Trends and Futures

Day 1 – The What, Why and How of Gamification

Written by Dr Patrick Tran, from the University of New South Wales


By pascalmwiemers, sourced from pixabay, downloaded 25/09/18

For centuries, humans have tried to fly just like birds by observing their behavior in flight and learning the science behind it. Unlike birds though, our human body has all the flying qualities of a … brick, which incidentally, does not fly at all. We do not have a light and strong bone structure or the right thrust/weight ratio to provide enough lift to keep us flying in air.

However, human observation of birds has inspired the engineering of modern flying machines, and in a similar fashion, educators have utilised techniques from game designers to make learning more engaging.

This course will take you through a short journey of gamification which will mimic the gaming experience in an educational context – and in particular, we will explore the concept of gamification which means thinking as a game designer in non-game contexts.

What is gamification in the context of learning?

Gamification is simply a design process that applies game elements in a non-game environment. Let’s consider learning as a serious activity that we all engage in every day. The main goal of traditional education is to convey information in the most comprehensible way and perhaps lead to behavior change once learning occurs.

However, this does not guarantee learners’ engagement, and gamification has emerged as a possible solution to this problem. Gamification allows us to reframe the goal of a lesson to include the need for educational content that is interesting, visually appealing, and personalized.

Game properties and elements

By StartupStockPhotos, sourced from pixabay, downloaded 25/09/18

What makes games so attractive to so many people? There are many reasons including:

  • The sense of mastery and competence (the joy of overcoming a challenge and ‘leveling up’).
  • The curiosity of exploring the game environment.
  • The excitement of winning a competition.
  • The ‘replayability’ of the gaming experience (the possibility of reattempting, improving and winning).

It is worth noting that the emotions players experience are deeply personal and their approaches to interacting with the game are very different.

Game designers implement various elements and techniques such as points, badges, leaderboards, storytelling, ‘power-up’ bonuses, and hidden features to promote the appeal of their game.

Types of gamification

It is common to categorize gamification as content and structural gamification (Kapp 2012). Both types implement game elements to engage learners, but what sets them apart is the elements they use and how the content is impacted by this process.

Content gamification embeds the content into a game-like context, normally through storytelling. For example, you start your lesson with a story around solving a mysterious crime or finding a treasure, and players find more clues by progressing in the lesson. The success of this approach to gamification depends on the nature of the content as well as the designer’s ability to reframe it.

Structural gamification, on the other hand, does not modify the content but adds game elements. For example, students participate in a Q&A forum and earn points for their participation, or attempt advanced problems to be named on the leaderboards.

Why should you gamify learning?

By PublicDomainPictures, sourced from Pixabay, downloaded 25/09/18

By mimicking the gaming experience in your course you can improve your learners’ engagement, and this occurs at both emotional and cognitive levels.

The more time you spend on a game, the better you master it and perhaps feel more attached to it. This is similar to the concept of ‘learn by doing‘ in which repetition leads to mastery. This similarity and the deep engagement effect explain why gamification can be good for learning.

Gamification also promotes replayability by offering experiences that can be repeated many times without boring players. This effect helps learners develop their resilience, which is desirable in learning.

Using game-thinking with course design

1. Understand your audience

To select the design approach most suitable to our class, we need to firstly understand our learners – or in the context of gamification – what type of player they are. We can do this by running an icebreaker activity to tease out the learners’ personality traits, or ask them to take the Bartle test of Gamer Psychology which would place them in one of the following categories:

Table 1 (source:

It is very likely that you will have all four player types in the class, hence a mixed approach to engagement is required to cater for different learning needs.

2. Plan learning activities

The next step is to decide what learning activities will be used and how to “dress” them up to be appealing to different player types.

For example, let’s say you want your students to write a reflection essay about a lecture topic.

  • To make this activity more attractive to socializers and explorers, create a discussion forum (face-to-face or online) where they can freely express their feelings about the topic.
  • With achievers, introduce a research component in the exercise so that they have to do extra work for higher marks.
  • Finally, killers will be more engaged if a leaderboard is used to display the names of the highest achievers.

3. Select game properties

After planning the activities, we need to choose the gaming properties suitable to our course. Below is a list of properties mentioned previously and how they affect our design choices:

Mastery and competence:  scaffold learning activities into multiple levels, from novice to mastery with clear objectives and support provided along the way. Learners should be recognized for achieving certain skill levels or competencies. The scaffolding approach should not make the activity too easy as most learners would prefer spending time with challenging but achievable tasks.
Curiosity: avoid giving your learners all the puzzle pieces so all they have to do is to put them together. Instead, they should have the freedom to research and decide what tools or knowledge to use. Curiosity leads to knowledge and creativity.
Competition: provide a competitive environment in which learners (or a group of learners) compete against each other, or against themselves. This doesn’t have to involve marks or grades but can be non-assessable such as peer rating for being helpful in a forum discussion.
Replayability and the sense of resilience:  design assessments to be formative rather than summative and allows multiple attempts; design achievable tasks and provide support as needed.
Personalized experience: design different learning paths for learners based on their stream of study (social science, engineering …) or their topic of interests. This approach fosters autonomy by giving them a choice in what works best for them. However, of course we need to ensure fairness and consistency throughout the class.

4. Implement game elements

In Day 2, we will look into specific game elements and explore how to use them to support the selected game properties.

I hope you have enjoyed the first day of this course! Please join us in discussing the following activities.

question markLearning Activities

1. Have a go at the Bartle Test and report your result. Do you find the gamer type and associated traits applicable to you?

2. Even if you don’t think you’ve ever gamified before, it is likely that you already have, without knowing it! For example, you may have organized a class discussion where students shared their views and you occasionally gave comments and endorsement to their responses. Even though you did not use a sophisticated rating system or a cool looking leaderboard to display the smartest responses, the chance is everyone felt engaged and participated to fulfil their psychological needs of socializing, and being competitive and recognized. That is already a gamified experience!

Now, please attempt the following question:

  • What is your prior experience with gamification in education?
  • Elaborate your answers by explaining the what (course context), the why (objects e.g. improved engagement) and the how (learner types, activities, game properties) of game-thinking you have used.


Kapp, K.M. 2012, The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education, John Wiley & Sons Inc.


32 thoughts on “Day 1 – The What, Why and How of Gamification

  1. I’m no gamer, but on the Bartle test I’m an ESAK.. so my colleagues are reasonably safe from me killing then in the online space….

  2. Yes, ESAK for me too. I have never played these fantasy type games and for some of the questions my answers could have been either way.

  3. So for some reason, it doesn’t recognise that I’m not a robot – so I can’t find the Bartle results. I don’t actually play online games – so would have been interesting to see the results. Looking at the classifications above though, I’d assume I’m on the explorer end of the spectrum. I teach economics and have used ‘games’ a few times over in the courses that I teach – either through all students being involved (which usually means in a tutorial) or with a few students demonstrating to the whole class (my classes have 300 – 600 students enrolled). Students have always commented how much they love the games, and how it has helped solidify the theoretical knowledge for them. I’ve found it a little more enjoyable (though sometimes stressful in case it doesn’t work!) than just talking to students. It’s for these reasons that I’m really keen to learn more about the concepts of gamification to be able to increase the amount that I use it, and for those instances where I already do – to make it a bit better. Particularly, having a game that is summative and ‘on-going’ through the semester. I am surprised about the idea of having a ‘leaderboard’ and naming students who do well – whether this would be a good thing or an intimidating thing. But then, I think I would ask the students to do the Bartle test to see if there’s a large proportion of students who would enjoy then.

    1. Hi Dana, I have the same questions around a concept of a leaderboard and whether this could potentially “de-motivate” students who are not doing as well. I wonder how the positive aspects of gamification could be introduced without going too far into the competitive and potentially negative aspects of gamification. But I’d love to hear more about your games in class – what sort of things do you do?

      1. Hi Katie. One of the bigger games that all students play is buying and selling apples. They are given a ‘profile’ as either a seller or a buyer and that has information as to costs or willingness to pay. They are then tasked to go and buy/sell. Students usually find this engaging and fun. I’d like to be able to expand this to take account of perfect/imperfect competition; taxes etc and thus keep it going for a greater part of the semester. I also do a production game where students come onto the stage and move balls from a bag to a bucket – I add students to the production line one by one to see what happens to production (this one usually gets a lot of laughs but works through some important concepts).

      2. Hello Dana and Katie,
        Totally agree with you that leaderboards can have some side effects! One way to avoid this and enhance learners’ resilience is to compare performance of the learners against themselves for improvements. Alternatively, leaderboards can be used purely as a feedback tool and that ranks are not transferable to course credits. I had some good experience with the latter approach and I was happy that most students engaged pretty well while the top 5% of them were really into the competitive aspect of this.
        As with how far we should go for gamification, it can be very hard to gamify every aspect of your course, or even you can do that, the result may not last very long. I think it is best to gamify only the items that have the biggest impact, just enough to get everyone get started with the content.

  4. I remember taking part in some game-like activities in various free MOOCs and other courses. I find that gamification helps me to get through material that would be otherwise dreary and uninteresting. For example, if I have to learn about OH&S I might like to be competing for some kind of badge or reward, or working through a fun story line. Generally, I like to get a badge to recognize my achievement in getting to a certain stage in a course – it kind of supplements any intrinsic motivation I may have, it provides an element of fun and recognition. I do like recognition. And it is even better if it is a badge you can publish and share with friends and acquaintances. Also an official badge of completion can be handy on the resume.

    1. Hi Jill, I agree with you that badges is a great motivator for engagement. I personally collected badges for completing tens of online courses. I took these fully online courses on for both work and personal interests and I could share my completion certificates on Linked which is quite handy.

  5. Hi, I have used external rewards such as leaderboards, points and more for my science classes , it worked for a couple of weeks but then things became worse than before. I thought this would enhance my students performance , behavior, and motivate but I found it worked for awhile then the students just worked for external rewards not for learning. The year after I decided to stop any external motivators and focus more on activities and relate them to real world, give them assignments that emphasis on the relation between science and surrounding world, Also, I focused on rules and routines, and show them that I am proud of them because they were trying to do their best. This year, I have worked harder than before as rules and routines needs time and commitment. Also, convincing parents that it is not about scores but about trying not easy at all.
    From my experience external motivators are good for short term goals or urgent results but soon we need to replace them with real motivators. We have to find ways to convince students that what they learn matter and it is important for their future and society. Also, emphasis on that no problem in making mistakes and this is how we learn such as solve something wrong in front of them or show them that the experiment you has performed has wrong results and you are trying to find the reason.

    1. HI Sara,
      I agree with your observations about the short-term effectiveness of gamification. In fact, I would not expect gamification to work for the entire course duration, especially with superficial game elements like points and badges. In stead, I would selectively introduce some basic elements within small activities, and these only have to work just long enough to generate some interests in the audience.

  6. HI all,
    I think it is worth noting that there are two common approaches to gamification: content gamification and structural gamification. The first embeds content into a game-like context, normally through storytelling while the second method does not modify the content but adds game elements around it such as points and badges. I think the content based approach is the hardest but the engaging experience it produces lasts longer than the other one. Does anyone come across a good example of content gamification?

  7. On the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology I came out as AEKS: 73% Achiever, 60% Explorer, 33% Killer and 33% Socialiser.
    I don’t play computer games, but it seems a reasonable match for my approach to life. However, I find it disturbing that any form of physiological test, would seek to categorize participants as “killers”.
    I haven’t used gamification in teaching. I previously organized online class discussion where I contributed my own comments. But I found this tended to distract the students, who then looked to please me. So now I just provide questions to start the discussion and do not take part and the students rate each other.
    As a student, I have not been exposed to gamification. However I do feel the need to know how I am doing compared to the rest of the class. I was very frustrated as a graduate student, where there were no stats provided on course, program or university average results. It was not that I wanted to beat everyone, I just wanted to know I was doing “okay”, but never knew and still don’t.
    Tom W.
    ps: Greetings from Colombo, where I am at a computer conference for the week.

    1. Hi Tom and everyone,
      It’s interesting to know your experience as both a teacher and a student. Among the four player types, I found it easier to amuse Achiever and Socialiser than the other two types. For example, points/badges/leaderboards can be appealing to achievers while socialisers can be attracted to forums and collaborative work.
      What about Explorer and Killer? Any thought on how would you make your content more appealing to them?

  8. Hello Patrick,
    Hope you are well.
    Although I am not a gamer, I can relate to the principles of gamification and how it can create ideal learning situations such as having build-in repetition with variety, competition and promotes interest and motivation to the point of addition all at the same time. I think the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology is interesting but because I am not familiar with the gaming world or gaming terminology I had to imagine another content to answer the questions because the content is specifically online games.
    In the classroom, I have run games such as running dictation (where students in groups have turns remembering sentences or parts there of from a short story that is located outside the classroom door) and sentence auction ( where students bit in groups on correct sentences to help improve their grammar ) with an ESL class which both stimulated a lot of interest and fun because of the gaming elements and healthy competition they generated.

    Best regards,

    1. Hello Ben, thanks for reading and for sharing your perspectives! You are right, the Bartle test could have been improved to better cater for non-gamers. It is great to see how gamification works well in your courses. A lot of us have been gamifying all along without knowing it!

      1. The question of “who is a gamer” is an interesting one to me. I definitely would not consider myself a gamer, but I do love to play simple games on my phone (mah jongg, candy crush!) and have a competitive round of Mario Kart with friends! So perhaps I am a gamer, or we need to further expand the definition to include the more casual and social players?

  9. My Bartle Test result is: 100% Explorer, 53% Achiever, 47% Socializer, and 0% Killer. I laughed out when I saw the result because this was exactly how I played games.
    My initial understanding about “Gamification” is simply to “study via games”. When I was eight or nine years old, my parents bought me a software called “Learn Chinese Happily”. There were activities like shooting the balloon with a wrong punctuation and picking the apple with an improper word. And when I was an undergraduate student, I imagined if there could be a similar software to “play with” pure math.
    Today’s material led me to think about “games” in a more general way. The thoughts in designing games are very helpful in promoting students engagement.

    1. Hi Sunny, game-based learning is a popular gamification approach to learning, which is perhaps the first encounter with gamification for most of us. One little game that is proven to be very effective with young learners is flashcards. My 4 year old learns everything from flashcards, and there are good reasons why it works so well. Here is a short article about the why and the how of this technique. You can even make your own flashcards, be your own teacher and share them with everyone: here is an example

      1. Hi Patrick, thanks for the suggestion of the flashcards. This is one of my most favorite part of the coffee courses: it’s not only about teaching but also about learning.

    2. Hi Sunny, game-based learning is a popular gamification approach to learning, which is perhaps the first encounter with gamification for most of us. One little game that is proven to be very effective with young learners is flashcards. My 4 year old learns everything from flashcards, and there are good reasons why it works so well. Here is a short article about the why and the how of this technique. . You can even make your own flashcards, be your own teacher and share them with everyone: here is an example

  10. Hi Patrick,

    I’m an ‘Explorer’ with only 27% chance of killing anyone, so that’s good. I use online games in my classes such as Quizlet! where ESL students win as a group as I find that singling out just one achiever sometimes has the opposite effect of engagement. The students love the group challenge and any prizes are usually shared with the whole class, which is nice. I haven’t used the Bartle Test in class yet, but will in the future, thanks for the link!

  11. My Bartle result was AESK. My background is in Early Childhood Education where play-based learning is considered best practice and key to engagement as it taps into the intrinsic motivation of the learner, especially when student centred & student directed. Teacher directed/designed games would be introduced to encourage learners to challenge themselves in areas they might otherwise feel uncomfortable or unmotivated. It is interesting to consider the power of play for adult learners and the differences in what motivates people.

  12. I came out as ESAK too but 80% Explorer, 73% Socialiser, 40% Achiever, 7% Killer. Im not sure quite how accurate this is as I havent done much gaming since Sonic the Hedgehog on my brothers sega…. However despite my relative naivete in this field, I am really keen on the idea of gamification for education. 100% the strongest memory I have from my undergraduate degree was in a development class where we had to role play being a developing country government faced with selling off natural resources or not – the ‘aha’ moment of realising how constricted their choices were, compared to idealistic views that they should just do the ‘right’ thing, was so visceral as we were acting out the different options. I have been fascinated by the possibility of doing that with one of my own courses, but am not really sure where to even start so I am really interested in the content of this module.

  13. I use flashcards with adult learners – so it’s true that they are not just for 4-year-olds!
    One way that I used them was to have students practise vocabulary. My students would pair up, and each pair would be given a set of flashcards. Student A would hold up the flashcard and read aloud a gapped sentence. Student B can see a definition on their side of the flashcard (but B doesn’t have to read it out loud). B then has to guess the answer, which A can check at the bottom of their card (make sure A knows not to give it away!). It’s a little complicated to explain without showing you, but I hope this example can help:

    A-side of the card: “I caught a … of the burglar as he ran away” (and at the bottom, in smaller font ‘glimpse’)
    B-side of the card: “a momentary or partial view”

    Some students keep score by putting the correct cards in one pile and counting them at the end, some don’t. Some students swap roles when they are halfway through the pile, some don’t. Some students give their partner hints, some don’t. They’re adults, so I am OK with whatever they decide on.

    It has good ‘replayability’ – at the end of the term, I mix up all my sets of flashcards and let them have another go.

  14. I came out as ESAK. Not a surprise as this is how my limited MMO experience has been. However, I play board and card games far more often than anything digital and in that sphere the Social would be a standout.
    I have always incorporated elements from these tactile face to face games in whatever situations can benefit from them.
    Games with hidden information work well to illustrate where assumptions can lead us off the mark.
    Games that illustrate just how differently people of a similar interest can conceptualize situations.

  15. Well, I’m an EKAS, 93% explorer and 60% killer, which might reflect my general desire to be left alone so I can check things out on my own without interruption!
    I feel like some traditional assessment techniques are already gamified. For example, when I was a first-year student studying classical languages, we had small weekly tests and assignments to help us learn and memorise grammar and vocabulary. Each item on its own was worth only a small percentage of the final grade, so they were low-stakes, but I used to work furiously every week to beat my previous grades. There was immense satisfaction in improving.

  16. According to the battle test, I’m an ESAK (80% Explorer, 47% socializer, 40% Achiever, and 33% Killer), which seems pretty accurate to me. This could also explain why I tend to gravitate more towards content gamification as the storytelling aspect of games is a big thing for me. I’ve never been too concerned with the leaderboard in games, or collecting badges, but I love a good story.

    I’m not sure if this counts, but my first experience with gamification in education was just good old educational computer games. I grew up with computers and some of the first games I remember playing were educational math games. I had a great time learning and solving mysteries by solving math equations. My early love of history and geography was definitely in part thanks to Carmen Sandiego.

    As far as gamification in a university context, I feel the best example might be in my aural music classes where the start of the class would involve the lecturer playing various chords we were focusing on learning and us students competing in a knockout style for who would “top the leaderboard” that week. I feel that it was interesting and new enough that it inspired and encouraged us to be more prepared for the classes (there was, of course, chocolate winnings that helped the motivation along… ).

    1. Carmen Sandiego! What a great show/game that was! I really appreciated it as a child myself. I think educational computer games definitely count as early experiences of gamification. There are so many great examples of gamified learning for children and young people, and I’d love to see that sense of fun and comraderie more in higher education teaching as well. 🙂

  17. I think gamification could be very useful, even over the long-term, in language learning. When I was first studying Japanese, like most people who are not used to character-based languages, I found memorising kanji difficult and quite boring. I only really found that I made significant improvements once I started to use flashcards on a daily basis. A lot of flashcard based language learning apps, like Duolingo, already include aspects of gamification such as streaks to help motivate learners. Making sure students are aware of these types of applications, especially the free varieties, is one helpful thing. I think there is also scope to incorporate some of these elements through optional, additional quizzes for vocabulary via Wattle. Students could receive a badge for days in a row they completed quizzes, or high scores etc. This might be more effective than continual micro-assessment, in the form of weekly quizzes and homework. Personally, I often found assessed weekly—or sometimes even more frequent—vocabulary and grammar quizzes quite stressful, as even though each quiz was worth only a small amount of your overall grade they typically added up to 25% or more of your final grade. This could have the same result of encouraging students to stay on top of new vocabulary and grammar in a more relaxed way.

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