for its benefits and drawbacks, explore current implementations and future
possibilities, and better understand the theoretical rationale behind gamification. This will allow us to create
effective interventions rather than guessing in the dark.
In this paper, we target these needs by answering three fundamental questions regarding the gamification of
education: “what?” “how?” and “why bother?” First, we answer the “what” question by providing an overview
of current uses of gamification in education. Second, we address “how” by discussing some potential areas in
Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2).
which gamification techniques can provide meaningful interventions for today’s schools. Finally, we consider
“why bother,” discussing the significance of gamification along with its benefits and risks.
What: Definitions and Uses
What do we mean by the gamification of education? After all, schools already have several game-like elements.
Students get points for completing assignments correctly. These points translate to “badges,” more commonly
known as grades. Students are rewarded for desired behaviors and punished for undesirable behaviors using this
common currency as a reward system. If they perform well, students “level up” at the end of every academic
Given these features, it would seem that school should already be the ultimate gamified experience. However,
something about this environment fails to engage students. In contrast, video games and virtual worlds excel at
engagement (McGonigal, 2011). As evidence of this, 28 million people harvest their crops in Farmville on a
daily basis (Mashable, 2010), and over five million people play World of Warcraft for more than 40 hours per
week (Blizzard, 2010). On the other hand, the default environment of school often results in undesirable
outcomes such as disengagement, cheating, learned helplessness, and dropping out. Most students would not
describe classroom-based activities in school as playful experiences. Clearly, the existence of game-like
elements does not translate directly to engagement.
Understanding the role of gamification in education, therefore, means understanding under what circumstances
game elements can drive learning behavior. Making use of Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules, Play, and Culture
framework (2003), we can better break down the impact of gamification. The rules of school as they stand, for
example, must be understood not only in terms of their formal effects but also in terms of their emotional and
social impact on school’s “players.” Disengagement from school happens at the social and emotional levels,
problems exacerbated by the formal rules of school (Rock, 2004). Gamification can change the rules, but it can
also affect students’ emotional experiences, their sense of identity and their social positioning
Gamification projects offer the opportunity to experiment with rules, emotions, and social roles. Read an
optional library book on the topic being taught in class? Receive “Reading” points. Get perfect attendance and
complete all homework assignments on time for a month? Earn an “On Target“ badge. Get assigned as a “Lead
Detective” role in science class? Work hard to ask the best questions. When playing by these rules, students
develop new frameworks for understanding their school-based activities. As suggested by Leblanc (2006), this
can motivate students to participate more deeply and even to change their self-concept as learners.
Existing gamification projects apply these principles at vastly different scales. At one end is gamification at the
micro-scale -- individual teachers who gamify their own class structures. For example, Lee Sheldon, professor at
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, discarded traditional grading in favor of earning “experience points” and
converted homework assignments into quests (Laster, 2010). At the other end of the scale, Quest to Learn, a new
charter school in New York City, uses game design as its organizing framework for teaching and learning. Game
designers work together with teachers to develop playful curricula and incorporate game elements into the entire
school day (Corbett, 2010).
In practice, few people will ever get the opportunity to design a school from scratch. However, we believe there
is an important role for gamification projects that stretch beyond single classes. We have taken a third path in
defining an appropriate scope for our own work at Teachers College Columbia University, creating a ‘game
layer’ which incorporates many different school-based activities. We conceptualize our work as a free, modular
toolkit for instructors, who can fit their own instructional needs into a playful meta-game run by expert designers
and educators. This meta-game, in turn, attempts to foster concrete goal-setting, clear communication, and the
conscious development of student identity as learners. We are currently developing and pilot-testing our project
as a customizable paper-based and online toolkit, which we hope to demonstrate is effective at supporting these
learning goals.
Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2).
From these examples, we can catch a glimpse of the variety of potential uses of gamification. When skillfully
designed and implemented, we believe gamification can help schools do school better. In fact, this is the standard
that gamification in education must live up to. It is not good enough to gamify school because it is the next fad,
or because we believe students are motivated by points, or because we think badges will cause students to
change their behaviors permanently. We must know what problems we are trying to fix, design systems that fix
those specific problems, develop ways of evaluating whether those fixes work, and sustain those fixes over time.
Gamification can only provide tools, and those tools must produce results that are worth the investment.
How: Goals and Techniques
Educational gamification proposes the use of game-like rule systems, player experiences and cultural roles to
shape learners’ behavior. To understand the potential of gamification, however, we must consider how these
techniques can best be deployed in practice. In this section, we discuss three major areas in which gamification
can serve as an intervention.
Cognitive. Games provide complex systems of rules for players to explore through active experimentation and
discovery. For example, the apparently simple mobile game Angry Birds asks players to knock down towers by
launching birds out of a slingshot. Players must experiment with the game to figure out the physical properties of
different tower materials, the ballistics of the slingshot, and the structural weaknesses of each tower. They launch
birds, observe the results, plan their next moves, and execute those plans. In short, players’ desire to beat each
level makes them small-scale experimental physicists.
More broadly stated, games guide players through the mastery process and keep them engaged with potentially
difficult tasks (Koster, 2004). One critical game design technique is to deliver concrete challenges that are
perfectly tailored to the player's skill level, increasing the difficulty as the player's skill expands. Specific,
moderately difficult, immediate goals are motivating for learners (Locke, 1991; Bandura, 1986), and these are
precisely the sort that games provide (Gee, 2008). Games also provide multiple routes to success, allowing
students to choose their own sub-goals within the larger task. This, too, supports motivation and engagement
(Locke & Latham, 1990).
These techniques, applied to schools, can transform student perspectives on learning. Students in schools are
often told what to do without understanding the larger benefits of the work. Gamification can help students ask,
“If I want to master school, what do I do next?” It gives students clear, actionable tasks and promises them
immediate rewards instead of vague long-term benefits. In the best-designed games, the reward for solving a
problem is a harder problem (Gee, 2008). Gamification hopes to make the same true for schools.
Emotional. Games invoke a range of powerful emotions, from curiosity to frustration to joy (Lazarro, 2004).
They provide many positive emotional experiences, such as optimism and pride (McGonigal, 2011). Crucially,
they also help players persist through negative emotional experiences and even transform them into positive
The most dramatic example of emotional transformation in a game is around the issue of failure. Because games
involve repeated experimentation, they also involve repeated failure. In fact, for many games, the only way to
learn how to play the game is to fail at it repeatedly, learning something each time (Gee, 2008). Games maintain
this positive relationship with failure by making feedback cycles rapid and keeping the stakes low. The former
means players can keep trying until they succeed; the latter means they risk very little by doing so. In schools, on
the other hand, the stakes of failure are high and the feedback cycles long. Students have few opportunities to try,
and when they do, it is high stakes. Little wonder that students experience anxiety, not anticipation, when offered
the chance to fail (Pope, 2003).
Gamification offers the promise of resilience in the face of failure, by reframing failure as a necessary part of
learning. Gamification can shorten feedback cycles, give learners low-stakes ways to assess their own
Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2).
capabilities, and create an environment in which effort, not mastery, is rewarded. Students, in turn, can learn to
see failure as an opportunity, instead of becoming helpless, fearful or overwhelmed.
Social. Games allow players to try on new identities and roles, asking them to make in-game decisions from their
new vantage points (Squire, 2006; Gee, 2008). In video games, players may take on the roles of gun-toting
mercenaries, speedy blue hedgehogs, elven princesses, and more. Players also adopt roles that are less explicitly
fictional, exploring new sides of themselves in the safe space of play. For example, a shy teenager might become
a guild leader, commanding dozens of other players in epic battles against legions of enemies.
Developing a strong school-based identity helps engage students with learning in the long run (Nasir & Saxe,
2003). However, many students do not feel like they can “do school” (Pope, 2003). For these students, gamified
environments can provide an opportunity to try on the unfamiliar identity of a scholar.
Gamification also allows students to publicly identify themselves as scholars through playing the game. The
game can provide social credibility and recognition for academic achievements, which might otherwise remain
invisible or even be denigrated by other students. Recognition can be provided by the teacher, but gamification
can also allow students to reward each other with in-game currency. Such a design encourages students to
reinforce the development of a school-based identity in other students as well as in themselves.
A well-designed gamification system can help players take on meaningful roles that are fruitful for learning. By
making the development of a new identity playful, and by rewarding it appropriately, we can help students think
differently about their potential in school and what school might mean for them.
Why Bother: Risks and Benefits
The strengths of gamification and schools can be complementary, but they are not necessarily so. There are
significant ways in which gamification and schools could each make the other worse. Bringing education and
game elements together could turn out like peanut butter meeting chocolate: two great tastes working together,
leading to results that are especially important for developing 21st century skills. Gamification can motivate
students to engage in the classroom, give teachers better tools to guide and reward students, and get students to
bring their full selves to the pursuit of learning. It can show them the ways that education can be a joyful
experience, and the blurring of boundaries between informal and formal learning can inspire students to learn in
lifewide, lifelong, and lifedeep ways.
The challenges, however, are also significant and need to be considered. Gamification might absorb teacher
resources, or teach students that they should learn only when provided with external rewards. On the other hand,
playfulness requires freedom - the freedom to experiment, to fail, to explore multiple identities, to control one’s
own investment and experience (Klopfer, Osterweil & Salen, 2009). By making play mandatory, gamification
might create rule-based experiences that feel just like school. Instead of chocolate and peanut butter, such
projects are more like chocolate-covered broccoli.
In short, some gamification projects will succeed, and others will fail. Gamification is not a universal panacea. If
we are to improve the odds of gamification providing value to schools, we must carefully design gamification
projects that address the real challenges of schools, that focus on the areas where gamification can provide the
maximum value, that are grounded in existing research, and that address the potential dangers of gamification for
both games and schools. In tandem with the creation of gamification projects, we must develop meaningful
assessments of whether they are achieving their aims.
As gamification spreads throughout the real world, there is little question it will also impact our schools. By
leading with research-based, theory-driven gamification projects, we can work to ensure that the impact of
gamification is a positive one. Gamification will be a part of students' lives for years to come. If we can harness
the energy, motivation and sheer potential of their game-play and direct it toward learning, we can give students
the tools to become high scorers and winners in real life.
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Whether you're a manager, company psychologist, quality control specialist, or involved with motivating people to work harder in any capacity—Locke and Latham's guide will hand you the keen insight and practical advice you need to reach even your toughest cases. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Interactive immersive entertainment, or videogame playing, has emerged as a major entertainment and educational medium. As research and development initiatives proliferate, educational researchers might benefit by developing more grounded theories about them. This article argues for framing game play as a designed experience. Players’ understandings are developed through cycles of performance within the gameworlds, which instantiate particular theories of the world (ideological worlds). Players develop new identities both through game play and through the gaming communities in which these identities are enacted. Thus research that examines game-based learning needs to account for both kinds of interactions within the game-world and in broader social contexts. Examples from curriculum developed for Civilization III and Supercharged! show how games can communicate powerful ideas and open new identity trajectories for learners.