What is Gamification?

We know that there are benefits to harnessing certain elements of games in learning, and we know that there are more and less ideal ways to implement games in the classroom. We also know that there are two common terms for this implementation: gamifying and gameful learning. So, what’s the difference between the two?

Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke attempted to make this distinction in 2011 in their paper “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification.'” There is still a lot of academic nitpicking on the technical difference, but Deterding et al.’s definition seems to be the most accepted and can be distilled into this: The terms are overlapping, but the distinction lies in the learning designer’s intent.

If you’ve never listened to music but you’re told it has a beat, when you try to use that musical element to accomplish something non-musical, you might just end up with a car alarm.

Gamification is an older term for using the elements of games to learn and solve problems in a more inviting way. Though Jane McGonigal didn’t coin the term, she wrote about the concept at length in her book Reality is Broken, and people who previously equated video games with violence and controversy began to see them in a new light. But this was good and bad: these people, who still did not really understand games, then began to attempt to use game elements to improve other processes, the way McGonigal had described. They took game elements too far out of context and made things that didn’t work well or feel like games to the players.

If you’ve never listened to music but you’re told it has a beat, when you try to use that musical element to accomplish something non-musical, you might just end up with a car alarm.

Thus, “gameful” became the term du jour for using game elements to improve a non-game activity. It became a way to separate the “correct” use of games in learning or other contexts from the “incorrect” gamifying method. But we’re still left with a question: What is it about games (specifically video games) that make learning fun?

Video games as a medium have perfected the art of active learning.

If you think about a traditional game, like Parcheesi or soccer, new players need to read a rule book or be shown how to play by someone else in order to participate. That’s not true of video games, and game designers realized this in the late 80s/early 90s. Video games can use conveyance, context, and environmental clues to show a player what to do and how to do it, without ever explicitly telling them “press X to do this thing!”.

Super Metroid monkeys helping the player learn to wall jump.

In Super Metroid, the player watches the monkeys jump up the wall, and realizes that they can use the same ability to get out of the room they were seemingly “stuck” in.


An example of environmental conveyance in Mega Man X.

Mega Man X is a better example of environmental conveyance – the player sees the gap between the bee and the wall and realizes they can wall slide behind the bee.

Games as a whole (that is, not just video games) are built on systems, with specific rules and goals.

When people learn to think in terms of systems, they learn to think critically and to really examine the structure of the rules in place. Much of adult life is a series of systems; networking, operating in the workplace, or navigating more clearly defined systems like how to report insurance claims (or do almost anything at the DMV). Learning to learn contextually from systems and discover their rules without being told is a very valuable life skill.

Games can teach us how to play (and work) together.

Cooperative board games like Forbidden Island or Last Night on Earth can help encourage teamwork or show students why teamwork is important. We know students will need to cooperate and collaborate in the working world, so developing good teamwork skills can be very useful. Games let us step into a role; they let us take on identities we’d never been able to envision before. There are hundreds of games in the “empathy games” genre alone that can help students reflect on various situations and better understand them from a different point of view, especially when played in a classroom setting. Classes in the humanities can really benefit from games like these.

No tool can force your students to care more about your course subject.

Putting what are essentially flashcards on a game-like background, or attaching ridiculously high point values to assignments and tests won’t help increase engagement – in fact, it may ultimately hurt. Jamin Warren (founder of the games-related media company Killscreen) has a warning for people thoughtlessly diving into gamification: “Those who grow up with games are able to see through what is ultimately boring and unengaging design, particularly when compared to paragons of the medium.” Gamifying or gameful learning should not be about making learning more palatable. It should be about utilizing the inherent traits of games (namely, active learning, collaboration, and systems thinking) to help students better understand concepts you are already teaching.

It’s important to ask yourself why you want to introduce games or game elements into your classroom. It’s also important to question in what way the tool being presented to you is “game-like” or has “game elements.” What about it specifically makes this tool a game, or like one? Do you want to use games in your classroom because you have a fully-fledged concept of what doing so will add to the lesson, or does it just seem like something fun and new you can tack on? Where are you using the game in your course? Is it a review activity, or is it intended to teach one of your course objectives? Gamifying learning can be rewarding for you and your students, but it needs to be done correctly and with the right intentions.


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.