Today, more Americans than ever before consider themselves to be gamers, primarily for fun or to socialize online. With gamification, could games serve a more educational purpose?

classroom gamification students with tablets

For many parents and educators, video games and education have always been two opposing concepts. However, this perspective doesn’t account for games like the legendary Oregon Trail, an educational game created in the ‘70s that gained popularity in the ‘90s, which many consider being the first successful fusion of education and video games. In the game, students assume the role of a pioneer guiding a party of settlers through a series of intellectually challenging situations while journeying along the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail is one of the earliest instances of game-based-learning (GBL), an approach to education where students explore subject-relevant video games with defined learning outcomes. The goal of GBL is to “balance subject matter with gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.” An effective GBL environment is low-risk, meaning that students “work towards a goal, choosing actions and experiencing the consequences of those actions along the way.”

The popularity and success of GBL environments have given rise to a similar, yet markedly different, breed of learning experience called classroom gamification, which applies game-world elements to real-world learning situations. Unlike GBL, gamification is a slightly more versatile concept because it achieves the same end of increasing student engagement without creating ties to a specific game–any learning situation can be gamified.

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What is Classroom Gamification?

At a basic level, gamification entails adding game elements to a non-game situation. An example would be a situation where, as a student gathers experience and time with a concept, he or she earns points that are tracked either manually or automatically. With gamification, teachers can manage, motivate and engage their students by transforming their classroom into a role-playing game.

The Future of Gamification, a recent Pew Research study, defines gamification as:

A way to describe interactive online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action–these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and “free” gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts retweets, leaderboards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to “level up”.

Classroom gamification allows students to make mistakes in a risk-free setting so they can actively learn and practice until they master a concept. The risk-free nature of classroom gamification frees students from the threatening anxiety of failure, which encourages students to take risks, work together and take control of their education. Any subject or class unit can be gamified, so long as an additional game-layer is added on top of existing course infrastructure to allow students to compete, earn rewards and progress through hierarchical tasks. A gamified class is still taught normally, except the game runs passively in the background collecting points and tracking milestones.

Gamification and 21st-Century Skills

scrabble classroom gamification example

In a multitude of ways, gamified classrooms act as a vessel for teaching a wide range of 21st-century skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and communication. At the same time, since digital technology and connectivity are fundamental aspects of gamified learning, students also have the opportunity to expand their 21st-century information, media, and technology literacy skills. Another benefit of classroom gamification is that, in a gamified classroom, students seize control of their education and shift the learning dynamic from teacher to student-centric.

In a recent Gamification study, authors Tara L. Kingsley and Melissa M. Grabner-Huben observed a gamified classroom using a software called 3DGameLab and found students were in control:

Students picked what activities to complete based on skill, knowledge, interest and time. The students were in control of their learning choices. A student’s survey response illustrates this: “In 3DGameLab, I get to decide which lessons I want to do. In my other classes, I have to go by the teacher’s schedule.

Creative Thinking: In the same classroom observed by Kingsley and Grabner-Hagen, students completed a quest called “Act it Out” in which they had to create a video to document a change in matter, acting like molecules. Using an iPad, they wrote their script, created a storyboard and recorded their video complete with an informative narration. Afterward, they published their final project on a learning management system. This example illustrates how classroom gamification encourages students to think creatively, specifically, because the “Act it Out” project required them to brainstorm their ideas, craft an original script and perform. At the same time, students employed new literacy skills “to navigate iMovie, synthesize and edit content and publish a final product online.”

Communication and Collaboration: At the core, games are collaborative and, transforming a traditionally isolated learning activity into a gaming quest “allows technology to foster the collaboration process.” For example, in their study, Kingsley and Grabner-Hagen observed a class where students were required to complete a quest with collaboration embedded every step of the way. In the quest, students had to teach each other how to measure liquid volume in a graduated cylinder by creating a tutorial video for an interactive and collaborative whiteboard application.

Gamification, both online and in the real-world, is an opportunity to embed collaborative tasks like these into the curriculum. The beauty of classroom gamification is that students might not even realize they are collaborating because they are so engaged in the challenge of the game or quest.

Critical Thinking: Critical thinking and problem solving are at the core of any game experience. In Kingsley and Grabner-Hagen’s study, students were asked: “If you were a superhero, what could you do with the power to change your density?” First, students explored quest-embedded hyperlinks to research density before generating a hypothesis and eventually drawing conclusions. This particular gamified learning experience encouraged students to “generate connections, build arguments, and support claims.” Students thinking needed to be “systematic and include deductive and inductive reasoning for critical thinking and problem solving.”

Gamified classrooms require students to think critically, creatively, and collaborate with one another. While some educators dismiss it as a fad, others, like the students and teachers observed by Kingsley and Grabner-Huben, are taking full advantage of classroom gamification’s potential to enhance student learning and, particularly, 21st-century skills. It’s likely more classrooms will adopt gamification in the future and the lines between education and game will become even more blurred.

Furnishing Your Gamified Learning Environment.

media table classroom gamification

Interchange Medium Sized Multimedia Table

Obtaining the right equipment is essential.

To begin, consider the use of a classroom gamification software such as 3DGameLab or ClassCraft, which alleviate the time it takes to build quests, reward points, and track progress.

Students in a gamified learning environment frequently use iPads, laptops, interactive whiteboards, cameras and other digital technologies, so it’s important that they have the ability power up their devices throughout the day. Without the appropriate furnishings, it is a challenge to set expectations for students. For example, if every student is issued an iPad by the school but the classroom only has two wall-mounted power outlets, it’s going to be difficult for them to stay powered up.

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powerdome classroom gamification

Smith System’s Dome Power Unit, add on to most tables for easily accessible power.

A solution to this would be to provide students with tables with built-in power outlets and LCD screens so that students may stay connected and continuously monitor their progress when it comes to the classroom game. To better foster collaboration, we suggest mobile furnishings which signal to the students that moving around is encouraged.


Works Cited

“Game-Based Learning: What It Is, Why It Works, and Where It’s Going.” Game-Based Learning: What It Is, Why It Works, and Where It’s Going. New Media Institute, 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.

Kingsley, Tara. “Gamification: Questing to Integrate Content Knowledge, Literacy, and 21st-Century Learning.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.

Kolb, Liz. “Epic Fail or Win? Gamifying Learning in My Classroom.” Epic Fail or Win? Gamifying Learning in My Classroom. Edutopia, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.

Ronen, Amanda. “The Ultimate Guide to Gamifying Your Classroom.” The Ultimate Guide to Gamifying Your Classroom. Edudemic, 30 July 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.