George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

Gamifying Student Engagement

May 2, 2013

In her TED talk, "Gaming Can Make a Better World," author and researcher Jane McGonigal posits that in game worlds people are "motivated to do something that matters, inspired to collaborate, to cooperate." Video games are interactive and engaging. It's no wonder they are so pervasive with both children and adults!

A recent trend in the business world has been to bring game world elements into the real world. This methodology is referred to as "gamification." According to a Pew Research Center report, gamification is "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, re-tweets, leaderboards, achievement data, progress bars and the ability to level up."

Corporations, such as Samsung, award badges internally to motivate their employees. The Nike+ iPhone application awards achievements to runners. Foursquare and Yelp assign badges as users check-in at locations via the GPS in their smart phones. Mozilla has a long list of companies, nonprofits and schools that use their open badges to integrate gamification. Dr. Kevin Werbach, from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, teaches a massively open online course, or MOOC, on gamification. According to Werbach's course description, "Organizations are applying it (gamification) in areas such as marketing, human resources, productivity enhancement, sustainability, training, health and wellness, innovation, and customer engagement."

Educators have also begun to adopt the reward structures of video games, such as badges for meaningful achievements, into their lesson planning. Integrating gamification into the classroom is best accomplished when teachers begin to think of themselves as not just educators, but also game designers.


Badges are a method for recognizing and rewarding accomplishments. According to a white paper by Mozilla, badges "support connected learning environments by motivating learning and signaling achievement both within particular communities as well as across communities and institutions." Most students can already identify with a badge system in video games, such as Xbox Achievements and PlayStation Trophies.

The educational social media site Edmodo includes pre-made badges, as well as the availability for teachers to create or upload their own. Mozilla's Open Badges Project also has tools to let teachers create badges.

Badges can be a student-centered, too. For instance, students can design check-in badges for Civil War battle locations or create achievements for career accomplishments of notable authors.

Leveling Up

Video games frequently do not include how-to instructions for players. The first "level" or "mission" is typically a constructivist tutorial. As the game progresses, the player is given more information and increasingly complex tasks. Tutorial levels teach players the rules as they go, then the challenges are increased and scaffolded. "Boss levels" are where all of the learning comes together. It is at this point where gamers feel the intrinsic reward, or flow, from an earned satisfaction.

Games such as World of Warcraft feature avatars that improve as they succeed. In the game world, this is referred to as "leveling-up." Games also feature "leaderboards" to publicly aggregate and publish earned points. In New York City's Quest 2 Learn, students are given the opportunity to level-up. An example might be introducing Edmodo to deliver blended instruction and then scaffolding a how-to post on a wiki the next day. By the end of the week, students would be at the "boss" or mastery level.


Some games, such as Minecraft, encourage players to modify, or "mod," the virtual world environment. At the 2012 Games for Change Festival, Valve announced the Teach with Portals website, where players are given the tools to modify their own "test chambers," or puzzle rooms. Giving students tools for modding assignments and projects will empower them to take ownership of their learning.

Easter Eggs

"Easter eggs" are hidden objects left by the coders in websites, video games and -- sometimes -- DVDs. Super Mario Bros. was among the first to popularize hidden objects and secret rooms. Hiding Easter egg challenges within PBL units is more engaging that simple extra credit tasks and questions. Uncovered Easter eggs can be acknowledged with badges.

In-Game Economy

Many games feature an "in-game economy." In the Assassin's Creed series, opponents can be looted and pick-pocketed. Money can be found by unlocking hidden treasure chests. That money can be used to improve buildings, upgrade the avatar or purchase maps featuring hidden locations of desirable objects. Mass Effect 3 awards currency known as paragon points. These are points are earned by "being a positive, kind and friendly player, during conversations and stories." Paragons can be used to purchase better weapons, health and armor. An "in-class economy" can award students who progress in a meaningful way, while also integrating math and financial literacy lessons.

Gamification in the Classroom

In video games, players are encouraged to learn as they go. This is the very definition of constructivism. Constructivism makes learning meaningful and satisfying. By adding some simple gamification elements, lessons and activities will become more engaging and fun!

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  • Media Literacy
  • Student Engagement

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