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Gamification: Engaging Students With Narrative

Alice Keeler

Educational Technology Specialist
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Silhouette of a boy jumping out of a chess piece

When looking at how engaged students are in playing games, it makes sense to capture some of the ideas that game designers use to engage the player. This idea of applying gaming mechanics to non-game situations is known as gamification.

What defines a game is having a goal or objective. However almost all games also have some sort of theme or story. The classic game Candyland has nothing really to do with candy. It's just about moving along a path to get to the end. The game's theme contributes to making it fun. What we learn from games is that adding narrative, storyline, a theme, or fun graphics to our lessons and activities can help students be more engaged.

Providing a Playful Context

In addition to adding to the fun of the activity, having a story can provide context for student learning. When I used the game Angry Birds to teach my students about x intercepts in math, not one student asked me, "Why do we need to learn this?" Even a fantasy context can give students purpose for their learning.

To get started, try including a paragraph with each assignment that tells a little story. "You are a spy trying to break into a government building in enemy territory. Solve these 30 math problems to gain entrance through the secret gate in the back." Create a "mission accomplished" sticker or stamp that you can place on students' papers. Look for small ways to incorporate the story while students are doing their work. Refer to each student by placing the word "Agent" in front of his or her name. "Agent Jones, can you share how you tapped into the enemy building on #5?" Place an image of a spy on your class website, project a picture of a spy onto the board, and include a graphic on the students paper. When students have completed the 30 problems, have them sneak out of the classroom at the end of the period crouched down like they are really sneaking into that building.

Expand this idea to creating a theme or story for an entire unit. Redesign the activities slightly so that they are presented in the context of the story. The story can be complete fantasy, a modification of a real-world context, or an adaptation of a popular movie or book. Add graphics from the theme to worksheets, presentation slides, or handouts, or use them as room decorations.

In a PE class, adapt the story from popular video games to give your students tasks that they must complete. They can race to save the princess rather than take three laps around the track. Jump over "pipes" and squish mushrooms in an obstacle course activity. The ultimate mission is to save the princess, and each task they do over a three-week period gets them closer to that goal. Provide a bar graph showing students how close they are to saving the princess.

Reimagining the Objective

Get students involved in the story. Ask them to write their responses in the context of the theme. Student projects could reflect this theme. Design a fantasy context where they can apply their learning. This also helps them reach higher Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels when they apply their learning to a new situation. Biology students can include in their lab write-up how dissecting the frog provided them with clues about who was poisoning the environment around the castle. Assign students to a team chosen to travel to the fictitious planet Hupore as a league of super scientists. The gravity is half that of the earth, and the aliens living there keep borrowing the scientific equipment. How can the league of super scientists conduct their experiments under these conditions? Engage students in fantasy conversations about what is happening while they are on the planet, and allow their creativity to respond to these fictitious circumstances that keep happening to the team.

Many math games are really just playsheets where the content is the same as what would be found on a worksheet, but fun graphics and a story take place around the math problem. This model of creating playsheets out of worksheets can be applied digitally or non-digitally. While students are working on math problems, play video game-style music in the background. Include slides with cartoon graphics of the character that students are trying to pull from a deep pit that he fell into. The more math problems the students answer correctly, the higher they pull him out of the pit. Advancing to the next slide shows the character climbing the rope higher.

The Role-Playing Student

Think of ways to recognize student participation that is reflective of the theme. The student plays a role in the story. Perhaps have them create avatars who earn rewards as they complete missions. Their paper avatar on the wall can earn things such as a cell phone that the student can glue onto their character. For a space theme, have students gain new titles such as "Commander Garcia."

Providing a story with the assignments makes the tasks more fun, creates a context for student learning, and makes your students active players in their own learning. Having a narrative is a great way to get started with gamification.

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Ian Sturrock's picture

"What we learn from games is that adding narrative, storyline, a theme, or fun graphics to our lessons and activities can help students be more engaged."

That's really not what we learn from games. Narratives and graphics help to enhance games, but games are, perhaps more significantly than anything else, about meaningful choice and freedom. Games in the classroom should be seen as an opportunity to use autonomy-supportive teaching practices. You can't make a math problem more interesting by pretending that it's really about opening a lock -- even very young students see right through that ("this isn't a game, you're just trying to trick me into doing a math problem"). There are some great, dedicated math games out there (DragonBox springs to mind), which work because they are, first and foremost, *great games*, rather than regular math problems with a fake game tacked on.

Gamification as a concept is something that's come primarily out of marketing, as a way to convince companies to employ ineffective "gamification gurus", rather than being based on any real evidence. If you do want to apply some of the same principles, but avoid the pitfalls that "gamification gurus" tend to offer in their solutions (and bear in mind that badly defined gamification can certainly make education less effective than it would be with no gamification at all), check out Deterding's Google Tech Talk on "Getting Gamification Right" as an intro.

Alice Keeler's picture
Alice Keeler
Educational Technology Specialist

This is one of the things we learn from games. Story and narrative are an important element. I have other blog posts and articles I have written on gamification, this one just focuses on this one element.

You absolutely can make math problems more interesting by including a story. Look at most "math" games for tablets. They are worksheets of math problems where a theme or story has been added. The story has nothing to do with the math problems, yet the gamified elements turn a rote task into a "game."

Many teachers play "Jeopardy" with their students. This introduces the theme or narrative of a game show to the same review questions the students would be doing without a game. Students find this fun.

Adding a story to tasks is a great way to help students have more fun and get into their learning.

Ian Sturrock's picture

Adding a story to a math task has absolutely nothing to do with either games, or gamification, though. It's a misuse of both terms.

Not all games have a significant narrative. Having a narrative is no part of what makes games, games. There are plenty of other ways of examining narrative that have nothing to do with games, and that are more appropriate for examining non-game narrative.

Michael Kolodziej's picture

Interesting conversation that I'd like to add to. One major distinction that I think is foundational for any discussion on games in education is the difference between gamification and game-based learning (GBL). With Gamification, the motivation is largely extrinsic and based upon the awarding of points, badges and other achievements that are often assigned to the completion of tasks explicitly tied to learning. While this game-related strategy is the easiest to begin to create and explore as a non-game developer, I would argue that it doesn't fully capture the power of games in education. Often referred to as the "Chocolate covered broccoli" approach, in some cases, gamification overshadows the potential for games in education as a larger topic and arguably reinforces the destructive paradigm that content is like a bitter pill to swallow.

Of course, content that isn't situated into a relevant context, as is often the case in formal educational settings, can be arguably bitter and difficult to swallow. However, if one is willing to take a step back and objectively view learning outside of our own experientially derived constructs, it is easy to recognize that many of our systems, processes and institutions have not been created upon the science of learning, but rather on the efficiency of moving students through the system. Hence, it is the very nature of our culturally and systematically ingrained pedagogical processes, which makes gamification effective in certain applications, several mentioned in the article above.

Having said that, I'm convinced that the true power of games and simulations lies in the ability to recreate the experiential side of learning, in which the context and content are inherently married in a natural and fundamentally more interesting way. One affordance of digital games in particular is the ability to create, within an economy of scale, an elaborate and detailed experience in which students learn through doing what it is that they would otherwise only be observing, be told about, or have to read about in the course of a traditional formal educational experience.

This could be anything from a medical student interacting as a doctor within a simulated environment of virtual patients, to help increase the skills involved in effective diagnosis, treatment pairing and bedside manner, to an engineer learning about the physics of building and design through three dimensional modeling and testing. Both experiences which were once upon a time, cost/resource prohibitive, or only possible in the physical realm.

On the connection of games, learning and narrative, one of my favorite authors, Sasha Barab published an excellent article on just this idea titled Narratizing Disciplines and Disciplinizing narratives: Games as 21st Century Curriculum back in 2010 which I think really illuminates the power of narrative in game based learning, particular through video games.

Barab, S., Gresalfi, M., Dodge, T., & Ingram-Goble, A. (n.d.). Narratizing Disciplines and Disciplinizing Narratives. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 2(1), 17-30. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from

Alice Keeler's picture
Alice Keeler
Educational Technology Specialist

Obviously I am a huge supporter of Game Based Learning and other innovative strategies to allow school to be more engaging and meaningful to students. Thank you for sharing your reference to the Sasha Barab article.

Yes, many instances of gamification are nothing but chocolate covered broccoli. Playsheets being the perfect example. They are the same boring math problems students see on worksheets. The play of the game does not enhance the understanding of the math concepts. The graphics and storyline have absolutely nothing to do with the math problems. Yet the reality is, people do enjoy playing these. I think many adults look back to MathBlaster fondly. On the continuum of where we want to be with meaningful learning experiences simply adding game elements to what is essentially the same task is not a huge shift. That does not mean it should be dismissed. Including narrative into what we do helps students to be more engaged with their learning, it works. This could potentially lead to more openness to true game based learning experiences. Not all teachers have control over the curriculum they use, but they can all have fun with it.

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