What is Gamification in Education?

text: What is Gamification?

In 2018 the video game industry grossed 131 billion dollars, and there’s no sign of it slowing down with 2025 projected to bring in $300 billion.1 World of Warcraft, released in 2004, continues to be one of the most popular and addictive video games. With more than 5-million subscribers still playing as of 2019, it is described as social, fun, and yet nearly impossible to win.


Why do people continue to engage with something so challenging?

Game design is surprisingly sophisticated, and it’s a growing area of research, particularly when design elements are applied to contexts other than actual games. Certain game features like moving the goalposts, progress bars, and rewards for completing small challenges seem to promote continued engagement.2 Recognizing the success of gaming, industries like social media, health and wellness, and marketing have adapted similar design elements with positive results.3 The use of game elements outside of actual games was first characterized in 2011 by Detering et al. Drawing on ideas in psychology, sociology, and human-computer interaction; they established a novel definition for gamification: “the use of design elements characteristic for games in non-game contexts.”4

Most people are familiar with game mechanics like badges, leaderboards, and challenges because they are commonplace outside of actual games. For instance, in the wellness and fitness app industry, users can earn badges as they achieve their fitness goals, compete against other users and move through the ranks of online leaderboards, and persevere through daily and weekly challenges.5 Comparable applications exist in almost every industry, from shopping rewards programs to social media views and ‘likes’.

At its core, gamification is the application of game design principles through game mechanics. Users interact with the game mechanics to access the benefits of the design principles like increasing engagement, fortifying perseverance, or modifying behavior (figure 1).

Figure 1: The benefits of gamification are due to game design principles that are implemented through game mechanics.

Entering the education scene in the early 2010s, gamification has been increasing traction ever since.6 Now, we’re not talking about playing games in class. Gamification is not about entertainment or play; instead, it’s about incentivizing engagement, tenacity, and progress with game design elements and mechanics. In the context of education, rigor and expectations remain high; however, the intrinsic motivation to learn is adjusted. The notion is to increase student engagement and persistence by embedding game design elements in a course or lesson. It seems to work in other industries, but can game elements be successfully applied in educational contexts?

In a 2015 systematic mapping review, Dicheva et al. identified eleven educational gamification design principles.7 However, not all of these principles may be of equal usefulness. In another study of the relevant research, Stott and Neustaedter suggested that four of these design principles (figure 2) were most consistently successful in educational contexts8 including: 1. Freedom to Fail, 2. Rapid Feedback, 3. Progression, 4. Storytelling.


Figure 2: Educational gamification design principles (the four most beneficial are in bold).


Freedom to Fail

The freedom to fail is a crucial aspect of game design, where players are encouraged to take risks without fear of permanent damage. Successful games involve multiple player lives or the chance to start especially challenging tasks over from a recent checkpoint. In an educational context, this translates to ample formative assessments before more definite summative assessments. Formative assessments direct students’ focus on the learning process rather than on permanent grades. So, as students advance toward a test or exam, they should have plenty of low-stake checkpoints to build the skills and knowledge required to triumph in a “boss battle.”


Rapid Feedback

Connected with the freedom to fail, feedback is another vital element in the learning process. In general, more frequent and consistent feedback usually equates to a more effective learning environment. Feedback is also what makes games so addictive. Moment to moment rewards and consequences enable a player to evaluate the merit of their in-game strategies and actions. In a game, players take on damage, earn in-game currency, gain XP points, or receive advice from non-playable characters. Needless to say, feedback was already a critical element in education before any discussion about gamification. However, improved feedback methods could improve if an educator integrates game mechanics. In the classroom, beneficial feedback is continual and it takes several different forms like self-paced assignments, frequent quick question-and-answer activities, progress bars, and visual displays of learning.



Sequencing is also important in game design. Shorter, simple levels and missions lead to more complex and difficult ones. Necessary knowledge and skills are discovered along the way, and player performance improves in more challenging tasks. In education, this may translate to the way information is organized in a course or the means that learning or assignments are scaffolded. For instance, an assignment that is broken down into smaller steps reduces students’ inability to get started on a problem or task. As long as each step flows into the next, students can return to a previous level if the subsequent one was too challenging, restarting the difficult task when they are better prepared. In an application of Bloom’s Taxonomy, some educators require students to complete an assignment to a satisfactory degree before progressing to the next. This method may involve the completion of lower-order thinking skill tasks (remembering, understanding) before moving to higher levels (analyzing, creating).



Storytelling is what makes games entertaining. In an educational context, storytelling may be one of the more challenging components of gamification to implement, requiring a certain level of creativity. That said, situating knowledge and assignments inside of a story may increase student engagement and provide context for learning. Some educators situate an entire unit of study within a grand storyline, where each article of knowledge and assignment advance the students’ through a narrative. On a smaller-scale, case-studies may help organize a lesson within a specific application.

Fortunately, several examples of gamification exist in chemistry education, and will be examined in subsequent posts.



  1. Lanier, L., Video Games Could Be a $300 Billion Industry by 2025 (Report), Variety, May 1, 2019 (Accessed February 12, 2020) 
  2. Fishman, A.,  Why Is This Game So Addictive? A video game guide for parents, Psychology Today, November 30, 2018. (Accessed February 12, 2020) 
  3. Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014, January). Does gamification work?--a literature review of empirical studies on gamification. January 2014, 47th Hawaii international conference on system sciences (pp. 3025-3034).
  4. Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L., From game design elements to gamefulness: defining "gamification". In Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments September 2011 (pp. 9-15).
  5. Lister, C., West, J. H., Cannon, B., Sax, T., & Brodegard, D., Just a Fad? Gamification in Health and Fitness Apps. JMIR serious games, 2(2), e9. (2014). (Accessed February 12, 2020)
  6. Majuri, J., Koivisto, J., & Hamari, J. (2018). Gamification of education and learning: A review of empirical literature. In Proceedings of the 2nd International GamiFIN Conference, GamiFIN 2018. CEUR-WS.
  7. Dicheva, D., Dichev, C., Agre, G., & Angelova, G., Gamification in Education: A Systematic Mapping StudyJournal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(3), 2015. (Accessed February 12, 2020)
  8. Stott, A., & Neustaedter, C. (2013). Analysis of gamification in education. Surrey, BC, Canada, 8, 36.