An introduction to gamification in education: miracle methodology, or just another buzzword?

Part one of a two-part series about gamification in education. Check out part two here: Why gamifying your training isn’t good enough.

Ever been told your training is boring? Either directly (ouch!) or by a roomful of disengaged participants staring into space or scrolling through their phones…

If so, maybe you’re on the lookout for ways to improve your sessions. And maybe you’ve come across gamification.

It sounds like the perfect solution: a versatile approach with far-reaching applications, from language learning to weight loss to recycling programs.

But what about gamification in education? Does the methodology boost engagement and motivation while strengthening learning outcomes, or is it a red herring: something that distracts from the actual tools you need to improve your training.

Let’s find out!

What is gamification

Gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-game contexts, specifically those which make games fun and motivate people to continue playing. Proponents claim it’s a way to foster engagement and motivation, both at the individual and collective level1

The term is sometimes used interchangeably with experiential learning: both are engaging learning methodologies, and they each use some of the same techniques. But in practice, the two are very different:

  • Gamification uses game mechanics to boost engagement and motivation, with a strong focus on external rewards and competition.
  • Experiential learning uses hands-on experience as a way to explore and experiment with different behaviours, with a strong focus on real-world application of skills and structured review to guide personal growth.

Gamification is also pitched as a way to explore (and refine) the motivators we use to influence learning behaviour. Used properly, game mechanics are said to make potentially mundane tasks – like training! – intrinsically motivating.

With that in mind, let’s look at some game mechanics you’ll often find in gamification.

13 popular game mechanics in gamification

At the heart of gamification are game mechanics: the rules and systems that make gameplay possible. Mechanics determine how a player interacts and progresses within a game, and combine with player actions to create game dynamics. 

By nature, game mechanics and dynamics must be engaging and enjoyable. If not, players will lose interest and stop playing. 

Tips for trainers 💡

To find out how you can leverage the benefits associated with these mechanics in your training, check out part two of this series.

1. Windows of enhanced attention

What it is: Alternating intervals of higher challenge and cognitive involvement with ones that are less intense. 

How it works: This mechanic acknowledges the fact that our attention is not consistent, and varies how much is required at different periods to accommodate. Used effectively, windows of enhanced attention can lead to a more engaging, dynamic, and enjoyable gaming experience.

2. Progression dynamic

What it is: Gradual development of skill and ability as the game progresses.

How it works: As experience is accumulated, a player may advance in levels, gain access to new skills, access new content, or similar. This continuous sense of achievement motivates players to continue progressing.

3. Long and short term goals

What it is: Overarching long-term goals supplemented by shorter-term ones, offering multiple routes for progression; or, long-term goals split into short-term ones to make progression more manageable.

How it works: Offering accomplishment and progression on multiple concurrent timescales gives players choice in how they progress, and provides an alternative if their focus on the core objective wavers.

4. Ranks, achievements and badges

What it is: Hierarchical recognition of progression and completion of goals.

How it works: By offering tangible representation of progress, players are incentivised to continue progressing through the game. 

5. Leaderboards

What it is: A visual depiction of players’ relative performance and rankings within the hierarchy.

How it works: Providing a visual record of performance and rankings fosters competitiveness and encourages players to strive to climb the leaderboard. 

6. Increasing levels of challenge 

What it is: Tasks become more difficult as players progress, to keep the level of challenge consistently engaging.

How it works: Tasks are most motivating when the level of challenge aligns well with the level of skill. Too challenging and players will get frustrated; not challenging enough, and they’ll get bored. 

7. Immediate feedback 

What it is: Instant responses to players’ actions to give immediate feedback on their performance.

How it works: Immediate feedback links actions directly to consequences, reducing ambiguity, fostering understanding, and encouraging player engagement and adaptability.

8. Social interaction

What it is: The ability to interface with other players, either directly in the game world or through an external communications layer like game chat.

How it works: Allowing interaction between players gives rise to a community of like-minded individuals pursuing similar (or identical) objectives. This is a powerful environment for fostering collaboration, generating healthy competition, and attaching social value to progress, ranks, levels, achievements, and other game mechanics.

9. Communal discovery and problem solving 

What it is: A mechanic that leverages social interaction to encourage players to explore and solve problems collectively.

How it works: Players draw on each other’s experience and perspectives to progress through the game and gain achievements, sometimes accessing content that is unavailable to individual players.

10. Compelling narrative 

What it is: A captivating narrative structure to guide progress and help players invest in their character. 

How it works: Some combination of story arcs, character development, plot twists and other narrative elements provide immersion and make emotional investment possible.

11. Time pressure

What it is: A mechanic that introduces urgency and potentially increases the level of challenge as a result.

How it works:  Time constraints are applied to activities, forcing players to complete their goals within the specified time. Time limits are calibrated to increase the level of challenge, and with different tiers sometimes offered to incentivise even quicker performance (for example: bronze-, silver-, and gold-level completions at a minute, 45 seconds, and 30 seconds respectively).

12. Scarcity

What it is: A mechanic whereby resources or opportunities are limited, adding another vector for competition between players. 

How it works: Access to valuable resources or opportunities for progression are limited, meaning that players must strategise or compete to gain access. This provides another level of challenge and can encourage novel behaviours.

It’s almost guaranteed you’ve come across these mechanics when playing games. You may also have encountered them in daily life (progress bars in signup forms, for example? Or achievements and trophies in your favourite apps?) 

But if you’re now wondering whether gamification in education works, or whether it’s just another empty buzzword, let us fill you in.

Incentives in gamification

The first part of understanding whether gamification works is to better understand the pathway by which it claims to work.

In gamification, incentives – in the form of rewards or stimuli – are used to foster engagement and encourage desired behaviours. Used correctly, incentives can trigger the release of dopamine and tap into our evolutionary desire to solve problems and to learn.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure response. Our bodies synthesise and release this chemical during pleasurable situations, and we are conditioned as a result to repeat the behaviours that gave rise to the situation. 

Part of the power of effective game mechanics is their ability to stimulate the production of dopamine, encouraging a player or learner to repeat the behaviour prompted by the mechanic. By tapping into the brain’s natural reward system, gamification motivates learners to repeat desired actions.

But is repetition of actions really an effective way to learn? This is the real question.

Does gamification work?

Several literature reviews of gamification, such as those by Stott & Neustaedter2 and Hamari et al3, reveal that effectively leveraging game mechanics in an educational context can improve engagement and attainment. 

Stott & Neustaedter note that there is “no one-size fits all model for the successful gamification of a classroom,” and that the mechanics and rewards used must appeal and relate to the target learners. 

They also note that “a good teacher already utilises the power of game dynamics, whether they know it or not,” adding that gamification is a useful framework for educators to improve their understanding of and their ability to incorporate said dynamics.

In short, gamification in education can work, but not because of any inherent effectiveness of the methodology. Rather, its value comes when used as a vehicle for using techniques that create effective and impactful training.

Tips for trainers 💡

For truly impactful training, the emphasis should be on creating engaging learning environments where target learning outcomes can be explored, followed by structured review sessions where learning can be discussed and analysed.

While gamification may help you arrive at this outcome, it’s far from guaranteed. A better option is using a learning methodology that has these principles at its core – namely, experiential learning.

Gamification isn’t good enough to deliver truly impactful training

As we’ve seen, game mechanics and dynamics can be very powerful ways to encourage particular behaviours, whether that be continuing to play a game or progressing through educational content. 

But as a standalone concept, gamification is limited in what it can achieve – especially in an education or training setting. Too much focus on leveraging game mechanics can easily distract from your core learning objectives, with the nature of the task becoming more important than the outcome.

On top of this, gamification trains our brains to expect a dopamine hit for repeating the same task, which is unhelpful in the context of reviewing how you complete a task and repeating the task with a different approach to develop skills.

If you’re a trainer looking to make your training more engaging and motivating, we’d advise skipping gamification: effective learning is about more than slapping a progression bar over the top of your training portal or adding a few badges for people to collect. 

Instead we’d recommend experiential learning: a tried and tested methodology that uses four stages to make meaningful learning possible:

  1. Concrete experience: a learner’s first attempt at an activity generates concrete experience
  2. Reflective observation: working through the review process to understand how their behaviours manifested and impacted the course of the activity is a vital part of the learning process
  3. Abstract conceptualisation: group discussion and further review allows a participant to consider other ways they may have approached the activity
  4. Active experimentation: repeated attempts where new behaviours can be explored present the opportunity for lasting, meaningful learning to take place

To find out how to improve your training without relying on buzzwords like gamification, book a discovery call with our team of experiential learning experts. Or, to empower your training with a suite of experiential learning activities that deliver lasting learning, check out our range of kits.

Gamification FAQs

Here we answer some other common questions about gamification. 

What’s the difference between gamification and game-based learning?

While researching gamification it’s likely you’ll come across both of these terms (sometimes they’re even used interchangeably). But there are important differences between the two.

In gamification:

  • Participants are not involved in the creation of games
  • Participants do not use commercially produced video games
  • The learning agenda isn’t encompassed within the game
  • Game mechanics are employed as a way to increase motivation and engagement with an already extant learning agenda

Where did gamification come from?

While games and game mechanics have been around for centuries, interest in gamification in its current form surged in the early 2010s, and has held fairly steady since then.

Google Trends data for ‘gamification’ (source)

From educators to app developers, to city planners and government departments, gamification is used in attempts to get people more engaged with their products and services.

Where can I learn more about gamification?

There are some great TED Talks exploring various aspects of and contexts for gamification. We recommend the three below as good starting points.

Further reading

  1. A contribution to the understanding of what makes young students genuinely engaged in computer-based learning tasks; Ott & Tavella; source
  2. Analysis of Gaming in Education; Andrew Stott & Carman Neustaedter, source
  3. Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification; Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, & Harri Sarsa; source