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Gamification: the next evolution in education?

Slow down. What is gamification?!

Simply put, gamification is the process of applying elements of game design, like streaks, badges, and leaderboards, in contexts beyond traditional gaming. Gamification uses “elements of human behavior and psychology” to provide a more “rewarding, engaging and exciting experience for the user.” 

If you’ve participated in rewards programs at your local grocery store, competed with a friend on an exercise app, or tried to keep your Snapchat streak going, you’ve already interacted with some form of gamification! 

While the idea of incentivization is nothing new, the term “gamification” has only been kicking around in mainstream vernacular since 2010. Christo Dichev and Darina Dicheva, authors of “Gamifying Education,” explain that in the last decade the increased understanding of the potential of gamification to  “foster motivation, behavioral changes, friendly competition and collaboration in different contexts” has resulted its implementation in fields from marketing to healthcare, human resources to education.  

Gamification in action.

Gamification is already being used regularly in our students’ classrooms. But what does this look like in practice? Here are a few popular examples of gamification in education:  

  1. Kahoot! is one of the most popular game-based learning platforms, allowing teachers to quickly and easily create live trivia games, quizzes, and challenges” for students to answer life using their own personal devices. The platform currently has over 70 million monthly active users, and is used by about 50% of K-12 students in the United States.
  2. DuoLingo is a personalized language-learning app that uses a reward system to motivate its users. Learners  “earn virtual coins, unlock new levels, and track [their] rising fluency score rise as [they] master new words, phrases, and grammar.” The app offers courses in over 30 different languages, and since launching in 2011, has become one of the most downloaded apps on both iOS and Android.
  3. Minecraft is a popular video game in which players can build and interact within a three-dimensional world. There are no points or levels in Minecraft — the primary purpose is to build and explore. An educational version of the game was released in November of 2016. A 2017 study of elementary students using Minecraft found that students were not only more engaged in their education, but made significant improvements in creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, and other 21st century skills. 

Not all gamification is created equal.

Calli Wright, Marketing Manager for Mind Research Institute, makes an important distinction between gamification, and game-based learning.

Gamified lessons or activities,” she says, “may include elements such as badges, leaderboards, timed activities, rewards or points, [but] these game elements are usually separated from the actual learning content.” 

“Game-based learning,” on the other hand, Wright explains, “gives a student clear and challenging goals within a virtual game framework, requires a high-degree of student interaction and offers informative feedback on student performance. Many times, the games are designed to allow the player to understand the subject matter within a real world context.

While both gamification and game-based learning have the potential to increase student engagement, Calli Wright points out that simply adding competition or badges to a class activity is not enough to transform an educationational experience. 

There is a danger with gamification that the game elements (the points, rewards, leaderboard) begin to overshadow the learning. Though more fun, gamification still relies on extrinsic motivation to engage learners. So “what happens when the reward is no longer relevant or removed?,” Wright asks. 

Unlike gamification, however, well-designed game-based learning “has the capacity to harness students’ intrinsic motivation and love for play and lead them toward complex problem solving.”

But should kids really be playing video games in schools?

Jane McGonigal, Game Designer and author of Reality is Broken, claims that games’ potential to facilitate complex problem-solving is exactly why students need to spend more time playing well-designed games, not less. 

In her 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming can make a better world,” McGonigal explains why online game worlds are so engaging to young people. These experiences offer participants something less readily available to them in the real world: 

  1. Challenging tasks specifically designed to meet participants’ skills and interest
  2. A community of potential collaborators
  3. An inspiring story
  4. Constant feedback and opportunities for growth. 

That fact is, young people who grow up in a community with strong gaming culture will spend 10,000 playing games by the time they are 21, which means, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of success, kids who play games online are becoming virtuosos at gaming. 

McGonigal argues that the skills gamers are getting good at are the same skills we need to address our world’s seemingly insurmountable problems: 

  • Urgent optimism: the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacles combined with the reasonable belief that success is possible
  • A tight-knit social fabric: strong social relationships built on trust, vulnerability, and cooperation
  • Blissful productivity: self-actualization through engaging in challenging and meaningful work
  • Epic meaning: the opportunity to achieve goals that matter. 

Games, she says, have the potential to create “super-empowered hopeful individuals” who believe they are capable of changing the world. 

In the ongoing debate on the impact of screen-time on developing brains, it’s no surprise that there is hesitancy about the amount of time students spend on virtual platforms in schools, but it’s also hard to argue with the potential of games to reinvigorate stale practices in education.

So the challenge then is  – how do we harness the power of games to not only to make learning fun but to equip students with the optimism, community, sense of purpose, and meaning they will need to address our world’s most pressing issues? 

. . . Mission accepted. 

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