Thoughts on Gamification?

Hi creative learners,

What are your views on gamification?

That’s a topic on which my perspective has radically shifted over time. Coming from an engineering background, I thought of rewards as an effective and harmless way of helping people do things that they don’t like to do. As I spent more time with children as an educator and learning designer I gradually realized a variety of problematic aspects of gamification that I had previously overlooked.

In the Lifelong Kindergarten book, Mitch shared his thoughts and concerns on gamification. It’s not in the official readings of LCL, but it’s a short and provocative bonus reading, highly recommended! I’ve also found this shorter post from 2012 where he explains why he is still a badge skeptic.

If you want to dive deeper, I’d suggest a book by Alfie Kohn called Punished by Rewards. On his website you can find thousands of thought-provoking articles, including an overview of the ideas of the book.

Feel free to share your thoughts, reactions to the readings, or personal experiences!


May I share an early experience with gamification? (edit: forgive me my somewhat long post!)

Actually, the first ever online course I took was on gamification, back in 2013. After that I’ve seen it grow as a buzzword, but of course the concept existed way before, even if not the term. I got to know about it when I was 9 or 10. And I didn’t like it

My teacher back then decided to do some little game for daily testing us on whatever we should be learning. It was something simple: we stood in line in a random order the first day, then she asked us questions, and good answers moved you up the leaderboard, and bad answers down. You got a little card with your position at the end of the session, to keep positions from one day to the next.

After a couple of days, I got to #1, and kept that position for some time. Now — I think I was, at that time, naive enough and anything but self-conscious. I grew up in a family that valued learning in itself, and I was probably just curious about stuff. The game was probably just something fun. But for some of my classmates, I might already classify as a nerd back then :man_shrugging:

And then, after some days, I didn’t know the answer :sweat_smile: As I couldn’t give it and was moved back in the line, the whole class cheered and celebrated noisily my defeat… and I left crying.

(Sidenote: the game was cancelled after that, which only aided to my popularity I guess :joy: )

Most of these kids were still my classmates many years later, and every once in a while someone mockingly reminded me the incident — what a silly thing to do, crying because of a bad answer… And to this day I remember that day and think: did really none of them understood why I was miserable that day? — that twenty-something kids had actually celebrated that I got something wrong?


@frjurado Many thanks for your long and thought-provoking post! :heavy_heart_exclamation:
About your teacher´s idea to line you up according to the test results: What a horrible idea and absurd variant of physical punishment. :roll_eyes:
About right and wrong answers: Only as an adult did I realise the importance of wrong answers. If you always know the right answer, you´re working on too simple tasks to learn anything. I wish some teacher would have told me about the importance of “learning by mistakes”. :thinking:


@tarmelop Thank you for opening a discussion on gamification!
When I started using Scratch about six years ago, I became aware of the idea (although the term gamification was unknown to me). I made a few memory games by remixing, but my other projects aren´t games - I´m just playing with maths. Reading comments by other scratchers, I was surprised by one type of comment: “This is not a game!” or the more appreciative variant “Nice, but not a game!”. It seemed like they assumed that a Scratch project should be a game. :thinking:
Thank you also for the interesting links you shared! I have a feeling that they will help clarify my thoughts on gamification.


Adding to this: think about those kids who never get to number 1 > I remember similar games in our 3rd grade class, especially on multiplication tables. After a few weeks, I gave up. What was the point to try, some others were always quicker. (Note: I was not even the slowest of class)

Anyway, gamification, especially when it is cleverly made, allowing all learners to move forward at different levels and achieve “successes” can be great. But, we should not forget that Play is not the same as games. Games are somehow still directed and initiated by adults, not giving much space for children’s initiative/passion/agency.


Exactly. I remember reading somewhere about this approach as the perfect example of the worst possible gamification: the game is not helping anyone to learn, just giving some pleasure to those who already know it (and some pain to those who don’t). The idea of making explicitly competitive something that shouldn’t have to be is what sounds worse for me anyway…

This said, I understand that you could have well designed approaches that take inspiration from games other than rewards… Does someone here have cool examples? :pray:


Hmmm, so I’m a huge fan of a kind of … Reverse gamification? To look at what games are insanely popular (say Fortnite) and try to extract what is actually being learned. I’ve always wanted to explore more deeply how one might pivot or stimulate the natural motivation in specifically popular games to drive additional learning or broader learning.

This is an approach that stands in contrast to imposing a game on to a learning goal, which has traditionally been the approach of gamified learning.

So… To give a few examples:

Instead of learning physics from a game designed around trajectories, gravity, and geometry, how can you pivot a game of World of Goo or Portal in to teaching the same things?

Instead of developing a game around teaching algebra, how can you teach a kid to optimize their build in Path of Exile?

Instead of teaching management or logistics skills to teenagers, how can you empower students to run their own guild in World of Warcraft of Final Fantasy 14?

Basically, I think gamification is putting the cart in front of the horse, kind of like @frjurado 's anecdote shows (I so get. As a kid I quickly started preferring always being second best for this exact reason!). When it comes to games, we should develop interesting challenges and choices. Once we know it works and is fun, we can pivot them toward education. It’s not like their is a dearth of popular games to pick from… :)

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Hai ragione! Ma spesso nella scuola soprattutto primaria italiana si fa un abuso di test, prove a risposta vero o falso, quesiti con risposte chiuse che non aiutano a capire se il bambino ho imparato, ma solo se ho indovinato. Anche le prove Invalsi spesso propongono una serie di domande chiuse su contenuti, come se la conoscenza di questi fosse sinonimo di competenza o di abilità acquisite. Bisogna ribaltare la didattica dai contenuti alle competenze e alle abilità metacognitive.


Molti insegnanti pensano che attraverso la gamification si possa far passare un concetto complicato e renderlo “semplice” valutando i bambini poi con badge e ricompense fittizi; questi sono "caramelle virtuali " che non motivano a continuare né sostengono la voglia di faticare, perché alla fine i bambini non sono stupidi e non costituiscono un reale feedback dell’insegnante.


Sorry, I don´t know any Italian. This translation is almost exclusively by google translate:

You’re right! But often, in the Italian primary school, there is excessive use of tests, tests with true or false answers, and questions with closed answers that do not help to understand if the child has learned, but only if they have guessed right. Even the Invalsi tests often propose a series of closed questions on contents, as if knowledge of these were synonymous with acquired competence or skills. Didactics need to be overturned from content to metacognitive skills and abilities.

I completely agree with you! The first time I heard anyone talk about testing (for mathematics) in a way that made sense to me was many years ago at a conference when Danish Mogens Niss talked about mathematical competencies. Later I had the possibility to follow and take part in further discussions about this theme. The mathematical competencies that learners need vary depending on their age and orientation but the idea can be adjusted to all levels.

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Translation (again approximately by google translate) :

Many teachers think that through gamification, a complicated concept can be passed on and made “simple” by rewarding the children with fictitious badges and rewards; these are “virtual candies” that do not motivate them to continue or support the desire to work hard. In the end, the children are not stupid, and those do not account for genuine feedback from the teacher.

Yes, the main reason I doubt the usefulness of gamification is that there shouldn´t be any need for it if the subject is interesting enough. And the essential challenge for the teacher is to show that it is! For example, maybe maths shouldn´t be presented as just a bunch of rules. Not just “how to” but also “why” and “what if?” :thinking: :upside_down_face:.


The first thing that comes to my mind is wondering what gamification means. The word is commonly used in reference to rewarding people with points, badges, etc. I’m not too interested in this form of gamification. I don’t recall any of my best learning experiences being motivated primarily by external rewards. Also, the intrinsic motivation section of the Wikipedia article on motivation mentions that some studies have found that external rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation for the activity.

Besides rewards, what other aspects of games can be used with learning (@frjurado also wondered about this in an earlier post)? I’ll share some relevant ideas I like though maybe some wouldn’t consider them to be “gamification” or “games.”

First I want to share some terminology I like for thinking about games and learning[1]:

  • Chocolate-covered broccoli. This takes the perspective that the material to be learned is unpleasant (the broccoli) so it should be augmented with something that is enjoyable (the chocolate).
  • Roasted vegetables. This takes the perspective that the content is inherently pleasant and the game designer should accentuate this aspect of the content to maximize the chances that the player will be able to experience the joy of it. In the food analogy, this would mean roasting the vegetables and adding lemon zest & peppers so as to bring out the flavors that are within the vegetables.

In my best learning experiences, I experienced excitement about the material itself so I find the “roasted vegetables” approach to be more compelling than the “chocolate-covered broccoli” one. Richard Feynman’s passion for physics is contagious in this interview. I think it’d be great if all students had the chance to experience that kind of joy in their own studies of physics.

I like to think of games as a medium like books and movies. They can all be used for learning and each has its strengths and weaknesses in terms of what kinds of things can be learned through it. Some things can be learned well through reading the text of a book. Other things are better learned by doing. A strength of games is being able to learn experientially by interacting with something that gives you feedback.

A flight simulator is an example of a game that enables you to learn through experience (maybe game isn’t the right word but it’s closer to a game than it is to a book or a movie).

Multiple people have commented to me about how interesting the learning experience is in the game The Witness. It’s a puzzle game that teaches you how to solve its puzzles without any written or oral explanations. You learn entirely through experience. The puzzles are crafted to gradually increase in complexity. You build skills by solving simpler puzzles that help you to solve more difficult ones. You’re constantly working on puzzles that are just the right complexity for your skill level.

Here are some resources that I found to be thought-provoking that explore the kinds of things players learn while playing games:

In describing games and learning in this post, I used words like “pleasant” and “joy.” These aren’t quite the right words to describe what I mean because my best learning experiences are not purely pleasant: they are the right combination of pleasure and struggle. To convey this concept, I like the “hard fun” phrase that Seymour Papert coined.

  1. One presentation of these ideas is in NYU Game Center Lecture Series Presents Nicky Case - YouTube ↩︎


Gamification is a process that uses game elements to engage users and solve problems. It is the use of game design techniques and mechanics to influence player behavior. I think gamification is a great way to get people engaged with a product.

Your story has many things, I felt sad when I read it, because I was thinking: How many times I didn´t understand the feelings of my little students? Sometimes teachers try to play or make games that no work as we want.
But I know, you were ok, because you always are in helping others. The sad story became into a happy story.


@AdamComella really enjoyed exploring links in this post :heart:
…especially love ‘Ways of Thinking’ : )

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