What is gamification?

Gamification, also called games-based learning, is the application of game concepts and/or game mechanics to non-games. People use the term when these concepts and/or mechanics are added to scenarios that aren't normally thought of as games, such as the workplace, daily exercise, or—most important to us—the classroom.

The word gamification isn't used in the context of things people already recognize as games: sports contests, boardgames, videogames, etc. It would be rather strange to describe a videogame as "gamified," because it's already a game.

Gamification can be simple—awarding points for completed tasks (like answering questions in class)—or complex—having students develop characters or "avatars" that gain "experience points" and "level up" as the school year progresses.

Okay, so gamification refers to techniques used only in non-games?

Yes. But as with any relatively new term, opinions differ.

Some use gamification in a very broad sense to apply both to games and non-games.

For example, Classcraft describes itself as "an immersive game" for the classroom, which it certainly is. But it also describes itself as a "gamified learning experience."

It adds gamified elements: student characters, experience points, "hit points" (essentially a measure of a character's health; if this number drops to zero, the character is defeated), and so on.

But it goes beyond gamification—it gives students special powers they can use to affect the classroom in various ways (crucially, the limits of these effects are set by the teacher). It also adds in-game (and real-world) consequences for failure.

So if Classcraft is a game, why do its creators refer to it as gamified? Probably because gamification is a popular term in classrooms right now, and using the term makes it easier to understand. Classcraft has added gamification to classrooms to turn the classroom experience into a game.

What is gamification good for?

Gamification is good for motivation: scoring points and gaining rewards for doing well can be fun.

However, if the rewards aren't interesting enough, students might lose interest in the gamified activity. One way to avoid this result is to make sure the gamified elements you add to the classroom actually mean something.

I quickly lost interest in Fitocracy, essentially a gamified workout log, because, to paraphrase Drew Carey on Whose Line is it Anyway, the points didn't matter. I worked out, I gained points, I leveled up...but I was just increasing numbers, numbers that didn't matter in any meaningful way.

The only motivation I had to reach Level 7 was to reach Level 7. I didn't unlock any cool powers I could use to affect my game experience, I just got a new number next to my name. It didn't feel enough like a game to me, so I stopped playing. I still exercise a lot, but I've abandoned Fitocracy.

What are some criticisms of gamification?

The biggest criticism of gamification is that when done poorly it's just another way to mete out rewards and punishments. It doesn't encourage students to take ownership of their learning—instead, it encourages them to seek out learning for an extrinsic reward: points, levels, candy, etc.

For gamification to be effective, the layers of game content/mechanics you add have to be meaningful, they have to promote interaction, and they have to allow the student to make important decisions.

What can I read for more information about games and gamification?

Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken is an essential starting point for anyone interested in the potential positive impact of games. McGonigal's brand of game philosophy argues against including the sorts of extrinsic motivators many people decry when they talk about gamification.

There are dozens upon dozens of educational bloggers writing about games and gamification as well—too many to list here.

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If you have questions about educational games or gamification, send us an email!

Gamification: Introducing game concepts and/or mechanics to the classroom in an effort to increase motivation, promote good behavior, or accomplish another positive classroom goal or goals.