The Gamification of Education

The Effects of the Gamification of Elementary Education

The Gamification of Education

One of the more popular buzzwords in education throughout the last five years has been the “gamification of education.” Not only has this concept been on the upswing in K-12 and higher education, it has also caused much controversy.

Gamification is the concept of applying typical elements of game playing to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging (Walker, 2014). These techniques aim to leverage people’s natural desires for competition, achievement, status, and self-expression.

Gamification is simply applying game-like principles, not necessarily “gaming” or playing an online/video game. (Although, much of gamification today includes using some type of technology.)

Although this report is focusing on education, gamification can be found throughout our society. Think about Starbuck’s rewards programs, Coke points, and Fitbits. These are all examples of the gamification of life by adding game designs like tracking activity, encouraging goal setting, and competing with others (Walker, 2014).

A major strategy in gamification is the use of narrative structures that place students on a "journey" and give rewards for players who accomplish desired tasks (Walker, 2014). The types of rewards vary from points, achievement badges, levels, or filling up a progress bar. Badges have become very popular throughout the business world and are moving into education as well. Badges give learners a language for what they are learning by offering names for their new competencies and providing a venue to recognize their importance (Farber, 2013). Competition is another element of gamification - providing leaderboards or avatars encourage players to compete. The remaining elements of gamification are making existing tasks feel more like games, adding meaningful choice, increasing challenge, and adding narratives (Walker, 2014).

With so many children and adults currently playing video games, games represent a natural way for teachers to reach their students and have fun at the same time. In her article, The Debate: Gamification and Education, Margo Kleman states that “the real point to gamification is to bring education in a new way and combine it with technology and our human desire to play games in order to provide students with the best education possible” (Kleman, 2013).

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What Does a Gamified Classroom Look Like?

Most teachers create their own gamification system based on their classroom needs. Like stated earlier, this can be based online or simply incorporating a storyline or mission, rules, and award system (point system, badges, avatars, etc.). However, there are gamification platforms that you can purchase or use for free that tailor to your needs. Examples are ClassDojo, Scootpad, GoalBook, Socrative, Edmodo, IXL, Brainscape, Zondle, Kahoot, DuoLingo, etc.

Educational gamification proposes the use of game-like rule systems, player experiences and cultural roles to shape learners’ behavior. The three major areas in which gamification can serve as an intervention are: cognitive, emotional, and social (Hammer and Lee, 2011).

Gamification can motivate students to engage in the classroom, give teachers better tools to guide and reward students, and get students fully engaged in 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 lifelong ways (Hammer and Lee, 2011).

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Leaderboards and badges are a huge part of many gamified classrooms.

The Pros: What Supporters Say About the Gamification of Education

Beth Holland is an elementary speech-language pathologist with experience as a professional development specialist and director of curriculum in the field of educational publishing. In her article, You Got Game? Engaging Elementary Students to Reinforce Learning, she gave many valid points in support of gamification. She states:

• Students are starting at a very early age and growing up in a digitized society – which explains why they respond to and are more interested in lessons that include game play and technology.

• Incorporating gamification into lessons helps engage students, increasing the likelihood of attaining learning goals and meeting standards.

• Instead of planning an activity that has to be adjusted for the least-experienced and most-experienced students in a classroom simultaneously, a game-based learning platform can allow individual students or small groups to “play” at a level that encourages their strengths and strengthens their weaknesses.

• To advance to the next level and continue “playing,” students are generally required to master the associated skill. This ensures that students do not move ahead until they are ready.

• Accountability is essential in education. Game-based learning platforms often track detailed student performance, making progress monitoring easy for educators- allows educators to identify what subject areas or skills are problematic for students.

(Holland, 2013)

Other Supporters Agree with Holland and Add:

• Gamification promotes differentiation and personalized instruction. The tasks are tailored to each individual student which allows them to work at their own pace and their own level (Kleman, 2013).

• It encourages focus and planning skills. The players become engrossed in the action which heightens their concentration (Kleman, 2013)

• Gamification promotes technological literacy and a multitasking mentality. Students are constantly splitting attention between screens, devices, teachers, peers (Marquis, 2013).

• A properly set up gamification system can encourage teamwork through building a social component within the game. This is a key skill for 21st century learners who will be working in a hyper-connected global economy (Marquis, 2013).

• Gamification is the heart of student-centered learning and the very definition of constructivism (Farber, 2013).

Jane McGonigal, Advocate of the Gamification of Education

Jane McGonial is an American game designer and author who advocates the use of mobile and digital technology to channel positive attitudes and collaboration in a real world context.

“When we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, more optimism, and we're more likely to reach out to others for help.” -Jane McGonial

Game designer Jane McGonigal interviewed by Cameron Evans, U.S. Education CTO, Microsoft

The Cons: What Skeptics Say About the Gamification of Education

Although the use of gamification excites students by providing a fresh and exciting way to learn something that otherwise might be boring material, many are concerned that it can have a negative effect on its participants, especially younger children. Here’s what the critics are saying:

• Not enough research has been done on gamification in the classroom, with the fewest studies done on elementary gamification (Filsecker and Hickey, 2014). Results from the few studies on various elements of gamification conducted in educational settings have mixed results (Marquis, 2013).

• Gamification is taking the meaning out of learning. Many compare gamification to a Pavlovian Response. Rewards, points, badges are extrinsic motivators. Students get excited about this, but novelty wears off quickly, then teachers add to the rewards again and again to keep students motivated (Walker, 2014).

• Game creation can be complex, it can limit the content as far as learning material goes. Games are better for focused learning and used as one element of the broader curriculum (Kleman, 2013).

• Gamification can be expensive. Between the cost of the equipment, software, and any additional training for teachers, it can be very expensive to implement (Kelman, 2014).

• Gamification encourages anti-social behavior and lack of face-to-face time with peers (Marquis, 2013). (This is not necessarily true today – many new technologies have a focus of social play.)

• Gamification may promote shortened attention span. The rapid pace of action and immediate feedback can make people expect the same kind of fast-paced, instantaneous response of all aspects of life (Marquis, 2013).

Distraction from other objectives – Gamification does not always include all subjects, all standards. Students who are highly motivated by gamification, may miss out on certain topics/standards that are not included (Marquis, 2013).

• Although the term gamification was first used in 2010, many people are still unfamiliar with the practice in education today. And according to Frank Smith in his report, Is it Game Over for Gamification?, “Gamification was retired from the 2015 New Media Consortium Horizon Report on emerging technology for K-12 because it just didn’t take hold in education.” NMC CEO Larry Johnson says, “We don’t see it [gamification] making the mainstream. For most people, it’s just too hard to integrate and there are no tools to make it easier,” (Smith, 2015).

What the Research Says About the Gamification of Education

Unlike “game-based learning” (the use of actual video/educational games as instructional mediums), there has been very little research on the effects gamification has had on education, especially that of elementary education. I found a few reports of studies done and they all showed a minimal positive effect overall on education. However, it is worth noting that of the studies I read, none reported a negative effect on motivation, engagement, or learning with gamification.

In Filsecker and Hickey’s 2014 study, A multilevel analysis of the effects of external rewards on elementary students’ motivation, engagement, and learning in an educational game, two groups of public school, 5th graders were compared. One group of students were rewarded with a badge affixed to their in-game virtual avatar. They also were invited to move a paper version of their avatar up and across a physical “leader board” that was prominently placed in the room. Therefore, this reward condition was called Public Recognition (PR) condition. In the control or Non Public Recognition (NPR) condition, students were not offered badges nor given the opportunity to display their progress via the leader board.

The results showed that students in both groups reported similar levels of motivation and the same level of interest. Students in both groups showed the same level of engagement. Findings indicated that the external rewards did not have a negative effect on students’ motivation while learning. And finally, students in the PR group developed significant greater understandings of the science concepts.

This study showed that badges in the context of a technology-based innovation in an elementary school can enhance learning without undermining motivation.

(Filsecker and Hickey, 2014)

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Gamification Action Plan: Strategies/Approaches to Teaching and Learning

• The best strategy for using gamification in the elementary grades would be to start small. As Alice Keeler notes in her article, Gamification: Engaging Students with Narrative, “include a paragraph with a few assignments that tells a little story or gives the students a mission to accomplish. Look for small ways to incorporate the story while students are doing their work” (Keeler, 2015).

• Start with clear, straight-forward rules/expectations and the rewards to match. Make sure the tasks are challenging, yet realistic (differentiated), and focus on a standard or skill students must master (Coffey, 2014).

• Get students involved in the storyline or mission and encourage teamwork with group assignments as well (Keeler, 2015).

• Make the outcomes of the “mission” clear and provide immediate feedback.

• As a teacher uses gamification in his/her classroom, he/she needs to be sure to incorporate the ISTE standards of Technology, making sure students use creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, research and information, critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making, digital citizenship, and technology operations and concepts.

Evidence of Racial/Cultural Diversity in Planning for Gamification

When looking at racial diversity, gamification supports any group due to the fact that teachers create or select the games to incorporate into their lessons. Teachers must be aware of gender and racial diversity. This can be done in the choice of characters, language, background/setting, or situation of the game/mission. Most existing online platforms provide a great variety of diversity in their system. However, teachers must be aware of this and assess each platform carefully.

The one thing that concerns me with cultural diversity and gamification is the belief of some cultures to never stick out from the crowd. These cultures that support social equality, uniformity, and social stability would not benefit from or appreciate the gamification of education which encourages “characters” to stand out and strive to achieve more than their peers. If these cultural differences occurred in a classroom, the gamification approach would need to be modified to take away the leader boards, posted avatars, etc. and make the game more of a team building/cooperative learning mission.

A Plan for the Use of Emerging Technologies

Gamification in today’s classrooms almost always uses some form of technology and usually integrates multiple methods of technology (desktops, iPads/tablets, Chromebooks/laptops, Activboards, software for gamification platforms – Edmodo, ClassDojo, GoalBook, Socrative, Brainscape, etc.)

Even if the teacher chooses to create his/her own gamification platform in the classroom by posting the leaderboard and manually collecting data, he/she will still use emerging technologies as the students research, compile data, compose products, and communicate with teammates/teachers.

Plans for a Variety of Accommodations and Modifications

The great thing about gamification is that it should always be differentiated. If planned correctly, a whole classroom of students with different skill levels can work at a pace that suits their individual needs while also fostering increased achievement.

An easy way to encourage and support students with a low motivation for learning, those with lower self-esteem, or those students with academic difficulties, is to implement adding more milestones of success to the gamification platform. This will give these (and all) students a chance for many small celebrations throughout their journey to mastery level.

In her article, Digital Game-Based Learning, Heather Coffey provided evidence that digital games can have a calming effect on children with autism. She also noted that students w/ADHD may experience improvements in grades, sociability, and organizational skills when using games (Coffey, 2014). With that being said, teachers must be aware of each student’s needs and likes. If the competitive nature of gamification bothers a student, the teacher should adjust the competition level or publicity of competition.

Here is an interesting video in which Dr. Matthew Peterson, co-founder and Senior Scientist at the Mind Research Institute and creator of ST Math, discussed his research on students with limited English proficiencies and game-based learning. (ST Math is a game-based math curriculum for elementary and secondary schools. It uses “neuroscientific, mathematics, and education research to improve math education and advance scientific understanding.”) (Shaprio, 2013)

“Teaching Without Words”

Plan to Measure Indicators of Action Plan Success

In gamification (especially if using an online educational platform), teachers have the ability to capture immediate, in-depth data about each student's performance. The programs can simultaneously assess the students with less chance of cheating taking place because the learning and game is individualized. Assessment can be ongoing and feedback can be frequent. Students know where they stand at any moment, not just at test time. They also know exactly where they need to work harder for mastery of a skill.

Teachers can adjust what and how they are teaching based on the formative assessment data provided.

Overall, success of a gamification unit can be measured with the variety of data collected on students from the first day of implementation (pretest) and throughout the period of use (formative and summative assessments online and/or paper/pencil).

Mr. Pai’s 3rd Grade Class – Use of digital classroom and game-based education

Exciting new approach to classroom learning!

Coffey, H. (2014). Digital Game-Based Learning. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from

Farber, M. (2013, June 11). Beyond Badges: Why Gamify? Retrieved July 10, 2015, from

Filsecker, M., & Hickey, D. (2014). A multilevel analysis of the effects of external rewards on elementary students’ motivation, engagement, and learning in an educational. Computers and Education, 75, 136-148.

Holland, B. (2013, May 28). You Got Game? Engaging Elementary Students to Reinforce Learning. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from

Keeler, A. (2015, April 22). Gamification: Engaging Students with Narrative. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from

Kleman, M. (2013, May 1). The Debate: Gamification and Education. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from

Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2).

Marquis, J. Ph.D. (2013, April 7). Debates about Gamification and Game-Based Learning (#GBL) in Education. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from

Shaprio, J. (2013, February 6). Beyond Gamification: Cutting-Edge Technology Meets Alternative, Progressive Education. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from

Smith, F. (2015, June 15). Report: Is it Game Over for Gamification? A preview of the upcoming K-12 NMC Horizon report gives classroom gamification the axe. Retrieved July 12, 2015, from

Walker, T. (2014, June 23). The Debate: Gamification and Education. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from

Image References

Gamifying Education Apple [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Schoolhouse w/badges [drawing]. Retrieved from:

Steps 1-4 [chart]. Retrieved from:

Screenshot of Scootpad Leaderboard [screenshot photo]. Retrieved from:

Students looking at laptop [photo]. Retrieved from:

Badges [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Boys using tablets [photo]. Retrieved from:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Gamification? [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Applying Gamification Research in Education [digital image]. Retrieved from:

10 Stats on the Growth of Gamification [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Diversified World [photo]. Retrieved from:

Technology Chalkboard [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Differentiation Arrows [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Student Achievement Data [digital image]. Retrieved from:

Video References

Microsoft in Education. (2011, July 31). Game designer Jane McGonigal interviewed by Cameron Evans, U.S. Education CTO, Microsoft [Interview]. Retrieved from:

Kapptie, J. (2013, February 26). Gamifying the Classroom [PowToon]. Retrieved from:

OLTV19. (2010, June 11). Exciting new approach to classroom learning! [News Report]. Retrieved from: