Vol. 14, Issue No. 3

Gamification: When Teachers and Students Win

by Nerissa O. Zara

Why so serious? Isn’t life one big game? Isn’t it just a matter of perspective?

In the same way, even something that is traditionally deemed as a serious endeavor such as the teaching and learning process, may be seen as one big game where students embark on a grand adventure—they gain knowledge and skills, accomplish challenges, earn points, progress to higher levels, and then ultimately reap rewards of their hard work. Isn’t it more exciting to see education in this perspective? This is what gamification is all about. It is about reinventing the way we see the teaching and learning experience.


Although gamification is currently a buzzword in education, it is still an emerging concept. There are still many who are unclear about what it really means. In fact, even the current literature still defines the concept very loosely. The current literature claims that gamification is the application of game-element designs and principles to non-game environments. The term is often confused with game-based learning, which is the integration of games as a teaching strategy in a lesson. For instance, a teacher may use charades as a strategy for teaching vocabulary or use a quiz-type of game to review concepts. This is more of game-based rather than gamification.

Gamification means assuming a game thinking perspective.  It strategically  optimizes game design elements such as giving badges, awarding merit points, displaying leaderboards, advancing levels, setting up challenges and quests, playing roles, designing narratives, providing reward system, etc.[1]  This means that the entire course becomes one grand game. This is just the weak version. The stronger version of gamification is a more elaborate redesigning of the learning experience that goes beyond game-design elements to the provision of mechanisms to include other more complicated design principles such as information cascading (information is given to participants a little at a time as they progress in the levels), feedback loop (instantaneous information about the learners progress and achievements), freedom to fail (participants are allowed to fail and try again multiple times), onboarding (built-in provisions to teach participants the mechanics of the game within the game environment), social engagement loops (provisions for collaboration and interaction with other participants), customization (participants are allowed to choose their tools and how to accomplish their tasks), goal-focused activities (the participants are motivated to achieve certain long-term and short-term goals), and balance (provisions for pacing evenly in the game).[2]

How does gamification improve the learning experience?

Gamification is not new. This has been extensively used in the marketing industry (think of the latest planner you acquired by engorging in coffee so you can earn stickers during Christmas season), and in the army (i.e. simulation games).  Its application in education is also nothing new. In fact, popular strategies such as awarding star points and displaying top ten students are also applications of game principles. What is new is the more purposeful, strategic, and meaningful integration of game thinking to improve learning experience.

Gamification capitalizes on motivation and engagement. Neuroscience researches claim that playing a game releases dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter responsible for engagement, motivation, and even addiction (that’s why uncontrolled, games become addicting). If designed appropriately and executed properly, games can go beyond extrinsic motivation and develop intrinsic motivation, such as how earning a badge for being the cleanest classroom may lead to appreciation of cleanliness as a conducive environment for learning, or earning points for recycling may lead to the habit of it.

[Gamification] is about reinventing the way we see the teaching and learning experience.

Games may create conditions where students can try engaging in activities that they would otherwise not enjoy if not in a game environment. It can allow them to do these activities in a non-threatening environment where there is no fear for making mistakes. Games may even simulate the real world so that students can learn skills that they will apply as productive members of society. More serious and elaborate versions of gamification, such as alternate reality games (ARGs), actually aim to overlap the game world and reality itself so that participants move seamlessly into these two worlds (e.g. Project SEED, World Without Oil, Superstruct, etc.).

How can we optimize gamification in the teaching and learning process? Huang and Soman in Using gamification to enhance second language learning presents a five-step model.

1. Understanding the target audience and the context. This involves knowing who your learners are and what motivates them in learning. Remember that there are students who see learning as a serious business and that gamifying learning can become disorienting for them if they are not studying in a conventional way. In the same way, not all learning situations may be gamified. The teacher should judiciously apply game elements where they can enhance the learning experience.

2. Defining the learning objectives or outcomes. Learning outcomes should be translated to the game goals and objectives. In the same way, the skill practiced and enhanced in the games should be parallel with skill development outcomes of the subject or course. Students should see the game design as a tool to achieve learning goals and not as an end in itself. (i.e. earning a badge for topic expertise which could be earned by collecting points by reading materials on the subject matter).


3. Structuring the experience. Design the learning environment to merge it seamlessly with game design towards more meaningful learning. Using a more realistic game narrative may help achieve this (i.e. a game built around the idea of a league of young Filipino students saving the Pasig River by accomplishing different challenges and quests in an environmental science class).


4. Identifying the resources. Gamification should not require teachers to acquire expensive gadgets and tools. It may be built around materials that are already available. This does not have to be done in a digital environment if the students do not have access to the Internet. The bulletin board can be used for leaderboards. Simple materials may be used to design badges. 


5. Applying gamification elements. The teacher should judiciously identify which element or elements to apply on which aspects of the lesson or course where this strategy will create the most impact in terms of learning achievement.

Teachers however should remember that gamification is just a tool. It is not a solution nor should it be an end itself. It should be done well and for the right reasons or else it may become counter productive.

  • Students should not see gamification as trivializing learning. That is why teachers should make the students aware of the purpose of the game design and what outcomes it is intended to realize.

  • Students may become too engrossed in the game aspect only and not in learning. They may be too caught up in earning points and rewards and disengage when they become frustrated.

  • Overusing it may lead to novelty effect. Students disengage when the experience becomes repetitive. This normally happens when the design only provides easy and novelty fun and not meaningful fun. Meaningful fun means that students are engaged because they are aware of the good it is doing for them.

Education, like life, is a serious game where the stakes are high. Because of its routines and mundane requirements, it has lost its glamour. Gamification is bringing back the excitement and meaningful fun side of learning that most of us have already forgotten.






[1]  Flores, J. (2015). Using gamification to enhance second language learning. Digital Review, 21, 32-54. Retrieved Jan 1, 2018 from http://greav.ub.edu/der

[2]  Campbell, A. (2016). Gamification in Higher Education: Not a trivial pursuit. ProQuest 10195917


A quarterly journal for Filipino educators who strive to become excellent at what they do