What can Teachers learn from Games?

The Gamified Classroom

Jane McGonical, Game Designer, author and thought leader for Gamification proposed during her Ted Talk in 2010 that “Gaming can make a better world”. I want to raise a question, inspired by a Professor at my university who is currently examining the phenomenon of Gamification and by other educators who tried to gamify their classrooms: what can we do to gamify a classroom and what is the benefit?

As I explained in my last blog post, Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-gaming applications or systems to make them more fun and engaging.


School experience in class is typically described as frustrating, passive, linear, and boring by students and teachers struggle to get the attention of their pupils or to make them learn what is necessary. Gamification sounds like the tool to change that situation and improve education.

That thought might not be too extreme as the school system is already very similar to games. Various definitions of what games are can be found in Jesse Schell’s book “The Art of Game Design” but most of them describe games as closed systems with rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation which pretty much describe any course at a university.

The Setting

Ntiedo Etuk, Founder and CEO of Tabula Digita (now DimensionU, developer of multiplayer educational videogames), says at the Gamification Summit 2012, that a classroom should become a more controlled, personalized space that allows failure.
Ryan McCallum, a US teacher researching the topic of Gamification on his own accord, calls such a space a Psychosocial Moratorium:

A learning space in which the learner can take risks, where real world consequences are lowered.

In higher education we get maybe two chances to pass our final tests which most often are 100% of our overall grade. There is no room for trial and error, experiments or any other interaction with the subject that allows deeper learning experiences.

Games allow us to fail, even making it necessary to fail to understand the rules of the game and the limitations of the system. They reward us appropriately upon success so that our initial negative emotions are eventually turned into positive feelings like the satisfaction of having finished a level.

Challenges and Rewards

Games reward the player for every little step they take. Gabe Zichermann, during his Techtalk in front of Google employees, says that the strength of games is that every action is rewarded early and appropriate to the action preceding it.

One can expand that idea with Jane McGonical statement that the challenge that we have to overcome to gain a reward is always on the verge of what we are capable of. The challenge suits the level (or class) you are in and never demands too much. When we start playing a game, we know that the game is designed to being beaten, but if we enter a course at an university we very quickly get the feeling that nobody cares.

According to Ryan McCallum, games reward every type of player in his own way and reveal a weakness of our modern school system: courses are designed in a static fashion that expects the students to precisely act the same way, into the same direction, otherwise they will not pass the exam.

Constant positive feedback, predictable, beatable but yet demanding challenges and optional more open course modules are measures that can be taken to increase the attractiveness of a class and the motivation of the students. In the end, more students will pass the exam as they were allowed to learn in a way that was most comfortable for them.

Considering all Types of Players (=Students)

If you were to gamify a classroom the way you design games, you have to offer rewards for every type of student. Gabe Zichermann refers to Richard Bartles’ model of player types in his talk. Games try to satisfy every kind of player– so should classes try to satisfy every kind of student.


Achievers are mostly loners and want to earn titles and badges to brag about and compare highscores with other players.

Explorers try to fully understand the matter, try to break it, discover new things and are difficult to direct. They evaluate themselves by giving perspective and support to those who struggle.

The Socializers, which make up the biggest group of player, are those who want to meet people, collaborate and share. They define themselves not through their achievements or status but through the acknowledgement by others.

Killer, the last and smallest group of player, is defined by Achievers who don’t want to simply win the game but also beat other players. Although they show the worst of behavior, they are the most engaged players.

As a teacher, giving incentives and rewards to all four of those students will guarantee the loyalty of the student.

We can make anything fun depending on its design

– Gabe Zichermann

A difficult problem for a teacher who might want to gamify his classroom is how to make the content of his course fun. Gabe Zichermann has a relieving answer to that: fun and theme are not correlated. Today, millions of people play Farmville, a game that demands from you to feed cattle, collect crop and sell stuff at the market. Who would have thought that the hard labor of farming can be so addictive? By giving the right rewards at the right time and using game mechanics, motivation and fun can be kept up no matter what the theme is.

According to Gabe Zichermann, the theme(of a game) is only a lure to bring people into an engaging experience and people will be happy as long as they have options to choose from and get rewarded for the right choices. Reading the module description of my university courses is not very motivating or inspirational and during the class I have neither the choice to do a presentation nor to write an essay, I’m in complete control of the teacher which is frustrating.

If a teacher can’t allow the student to choose his approach to the material he can create epic meaning. It’s the epic meaning, an awe inspiring, big scale story to save the world, which motivates people to play, Jane McGonical points out. If a teacher can transfer that to a study objective, he can bring more people to actually do the assignment and read a 20 page long case study.

Gamifying a Classroom- the cornerstones:

  • take away the fear of failure, allowing to fail
  • provide immediate feedback and reward for every little step
  • design an appropriate learning curve with fair challenges and rewards
  • personalize rewards, consider different types of students
  • give epic meaning to the subject