What Does “Gamification” Really Mean?

Gamification for your Classroom
Ah, buzzwords. So catchy. So repetitive. So undefined?

Have you been under the impression that “gamification” has something to do with lessons that include games? Well, why on Earth would you think that?

Just kidding.

Of course it seems like gamification would mean something to do with games, and it does, sort of. But “gamifying” one’s lessons does not mean that you have to actually create or incorporate games. To gamify a lesson means asking yourself how you can set it up using the methods that games use to teach their users and encourage them to master each level and move on. Let’s examine those methods more closely.

Games are very exploratory and experiential. In a game’s world, the player is allowed to explore and discover new things on his/her own. There will be boundaries and limitations, but there is still as sense of choice and control as the player decides whether to go down this corridor or that one.

Implications for the Classroom – Students need to be able to engage with information, practice, and models on their own. This is not to say that you won’t provide guidance or reign them in if they get too far afield from the central point of the lesson (boundaries). But it does mean that giving students some choice and control over how they approach a topic will motivate them more. 

Games provide a safe space in which to “fail.” Failure is an extremely important part of learning. Think about how many times a baby ends up on his/her behind before he/she figures out how to stand and walk. We learn from failure AND we learn to accept failure as a learning experience. This is a healthy way to approach learning. But failure must be “safe.” There are consequences, but they are not dire. You don’t actually die or suffer harm, you aren’t humiliated, and you get a chance to just try again.

Implication for the Classroom – Students need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them without negative consequences. If it’s test day, then it’s too late for that, but during lessons “failure” should be encouraged. This is very important. Let students know that “failure” is the root of all of mankind’s greatest discoveries and innovations. If the Wright Brothers hadn’t been willing to crash many times first, would we ever have flown?

An #EPICFAIL leads to epic success!

Games provide a Mastery Learning model. In a game you “master” certain skills, puzzles, calculations, paths, etc., in order to accomplish a very specific and discrete goal. Maybe you have to rescue someone. Maybe you have to get from point A to point B safely. Maybe you have to find a hidden treasure. Once you have learned all the skills necessary to accomplish the goal, you get positive feedback in the form of an award (like a Badge, Star, or other recognition), and the right to then move on to the next level or goal. This does two things: it gives players a chance to have “micro-wins” along the way that keep them excited, and it makes absolutely certain that they have the skills for one level before moving on to tackle the next one.

Implications for the Classroom – As much as is possible, break lessons and curriculums up into discrete steps with accomplishable/demonstrable goals. Not EVERY topic will lend itself to this kind of clearly defined outcome (Philosophy comes to mind.), but most will. When students reach a goal (at their own pace), acknowledge the accomplishment in some specific way to that student. When students haven’t reached a goal, give them extra support to get there but try not to push them to the next level if they aren’t really ready.

Games always provide challenge. If a game only had one level and you mastered it, you would stop playing at some point. Why? Because there is no more challenge. The thing that keeps players coming back to games is the chance to keep challenging themselves.

Implications for the Classroom – Make sure your curriculum includes many “levels.” Use Bloom’s Taxonomy as your guide for how to keep pushing students. Some students will get to the highest level quickly and need supplemental opportunities to keep deepening their mastery. Some students will get to the highest level more slowly, but they too will always be challenged. It’s important to realize that there is never an “end” to the game just like there is never an end to learning.

Why Games = Fun

All of the points above serve to remind us that human beings are hard-wired to enjoy learning new things. It’s the way in which they’re allowed to learn and engage that will either motivate or de-motivate them. Though we think of games when we think of gamification, it’s actually the way that games work that makes them fun. If you can incorporate those same principles into your lessons, you can make them fun too and still reach your goal of motivating students to learn.


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