Game on

Gamification creeps into the classroom as educators and parents debate its value

Jacqui Griffiths
18 November 2014

5 min read

As gamification begins to gain traction in North American and European classrooms, educators and parents are assessing its contribution to the learning experience.

In 2013, a study by Netherlands-based Spil Games found that more than 1.2 billion people of all ages and genders (17% of the global population) play digital games. The statistic demonstrates that games have the power to capture the attention of young and old – and now educators are applying gaming principles in the classroom to help young learners build academic and life skills. 

“The culture around digital games is growing to encompass a substantial proportion of the world’s population,” said Samantha Adams Becker, senior director of the New Media Consortium (NMC), of Austin, Texas, a US-based international alliance of universities, museums and corporations that charts the landscape of emerging technologies for learning. “Major organizations, including IBM and the World Bank, have embraced gamification for its benefits in professional and academic growth,” Becker said. “Now, parents and teachers are increasingly recognizing its potential to engage learners.”


Gamification is the application of game-like mechanics – including point scoring, climbing a level as an award for achievement (known as “leveling up”) and the opportunity to earn virtual superpowers – to non-game environments. Gamification can include game-based learning (GBL); but while GBL involves games with a specific learning outcome, gamification aims to engage students and encourage behaviors such as teamwork, participation in class discussions, and creative and critical thinking. 

Various digital gamification tools have been developed especially for educators; for example, the behavioral feedback and reporting app ClassDojo and the online role-playing game Classcraft, which can be layered on top of existing lesson plans.

But the approach needn’t be high-tech. “Gamification involves using the most motivational aspects of games in non-game settings,” explained Michael Matera, a teacher of world history and international relations at the University School of Milwaukee in Wisconsin (USA). “It plays nicely with almost any other style of teaching and it can be used almost anywhere, from a low-tech to a no-tech school to a fully integrated online classroom.”


A key strength of gamification is that it puts students at the center of the learning experience, immersing them in a subject that might otherwise seem dry.

“World history can be one of the driest classes, or it can be a fabulous exploration of the story of humankind – our story,” said Matera, who has been “gamifying” his entire curriculum for two years. In Matera’s 6th grade world history course, for example, called “Realm of Nobles,” each class represents one of four houses striving for the throne following the king’s death. Each house comprises four “guilds” in which small bands of citizens work together on various challenges, discovering items, gaining new skills and uncovering mysteries along the way.

“Gamification helps my students see themselves as key players in their learning.”

Teacher of world history and international RELATIONS, University School of Milwaukee

“Gamification helps my students see themselves as key players in their learning,” Matera said. “They tackle side quests as well as group or individual projects that build greater content knowledge as well as life skills. Throughout the learning experiences, students are motivated to be extremely creative as well as critical thinkers. Students love it when history comes alive. For example, while we were studying the Middle Ages, I transformed the classroom into an Italian monastery where the students worked on illuminated manuscripts. Simulation days are always a huge hit and yield incredible dialogue.”

The results are evident in student achievement, Matera said. “By all measures, my classes became more academically rigorous. For example, I used to do things like give a study guide and allow a note card during tests. In my gamified classroom, I’ve done away with all that, yet my class averages have increased on all assessments in both years. I attribute much of this success to the role of feedback and ‘learning from mistakes’ in gamification. In a game experience, students receive frequent micro-feedback that helps them make micro-decisions. Over time, they feel more comfortable independently operating, thinking and creating.”


Where gamification is in use, parents and educators are focused on the best way to apply gamification in schools – and how to measure its effectiveness. 

“Parents, educators and learners are open to new approaches if they have a clear view of the learning outcomes,” said Kevin Glesinger, a teacher of geography at Brooke Weston Academy in Corby, UK. “Behavior for learning and levels of progress are key strands for educational standards bodies such as Ofsted in the UK, and gamification addresses these areas.”

But Sean Hampton-Cole a teacher of geography and thinking skills at Crawford College Lonehill in Johannesburg, South Africa, worries that gamification could cement educational practices he opposes, including most traditional forms of measurement. 

“Before moving to gamify a classroom, teachers and schools should consider whether they are truly innovating, or simply entrenching problems that already exist,” Hampton-Cole said. “Done right, gamification can enhance the 21st-century classroom. But there are problems with a system based on externally focused measurements, data, performance and grades. Gamification, with its rewards-based framework, may hide those problems behind what looks like a more fun, relevant and immersive experience.”

Glesinger anticipates another potential objection, but this time from schools that excel at meeting traditional achievement measures. “Some establishments, such as an academy trust with a strong brand identity, might hesitate to move away from traditional teaching methods,” Glesinger said.

“Before moving to gamify a classroom, teachers and schools should consider whether they are truly innovating.” 

Sean Hampton-Cole
Teacher of geography and thinking skills, Crawford College Lonehill

“But even if gamification isn’t used in the core curriculum, it could be valuable for off-timetable projects.”

For Debbie Morris, the parent of a 5th-grade girl in Norwich, UK, the measure that matters most is gamification’s value to her child. “My daughter loves computer games, and if gamification helps her to learn and develop life skills at school, I’m all for it,” Morris said. “But I would discuss the teacher’s plans with them to make sure my daughter and I are happy with the approach.”

Michael Matera, a teacher of world history and international relations at the University School of Milwaukee in Wisconsin (USA), uses gamification to make history come alive. Here, his students recreate the Battle of Marathon, which pitted the Persians against the Greeks in 490 BC. (Image © Michael Matera)


Gamification is a relatively new trend in education, but it is likely to grow. 

While gamification has gained the most traction in European and North American schools, it is attracting interest across the world. In Singapore, for example, the National Institute of Education has developed a videogame to support the chemistry curriculum, while gaming company Rockmoon and FutureSchools@Singapore are collaborating to promote a mobile app that supports self-directed, immersive learning. 

Gamification may take longer to establish in some regions, but interest in game- based learning is strong. In Brazil, for example, the NMC noted the development of digital games for specific learning scenarios, as well as research into educational methodologies such as teaching game design to K-12 students.

“Major companies, such as Microsoft with its Kinect technology, are working with schools and educators to integrate gaming in the classroom,” Becker said. “Simulation-based learning is also a trend to watch, and we may see more enterprise/academic partnerships with gamification as a mission.”

The trend is helping to change public attitudes toward gaming, which traditionally has been seen as a time-waster, Becker said. “Games may have initially been viewed as a distraction, but it’s now clear that there are exciting applications for gamification in teaching and learning.”

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