Gamifying/Gameful Learning: Do’s and Don’ts

Gamifying learning and its young, hip child gameful learning are interesting ideas, often executed poorly. We know that the point of including game-like elements (or games themselves) in the classroom is a way to increase motivation and utilize implicit learning skills. What are the basic do’s and don’ts of incorporating these ideas?


  • Use games the way you would assigned readings, films, or other pieces of content.

The game should be its own unit or module, with the lesson centered around it. There’s a great example of a 6th grade teacher with a unit on the Hero’s Journey who had the students read Odysseus, then play a game with hero’s journey themes and compare and contrast with the text. If you were considering a role play, think of using a simulation game instead, or if you were going to assign a film, consider whether or not a heavily narrative game could better embody that lesson.

Gamifying learning should result in active learning – like allowing your students to “experience” a key historical moment by using a simulation, or using a city-building game to explore the ins and outs of a city budget.

  • Explore and think outside the box.

Think about the heart of what a lesson is trying to teach, and then search around for a game that can do that. Some games can teach lessons through their mechanics: Portal and Portal 2 are physics-based puzzle games that teach players about mass, velocity, and momentum simply by solving puzzles. Others can teach through their narrative themes: Papo and Yo is a game about an imaginary creature a child invents to cope with parental abuse, and Papers, Please is a game about being an immigration officer in a heavily-controlled country.

  • Do adequate research to ensure the content is appropriate for student age level, etc.

Games have a rating system, like movies, which are assigned by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ratings scale from “E,” for “everyone,” all the way up to “M,” for “mature.” The ratings include specific content warnings: Grand Theft Auto V, for example, was rated M for “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Mature Humor, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs and Alcohol.” The Sims 4, on the other hand, is rated T (teen) for “Crude Humor, Sexual Themes, and Violence.” But the “violence” in The Sims is of a more cartoonish variety than the violence in Grand Theft Auto – how would you know that, without spending time with both games? The ESRB website will provide a more in-depth rating summary, for further clarification.

  • Ensure the game is recent and of a level of polish and quality.

First, try and ensure that the games you’re choosing were either released within the last five years, or can graphically compare to those that were. Google Image searches for “[game title] gameplay” can help you see what the game itself looks like. It’s not just graphics: older games tend to have outdated controls, which can trip up younger players.

A very poor rendering of a human face from a Harry Potter game for the PlayStation 1

Older graphics, like this image from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the PlayStation 1 (2001), were notably terrible.

Modern graphics, like this image from Uncharted 4 for the PlayStation 4 (2016), are much improved.

Many recent independent games use physics as the main mechanic. Catlateral Damage and I Am Bread, for example, require players to manipulate the physics of an environment to solve puzzles. But these games are comedy games, built on little to no budget, with little to no quality testing, and as a result aren’t worth more to an audience than a 15 minute giggle. Some games are part of “game jams,” short weekends devoted to creating a game with no budget over the course of 3 days or so. These games might have some potential teachable themes, but they don’t play well and have a tendency to crash or otherwise break. Much like the difference in quality between a high school student film and a Michael Bay movie, it’s fairly easy to see (even with the untrained eye!) what a bigger-budget game looks like.

  • Be prepared for a certain amount of front-end work.

We live in an interesting time for video games. There are people in this world who make a living solely by playing video games on YouTube! These people are a tremendous resource for you. These “let’s play” videos exist for just about any game you can think of, from the smallest independent release to the biggest mainstream games of the year. If something piques your interest, a quick internet search will most likely turn up gameplay videos, reviews, or various other sources of information on the game. Be aware, though, that there might be some swearing in videos like these; there’s no employee code of conduct for filming yourself playing video games in your house.

  • Feel free to make your own game!

If you can’t find something commercial that suits you, many free or inexpensive tools exist to help you create your own game. Twine is a favorite tool of mine: it’s free, open-source software that allows you to create text-based interactive stories without knowing any code. Stencyl is another free, mostly code-less tool, though that one’s a bit more complex, and Ren’Py is free but requires some programming knowledge. Some really cool things can be done with Muzzy Lane or RPG Maker, but these tools have a price tag attached. This method requires the most front-end work, but can also be the easiest method for gamifying your lesson goals. Blackboard’s Exemplary Course Award winner in 2017 was a gamified online course: the instructor set up her Technical Communication course as a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game.


  • Don’t use the game as a separate entity from the lesson, a background task, or a “reward” (i.e. no leaderboards).

Points, leaderboards, or other types of competition-driven “games” miss the point of gamifying entirely. Gamifying learning can help draw shy students out, or serve as an active, participatory demonstration of a concept. Points and leaderboards can instead serve to allow shy students to sink further into the background, or allow students who aren’t doing well to give up entirely. Using games as a “reward” for achieving some other, lesson-based goal doesn’t combine learning and playing: it isolates them and doesn’t serve either.

  • Don’t feel constrained by what you perceive the game to be about based on title, genre, box art, etc. – dig deeper!

Don’t feel constrained by what “genre” a game falls into or what its box art or promotional material look like. A game called Bioshock was released in 2007, and the front cover featured a creature in a big, old-timey dive suit.

the cover of Bioshock

Its promotional material touted it as “a shooter unlike any you’ve ever played, loaded with weapons and tactics never seen.”  The game was about Ayn Rand, objectivism, and operated as a critique of video games at the time. It’s sort of a contemporary Animal Farm, in that it deals with the reasons objectivism wouldn’t hold up outside of a theoretical society. If you’d only seen the box art and read that promotional description, you would never have known.

  • Don’t be fooled by tools or software that are intended to “gamify” learning but are not games in and of themselves.

This tool, called GameCraft, uses “competition, badges, and unlocks” to enhance learning. It has the suffix -Craft, so it sounds like Minecraft, which we know kids like. But it’s not a game in and of itself; it’s a tool that assigns points to doing readings or homework, which you already do. It’s a gradebook set on a background that sort of looks like a video game, if you make an assumption about what a video game looks like and have never actually seen one. Scoring a homework assignment out of 5,000 instead of 5 isn’t gamifying learning; it’s setting an arbitrary point value and complicating your gradebook.

Drew Carrey on Whose Line is It Anyway with text - "Everything's Made Up and the Points Don't Matter"

Don’t be swayed by these learning tools. They are, at best, slightly modified improvements on what you already do, (like use a gradebook or assign review activities) and at worst, ways to nag and annoy your students (like sending push notifications to their phones, quizzing them on coursework). Gamifying learning should result in active learning – like allowing your students to “experience” a key historical moment by using a simulation, or using a city-building game to explore the ins and outs of a city budget. There are seemingly endless ways to use games in classrooms, and plenty of resources online to help you through this process. But much as you’d investigate a new textbook or other classroom tool, you should be willing to put in some work regarding your choice of game and lesson.


ITS Online Learning Services welcomes your collaboration on the topic of gamifying learning, and we would be happy to discuss more detailed ideas on gamifying your course.