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Gamification in the Classroom

Jeffrey MacCormack

Does the word gamification make you cringe? That’s okay. I get it. It sounds like an annoying made-up word. Like selfie or asap.

It’s hard to talk about gamification because it isn’t like guided reading. When teachers discuss guided reading, they don’t argue about whether they should use it. They just get to the business of how to set up the classroom, when to introduce new ideas and how quickly to refresh reading text. But gamification may evoke responses like: “Look, I’m not here to entertain the students” or “This is education, not edutainment.

It’s true: gamification is a concept that needs to be defended. We spend too much time shooing video games out the door to turn around now and invite games back in. All I ask is that you give me a few minutes of your time to tell you about gamification and how you can use it in your classroom. To keep you engaged, I propose to give you a level-up for every section you read, and if you keep reading and beat the third level, I’ll reward you with some great gamification resources along the way.

LEVEL 1: The Value of Play

Due in part to the popularity of video games, the use of gamification has blown up in the last 10 years. Programs as diverse as diet regimes, business training and grocery-point programs are using gamification to improve consumer and employee buy-in. It is everywhere, but what is it?

At its more basic level, gamification adds play to non-play activities. I shouldn’t have to tell you how important play is. A recent study of free-ranging brown bears showed that, all other things being equal, bears who played more as cubs survived longer in adulthood. Play is just as important for the students in your classroom as it is for free-ranging brown bear cubs. Adding play to non-play activities increases our motivation to keep at it.

The first level is done! You just levelled up! Great work!

LEVEL 2: The Secret Sauce in Video Games

Let’s talk about video games. I know that educators have a complicated relationship with video games. For every education title that helps, there are thousands of games that distract and detract from learning. And the statistics about video gameplay can be downright scary. Did you know that 97 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds play video games and that, on average, 8-to-14-year-olds play more than an hour per day?

But the popularity of video games should make us wonder: what’s the secret? Researchers have been pondering that question as well.

Video games require active participation, which means that players are more actively engaged than if they were passively watching a movie. Video games are excellent motivators because when players receive incremental achievements – level up! – this reinforces the purpose of the activity. Of course, video game programmers also utilize our competitive and co-operative natures. We enjoy succeeding, either alone or in teams, at tasks that are meaningful and require work.

It turns out that the inherent characteristics of video games also make them powerful motivational tools. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned psychologist, we are happiest when we are in the “flow,” that is, when we find the sweet spot between doing something too difficult and doing something too easy. Video games are designed to match the player to the optimal amount of challenge.

The characteristics of video games make them excellent learning tools. Players develop skills through repeated practice and dynamic feedback. In many ways, video games are great teachers. We may not always love the curriculum, but there is no doubt that players are learning.

You’re really moving along now! You finished another level. Keep it up!

LEVEL 3: Using Game Elements in the Classroom

Video games and gameplay are powerful teaching tools, but I am not suggesting that games can entirely replace instruction. We don’t need to replace textbooks with games – although a public charter school in New York City has done just that! We apply the elements that make video games effective to the classroom. How do we do that?

Gamifying the classroom – As part of my classroom experience, I have worked with children with autism. For those students, the end goal of social competence can be daunting and vague. A daily goal of initiating conversations with three peers was a much more effective way to track progress. We kept track of our daily goals and celebrated our success together.

There are software programs that can help with gamifying the classroom. ClassDojo is a software program that superimposes game elements on the classroom environment. Students create personalized avatars and are rewarded by accumulating points for preferred behaviour. Teachers can customize the outcomes and set goals for the class.

Gamifying the grades – It may seem silly to use terms like “experience points” or “level-up” when tracking student progress, but some students will respond to it. Using language that matches their video game experiences puts classroom activities in a new context. If you want to recognize accomplishments without necessarily assigning a grade, try awarding students with badges. Badges are digital rewards that provide accreditation students can earn and display. Badges may seem simplistic, but they have been used to recognize experiences at post-secondary institutions, and for job training and employment opportunities. Badges can be arranged online in databases such as

Game-based learning – Gamifying learning is a little like chocolate coating. If the task is somewhat unpleasant, adding game elements can make it easier to swallow. However, some of the greatest value of games comes from the games themselves. For example, co-operative games teach collaboration and social competence. The research on games has consistently shown that, in many ways, playing is learning!

According to there are over 100,000 educational apps available at the Apple App Store. Introducing educational apps or online programs can supplement instruction and provide welcome opportunity to practise important skills. Video games already come preloaded with the kind of motivational elements that foster development. Video games can even inspire innovation.

Have you heard of Foldit? Foldit is a game that made the news recently because its players may have helped save the world. Foldit is a problem-solving puzzle game designed by protein scientists to provide players opportunities to fold proteins. Folding proteins is an important component of bioengineering, helping scientists to tackle problems in medicine such as disabling the flu virus. Over a span of 10 days, 60,000 people played the game and the top scores were analyzed. The players’ contributions led to new findings and were reported in a journal article.

Not all classroom games have to be digital. When I was teaching Grade 4 measurement, I had a hard time teaching centimetres and millimetres. I couldn’t persuade the students to practise until we created a game that required measurement. Pirate-themed movies were big that year, so we created a naval warfare game. My students created their own model ships and movement cards. Each turn in the game was planned ahead and when the ships were within firing range (10 cm, 5mm), they could fire on each other. Of course this meant that at every turn my students were measuring. Not only did they enjoy playing during math period, but I always had a group of students who would stay in at recess to play.

Game design – Up to this point, game elements have come through the teacher’s influence. But what if the students were allowed to design games of their own? As I described in a previous Voice article (Fall 2013), my daughter used Minecraft to build a digestive system for her Grade 5 project. If you don’t know Minecraft, it is a creative block-based computer building game that can be used to demonstrate knowledge. Schools have used the game-design elements of Minecraft to teach every subject from language and history to civics and art. If you are interested, look up, a community of educators who use Minecraft to design interactive learning.

For those students who aspire to be programmers, web-based programs provide opportunities for students to create their own video games. (I would have loved that when I was in Grade 5!) For example, Gamestar Mechanic teaches users how to program video games. Students can log on, complete the training activities and design games to demonstrate their knowledge. Games can be used to model the water system, the 12 Labours of Hercules, problem solving or other curriculum-specific tasks.


Having this article sectioned off into “levels” may not have been the main motivator to read to the end. But whatever the reason, you’re here now. You’ve read the entire article. The truth is that accumulating points and reaching levels can be very effective for students who appreciate the consistent feedback and achievable goals. Adding elements of games into our classrooms can help our most vulnerable students focus in class and demonstrate their best work.

For those of you who were motivated by the promise of great resource ideas, here are a few more:

  • Flipquiz uses the model of game shows to structure response times:
  • Kahoot is designed to provide an engaging interface for quick responses:
  • Socrative is an audience-response game interface that allows for the creation of games filled with classroom content:

Jeffrey MacCormack is currently on leave from his classroom pursuing a PhD in Education at Queen’s University. He is conducting research on several topics including social skills interventions for children with autism, emotional well-being and rates of physical activity of school-age children, using interest-based programs to increase motivation, and the effect of morphological instruction on decoding abilities of elementary school-age children. He is a member of the Simcoe County Teacher Local.