Understanding Gamification



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Understanding Gamification:

Before my research into what it means to gamify your classroom, I though that the buzz wordy idea of gamification simply meant to incorporate games into daily instruction. Clearly games were more suited to the elementary classroom, I thought; or perhaps using games is much more relatable in the math or science classroom. How could the high school English teacher gamify his or her classroom? What would this possible look like?

The concept has many more facets to engage students other than the traditional model of “drill-and-kill” that many of us, who grew up at the cusp of technology in the classroom, are familiar with. Gone are the days of MathMunchers or drilling spelling lists on the computer to commit them to memory. Instead, to gamify means to embed different motivators into the classroom to increase student engagement and achievement.

The Basics:

People are driven to complete goals more when they feel that their effort will be rewarded. The best example, which clarified this concept of gamification for me, was the influx of fitness apps that incentivize working out. Apps like Zombies, Run! and SuperBetter provide elaborate plots complete with thematic music to encourage you to work out and achieve your fitness goals. Even the most apathetic or reluctant person might feel more encouraged to work out and achieve his or her personal fitness goals if he or she feels that the activity is more of a game than a chore.

The same theory can be applied to the classroom. Students who do not like school or do not think that they are good at it can be encouraged to become more active participants in their learning if they feel motivated to achieve their goals and win a reward. If students establish a goal for their learning, such as to get so many math problems correct or to avoid procrastination by setting and meeting nightly goals for a writing assignment, and then are able to see validation when they meet their goals via gamification, they will be more likely to keep goal setting and working toward achievement.


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But what does this mean for student motivation?

My second reservation about gamification stems from this very idea, if students are only completing goals or tasks to achieve an award, then what happens when the reward is taken away? According to “Lifehacker: The Psychology of Gamification: Can Apps Keep you Motivated” (2014), when people who want to achieve a goal, gamify this goal and then achieve small rewards along the way, the brain releases dopamine when the pleasure of achieving the goal is experienced. Just like playing slot machines in a casino, when the prize is won, the brain releases dopamine, which makes the experience pleasurable (Klosowiski, 2014). The same principal is applied to gamifying your classroom and really your life; “gamification only works when it motivates you to do something” (Klosowiski, 2014). And the best use of gamification is that which intrinsically motivates us to do something versus that which motivates us extrinsically.

If students are interested in the game they are using to keep going to achieve rewards or to see where the narrative of the game goes in achieving new levels of success, they will be more motivated to continue playing and continue achieving their goals. This is a huge paradigm shift from the traditional ways of motivating students in the classroom; I am thinking of the models of classroom currency or the prize box that students could pick from if they do something well. Gone are the days of students getting stickers to track their positive behaviors or success; gamification can provide a way for students to track their own competencies and challenge themselves to continue achieving goals via the apps or games.

What’s the downside?

Ignorance. Confusion over what it means to gamify in the classroom to increase student achievement is a major drawback. Teachers, admittedly like myself, who think that to gamification means to strap kids to an IPad and provide them with time in class to use a study app to drill concepts and solve problems, do a disservice to the benefits that true gamification can provide to learning, engagement, and motivation.

Gamification is challenging students in a format that they are already comfortable and interested in—achieving rewards and advancing levels of a game—to engage them more in learning. However, the more comfortable teachers are with using this buzzword without the clear understanding of what it means can dilute the success gamification can provide.

Corporate Influence. As with many new initiatives in education, there has been an influx of corporate America trying to infuse themselves into the gamifying business. Schools may be apt to buy these programs wholesale and require teachers to use purchased apps or prescriptive programs to gamify their classroom. This, compounded with misunderstanding of what it means to gamify the classroom as well as the ever push by many in education to be a part of the next big idea of technology in education, might cause for more problems than successes. Teachers need to be informed and districts need to be committed to a clear understanding of gamification before buying into any pre-determined programs.

Superficial Motivations, Cheating, and Bribery. Just as we as kids looked up cheat codes to the Nintendo games we played with our friends or looked for secret short cuts, students themselves might be inclined to take shortcuts or cheat at the game. Students might focus too much on achieving the reward or advancing a level versus the actual learning that they are to be held accountable for. Chloe Della Costa, from iMedia Connection, provides a deeper look at the downsides to gamification that is poorly rolled out in her article “7 Potential Pitfalls of Gamification”.

My Suggestion:

Starting out small with one app and one clear objective is most likely the best approach to gamification. I have had tremendous success in my classroom with using ClassDojo, which provides students with a clear report of their classroom behavior. My senior seminar English class has significant focus on project-based learning and provides students with ample class time to work on independent study projects. However, with this emphasis on using class time to work, came an increased desire of my students to use this class time to socialize and to loaf around.

ClassDojo provided a way for me to document my students’ behavior and increase dialogue with students (and parents) about how productive they were being with their class time. It eliminated the lectures from me about the need to use class time effectively because students could each track how I was assessing their productivity. Students were more likely to use class time effectively as they did not want to lose their Dojo Points.

The best part was, that I used this app without really realizing that I was gamifying my classroom!


6 responses »

  1. Hi, Erin,
    Your blog was very thorough in explaining the pluses and minuses of gamifying a classroom. Like you, I did not have a good understanding of the buzz words prior to this week. Nice job!
    I’m actually really surprised that high school students bought into ClassDojo. Some teachers piloted it in our school last year. I wasn’t one of them, but was in some classrooms that used it. A first grade teacher gave Dojo points for appropriate hallway behavior while waiting in a line or walking in the hall. She used her phone to give points. I’m not sure if I buy into it. If there was a good reason such as you found during independent work-time, I’d consider it. I would hope that intrinsically the students would change their behavior, and it would not need to be used all year.

    • Hi, Deb–thanks for you comment and insight on my blog. I had success with ClassDogo as I think my students, seniors in particular, liked the game-like almost childlike aspect to it. It is not something I would recommend for every class, but after some initial getting used to, the students knew more clearly my expectation for classroom behavior as I was able to document more quickly and in real time if they were meeting my standard or not. Eventually, the application and really their behaviors became secondary to the desired outcomes of their projects. I no longer needed to take away and DoJo points, simply “threatening” to do so was enough to prompt students to get back on task. This cut down on my need to lecture or explain what was inappropriate about their actions.

  2. Erin,
    Are the days of getting stickers as motivation really gone or is there a place for both the physical and virtual worlds of motivation to mesh? I like your discussion of ClassDojo–this was the first time I had heard of it so I went and read about it, signed in, and found the two tech-savvy teachers at my high school are already a part of it (thanks so much)! As someone who has used it before in the same way I would (with my high school English classes), what “tips” do you have for beginners? I would love to hear more.
    Kelly P.

  3. Hi, Kelly–you pose a really good question; I am sure there is a place for both virtual and physical rewards in the classroom, but I think ultimately the goal would be to get students to act independently and motivate themselves without the need to rely on these extrinsic motivations. Would you agree? Or do you think that these reward-based systems are here to stay? I guess I question how prepared students will be for success in reality and life post-graduation if we don’t transition them into focusing more on self-motivation.

  4. Erin,
    Great job on gamification. You researched it thoroughly. I checked out Zombies Run and love it. It adds something to a long run. I have noticed that running has become gamified by all the survivor runs and of course zombie runs. The gamification of running has made it bigger than ever.

    Now we need to make some zombie games to motivate our students. Perhaps use real zombies lol.

    As far as reward in transition into post-graduation life. The reward is money, money, money. You do well on a job you get a raise or bonus. Remember, life is a game.


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