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"This Game Sucks": How to Improve the Gamification of Education


New Horizons [The Technologies Ahead]

Sarah "Intellagirl" Smith-Robbins (sabsmith@indiana.edu) is Director of Emerging Technologies and a faculty member at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. With this issue of EDUCAUSE Review, she begins a one-year term as Editor of the New Horizons department.

Comments on this article can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

"Focusing on the ways that entertainment technology engages us can result in methods that we can transfer to any learning situation."

Gamification. Maybe you've heard of it. It's the new term invented to describe the application of game mechanics such as points, badges, and levels to non-game processes. Your first introduction to gamification may have been through a location-based check-in service like foursquare. Check in at the local Starbucks often enough and you get a Starbucks badge. Check in more than anyone else and you get to be mayor of your favorite local java joint. Though mobile devices and downloadable applications may have expanded the market for gamified systems, they're nothing new. Accumulating airline miles, earning frequent-shopper discounts, and even increasing gas mileage through the use of the gas efficiency gauge on a hybrid car are all, somewhat, games. Gamification is an effort to gain points and status for completing tasks. It may be the new hot thing to marketers, but to those of us in academia, these systems should seem familiar.

Education has been a system of status and points since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Scores on assignments serve as points. Graduation is a level achieved. A diploma is a badge of confidence from an accredited institution. However, critics of gamification claim that those who are trying to spice up their businesses with badges and levels don't actually understand how a game works. Rather than adding levels of engagement that make something fun, some of these applications simply add tracking systems, which these critics refer to as "pointsification."1 Just adding badges won't automatically make people want to earn them. Allowing one user to accumulate more points than other users won't necessarily motivate any of the users. I would argue that education has made the same mistake. Perhaps education could be improved by ditching the points and adding the game; technology can help.

What Is a Game?

The first step is to understand exactly what a game is. We've all played games, but because of the wide variety, it can be challenging to nail down what makes a game a game. I've identified three basic characteristics:

  1. A goal: Every game has a win condition: the combination of events and accomplishments that players need to achieve in order to end the game. In every good game, the goal is clear, and the rest of the game is constructed to create a system in which the tools necessary to reach the goal are available. Ultimately, what's most important about the goal is that players care enough to want to accomplish it.
  2. Obstacles: Easy games aren't much fun to play. Though the tools necessary to reach the goal should be part of the game, difficulties and challenges should be part as well. Without those obstacles, winning wouldn't mean much.
  3. Collaboration or competition: Games come in two basic flavors: those in which winning is determined by defeating another player, and those in which winning is determined by beating the game itself. The former can create competition among players. The second encourages a player to compete against him/herself until the player beats the game.

True gamification requires that all three characteristics be present. For example, if we think of foursquare as a game (whether or not it's a good one is up for debate), we can see that the goal is to acquire badges that earn the user a reputation and a sense of accomplishment. Obstacles in foursquare are the simple logistics of traveling to a location and taking the trouble to check in through the application. Finally, some users may choose to compete with other users by taking away mayorship of a popular spot, whereas some users may simply challenge themselves to collect the badges that they see as fun or interesting.

Is Higher Education Already a Game?

How does the typical higher education system match up to games? I would argue that it can be considered either as a very weak game or as a misunderstood point system.

Even though those of us in higher education would like to think that students understand the goal of finishing a degree or passing a course, the reality is that they may not. Ask students why they're in college, and they're likely to answer that earning a degree will bring them more money after graduation. It's extremely rare for students to say that they enrolled simply for the intellectual stimulation. So if education is a game, and students misunderstand what the goal is, they're bound to misunderstand the way the game works, as well as the methods they should use to win. If the goal is to earn a higher salary after graduation, then the game play will focus on courses that will yield the highest impact on a résumé; in that case, success would simply be passing the courses, not learning.

Faculty think of the obstacles in their courses as the intellectual challenges of mastering the content of the course. To overcome these obstacles, students are expected to engage in critical thinking and to push themselves to consider new ideas. However, students who aren't aligned to the true goal of an education may not see it this way. Getting past a demanding faculty member and earning the desired grade may be the only obstacles they see. The results are cheating, grade grubbing, and complaining that faculty aren't fair or grade too harshly. Again, misunderstanding the game leads to poor play.

Last is the issue of collaboration and competition. If the goal is intellectual growth, then classmates and faculty are teammates. If the goal is to beat the system and earn more money, then classmates are competition and faculty are obstacles to be overcome. The result is animosity and demands on higher education institutions to become degree mills rather than places of learning.

Improving the "Game" of Education

What can we do to fix this problem? I see two choices: (1) take away the pointsification; or (2) improve the game. Grades and degrees aren't going anywhere, so the first option won't work. We're left with the challenge of taking a rather poor game and making it a better one. Making school a game is not a new idea; in fact, there are entire schools that are run as games and that are doing quite well. Of course, many in higher education think of games as frivolous and will say that the job of faculty and administrators is to deliver a quality education, not an entertaining experience. To me, a quality education and an entertaining experience are one and the same. True intellectual challenge is exhilarating. Lifelong learners become so because they find learning fun.

Changing the fundamental nature of higher education is a daunting task, but there are small steps we can take. Here are three ideas for faculty and some example applications of each:

  1. Make goals clear, and explain how the course, major, or degree prepares learners to achieve those goals. Ensure that students align on the goals and want to achieve them.
    • Spend as much time in class and on the syllabus covering the importance of the learning goals as is spent explaining the grading system of the class.
    • When writing assignment descriptions, include a "How you can use this in the future" section.
  2. Make progress transparent to each learner. Grades and assignment completion are not the only ways to measure progress toward achieving the goals.
    • Give students a way to track their progress on each learning goal of the class. An online checklist that students fill out on their own can help them stay on track.
    • Create commodities for desired behavior. For example, hand out poker chips to students who contribute in class; a student who cashes in ten poker chips earns a "Top Contributor" badge.
    • Add peer voting to class activities such as discussions and online forums. Allowing students to identify the contributions that they see as valuable will highlight good models for other students to follow, as well as provide positive feedback to the contributing student.
  3. Think about your own game play. Reflection can reveal insights into innovations that can be leveraged in education.
    • Consider the game apps on your phone or iPad. How do you decide which to play and which to ditch? What makes a game "fun" to play?
    • Ask students which games they play and how they learned to play them. Talking about how we learn can help students improve their own techniques.

"Gamification" is about motivation and engagement. Making learning fun does not require huge investments in technology. Instead, focusing on the ways that entertainment technology engages us can result in methods that we can transfer to any learning situation.


1. Margaret Robertson, "Can't Play, Won't Play," Hide&Seek, October 6, 2010, <http://www.hideandseek.net/cant-play-wont-play/>.

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 1 (January/February 2011)

Sarah Smith-Robbins

PhD Candidate, Ball State University
Director of Emerging Technologies, Kelley Executive Partners, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University
Digital Media Strategist, Indiana University Alumni Association
Digital Communities Researcher, Western Governors University


Tags from the EDUCAUSE Library



Blog Posting on Gaming in MMORPGs, and elements that we can copy

I put together a blog on "Gaming in Learning" and I on one of my posts I came to some interesting conclusions. Here is the post from my blog at http://learningingaming.blogspot.com/

Well I was thinking on the issue and I came to some conclusions on the nature of MMORPGs and other kinds of video games. These are some near-universal concepts that seem to be supplement the gamer experience.

The user chooses a role or job class with which gives them certain skills and tasks to accomplish.

The user choose a group or party with which they have a gaming experience.

The gaming experience is immersive and requires the user to use his or her skills or tasks to get through this immersive environment.

The skills and tasks are necessary to the success of the group in the gaming experience.

However, I speculate that it is the gaming experience and with it, successes and failures, that determine the player’s want to replay. Therefore, at this point I’d like to evaluate the different elements of the gaming experience which seem to draw in players.

Some examples of the gaming experience are:

an intricate story that unravels itself as the game progresses,

missions or goals that can be accomplished by the group that lead to rewards,

new skills or abilities that make the gaming experience easier or different,

The ability to create your own materials or items which empowers the player,

and the use of analysis to gain competitive advantage over situations.

All of these elements of the gaming experience seem to be organized using a scaffolding method, as you can only receive certain experiences (stories, items, missions, quests, skills, etc.) as you complete or attain more basic elements. Therefore, the benefits of playing the game are handed out piece by piece and you cannot accomplish everything at once. That would be detrimental to replay-ability, and cause players to get bored.

But what about the use of the group or party system, how does this appeal to the gaming experience? The party system is the primary way that users accomplish their goals. It radically accelerates the speed at which a player can progress through the game. In other words, if a user wants to accomplish the goals set forth by the game, and I’m considering if they are playing only for themselves, then it is beneficial for them to work in a group where they have more security, more access to resources, more education from fellow players, more gaming experiences. The fun that they have in the group and the party experience is a secondary benefit. The gaming experience is the primary benefit.

I will keep thinking about these issues. Being that I am a librarian, I would seek out new articles on these gaming issues and see if I can accumulate more data on the topic.

Posted by: Matthew.Seibert... on January 20, 2012

"Gamification is about motivation and engagement..

A really clear look at gamification and education. I am a long time chemistry faculty who started a high tech startup with just this conviction, gamification can make a C change in learning.

With gamification, through rewards for the right behavior, through learning related "challenges", through opportunities for socializing and collaboration on answering user questions, you can keep digital millenials engaged in learning.  On my startup OpenStudy,  because of the game mechanics, the levels, titles (sensei, guru), social chats, and community approval for good helpers and good learners, our users find us "addictive" and "fun"! And all this while they discuss fibonacci series and "Dubliners"!  OpenStudy is a community of gamers, but the game is learning, the rewards are the medals you get when someone gets your explanation, and the competition, is to level up, by solving problems, helping, being a good citizen and a willing learner!  You are so right Sarah"intellagirl"   Game on!

Check it out for yourself (openstudy.com)

Posted by: PreethaRam on January 20, 2012

But *do* we define the goal?

The students think they know the goal.  They've been taught very carefully what the goal is.  "Go to college:  earn more money."  They've heard this since middle school, and hardly a month goes by that it isn't reinforced by a new study.

It's a good goal.  A reasonable goal.  And for many students it is the goal.  I don't believe that we can get everyone to agree on a single goal, because we serve multiple clienteles out of the same resources.  We need to design a game in which you can pursue two different goals (material security and self-actualization) by similar methods.  Maybe master-level play involves the optimization of those two goals.

That doesn't require us to give up on lifelong learning, or improving one's mind as an end in itself.  Learning at any point in one's life has both economic and personal value, and I think that it is this that we need to communicate to students.  You can have both, and they are both worth something.  If we honor their values, we get four years to inspire them to examine those values and more fully imagine what life can be.  Is that a good definition of the game we want to play?

Posted by: mwoodiupui on February 17, 2011

Mary Poppins Spoonful of Sugar

 "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.  You find the fun, and snap!  The job's a game!"

Plenty of great elements in this article.  Education has been game-like for a long time, but reliant upon point gathering as a motivation. And thinking everyone will want to maximize the points they earn is a mistaken motivator.  For that matter, I would have little faith in points earned being an accurate measurement of "getting it" in a life long learner method.  Cramming for the tests to gather all the points I can, would keep me from seeking a deeper, better understanding of the class subject.

Education is certainly a game as identified by the three listed characteristics. Fights can break out on the area of collaboration or competition, because students working together is just cheating, after all (to some).  This game needs to be improved, and the process to bring about that improvement might even need some gamification itself? 

On thing from the three ideas at the end really jumped out at me:

"When writing assignment descriptions, include a "How you can use this in the future" section"

If you find you cannot provide this description for the assignment, what is the point?  Just to provide an opportunity to gather points?

The Game of Education, should be preparing us for the Game of Life.  The better the Education Game is, the higher our expectations for Life can be, perhaps?

 -Neal Cross

Posted by: ncross on February 17, 2011


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