George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Wowzers's picture
Wowzers offers online Game-based Math curriculum for Grades 3-8

Jane makes some great points in her TED talk. Game-based learning in the classroom not only offers intrinsic value to the instruction, but it also allows students to fail and then learn from their fails.

Its a simple concept, but in the world of today's schools, failing has become a form of disengagement. Gamification within the classroom allows students to fail and not feel remorse or reject, which we feel is huge at such a young age.

If you're seeking a game-based learning mathematics experience for your students, we invite you to try our demo at

Lucas Gillispie's picture
Lucas Gillispie
Director of Academic and Digital Learning, Surry County Schools, NC

Let's face it. School is already a game, albeit a poorly designed one. Students will ask you about "winning" frequently. It usually takes the form of, "What do I have to make on this test to get an 'A' or 'to pass' depending on where they've set their 'win condition.'" With a game-like mindset, we have a fantastic lens through which we can view the instructional design process. However, gamification MUST go beyond simple XP, levels, badges, and leader boards. We must also focus on the other elements that make games so compelling. Things such as choice, the role of failure, complex, ill-defined problems, and teamwork are elements that can also be a huge boost to engaging learners.

If these things are new to you, it's time to take a break from the rat race and play a game. Don your teacher lenses and pick up a game like Bioshock Infinite, Skyrim, or World of Warcraft. As you play, consider your brain's activity. What makes you want to keep playing? What makes you want to quit? Now, think of your classroom the same way... If I were a player in this "game" would I want to keep playing or quit?

It is a shame that our dropout rates are so high and that our learners are bored out of their minds. This is school! This is where we should tap into our learners' sense of wonder and excitement! We can do this, people!! A playful, game-like approach is just one avenue.

-Lucas (

tanyalau's picture

Great comment Lucas! To actually be effective, gamification cannot just be about points, badges & leaderboards - and there's been a lot of research which shows that just providing extrinsic rewards can be damaging to intrinsic motivation - not what we want to encourage in education. Extrinsic rewards can be ok, but only when they actually represent achievement in the target behaviour.
I'm currently taking the gamification MOOC mentioned in the article (great course, btw!) and what's been really interesting is how much of what makes a game effective can also be applied to education - and these are the things that you've mentioned: choice, challenging, complex, ill-defined problems, feedback, providing a sense of progression and autonomy - and teamwork & collaboration. These are elements which actually drive engagement and contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation in players.
And that's the other thing - games aren't always just competitive - many of the most effective games are actually based on collboration, teamwork and forming tight social groups with other players.

Lisa Dawley's picture
Lisa Dawley
CEO, former edtech professor, inventor

If I might add to your list, 3D GameLab is a quest-based learning platform where teachers and students play, design, and share quests and badges to create personalized learning that meets unique needs. By earning experience points, rewards, and achievements, players "level up" choosing quests they want to play, with the ability to align to Common Core Standards. Teachers literally turn class into a game, providing the opportunity for true mastery learning over time. We are now entering our third year of development on the platform.

3D GameLab is also an educator learning community where we connect in the guild site, and at online and live events like teacher camp, creating engaging learning experiences for teachers and and students of all ages. Please join one of our live events to learn more!

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Actually gaming increase your all over skills it sets the correct queue between eyes and brain giving a huge pick to your concentration , help in stimulating competitive skills and impose a great deal of quick responsive stimulation on brain.

Ryan's picture
4th grade teacher

Lucas you mentioned "Students will ask you about "winning" frequently" and it something I hear often from my students, we should tap into that competitive edge they innately have! Students just never tend to see the classroom as a gaming situation sadly. The games you mentioned all can address the issues our students have, and can help them realize that they can problem solve with ease. I believe many students are so engaged with gaming they are not aware of the lessons they can be learning from the activities. Trying a math problem multiple times until they are certain it works is something we rarely see children strive towards, yet getting past a difficult level by trying 10 different approaches after learning what didn't work is something they constantly do. We can use all of these approaches to engage our students in the classroom and with any activity they try, but do you think we will ever be quite able to replicate the level of engagement they have when trying out their favorite games?

Matthew Farber, Ed.D.'s picture
Matthew Farber, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy; Game-Based Learning Author

Top Dog is an interesting new book about winning and competition, some of which have genetic links (the COMT gene).

LaFrances saunders's picture
LaFrances saunders
8th grade language arts teacher

Gamification is a wonderful way to keep students motivated in the classroom. I have found that lessons that involve computer usage or games have a long-lasting effect on the thought provoking process of students. It allows students to open their minds and in many cases think outside of the box. Gamification integrated with lessons adds a nice touch to the educational setting in a world that is driven by the advancement and the major impact that technology has on students in today's society.

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