Monday, May 20, 2013

Gamification and Education: the Core Principles

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

I always like to say the gaming industry has done in 30 years what the educational industry hasn't been able to do in 300, namely make self-sustaining learning.  The reason games are fun is that games are learning tools, and people inherently like learning (or more specifically we have an intrinsic motivation towards competence).  I like to think of the gaming industry as a hotbed of educational innovation-- games only sell if they are good at letting people learn, so the game industry has gotten extraordinarily good at creating learning.

Thus we come to gamification, a term spawned from the idea that if only we could put these game elements into other situations, we could make those situations so much more fun and engaging.  But as described above, if games are learning tools, “gamifying” an experience simply means improving the learning that occurs in an experience. In this light, education seems to paint itself a ready target for gamification efforts.  But, what exactly does it mean to gamify education?

On this issue, I fully agree with James Gee and Karl Kapp, in that gamification is really just another way of saying “implementing best teaching practices.”  The same things that make games good teaching tools are the same things that make them really motivating, which are also the same things we wish to incorporate when trying to gamify education. So in this highly circular sense, “gamifying education” really just means incorporating the best teaching practices discovered by the gaming industry over the past 30 years.  Many of these gamification techniques aren’t new-- they’ve been discovered by, but not fully incorporated into, the education world for some time now.  But the gaming industry has rediscovered and implemented them at a speed that puts the education industry to shame.

What are these gamified best practices?  

I’d love to say I came up with these best practices, but I didn’t: James Gee elaborated the best practices quite well in his 16 principles of good games. But I would like to classify Gee’s items somewhat to make them more insightful.

Salen and Zimmerman created a landmark book called Rules of Play, which is really the go-to manual for game designers.  They distinguished between Rules, or formal structure, of a game, and Play, or the experience of a game caused by the tangible implementation of those rules. I see a similar analogy for education-- on one hand we have lesson plans, which are the rule sets for the educational experience.  On the other hand, we have the implementation of those rule sets by teachers in an actual lesson or activity.  

A game is a unique experience each time it is played, even though it may be following the same set of rules. One lesson plan almost never creates an exactly similar education experience because the experience depends on so many other factors besides the rules- the teacher’s style of instruction, how well they delivered the instruction that day, the physical layout of the classroom, the personalities of that group of students, etc. I’d argue the only way to get a consistent, standardized educational experience is to use the rules of a standardized test to create an experience of dullness and boredom. A good educational (or gaming) experience is in part a good experience because it’s not “standardized” or consistent-- no one plays a game that always turns out the exact same way. Yet that’s the game we are currently asking kids to play in education.

So, under this framework, I wanted to group James Gee’s principles into two categories: Rules (how you design the lesson), and Play (how you implement the lesson).  I will further group some of his items together when it seems appropriate.  All of his principles are in bold.


  • Learning by doing.  For games, learning is an active process, involving interaction between the player and the game and engaging players in production, not just consumption.
  • Safe environment for failure (called Risk-taking by Gee): Games are sandboxes, or open environments to be explored and manipulated. Failure is always made to be "low-stakes” by the design of a sandbox-themed activity, encouraging risk-taking. This principle also needs to exist not just in the rules, but in the implementation.
  • Open-ended challenges: To create the agency that results from letting students customize their progress through the game requires open-ended activities that allow for multiple solutions.
  • Goal- and task-oriented. The learning should be structured around goals and tasks, rather than instructions.  Players are told: “get here somehow,” not, “follow these steps exactly.” A seemingly minor difference with profound psychological implications. This can create well-ordered problems that build off of each other.  Tasks are usually achieved in a “cycle of expertise,” created by activities that promote an alternation of challenge and consolidation.


  • Agency: Students should feel like they are in control of what is going on. Games let students create their own identity, be it as simple as an avatar sometimes, which can be customized in aesthetics.
  • Safe environment for failure: Players are not judged or punished for failure, but failure is treated as a natural component of learning. Feedback given to players during implementation should reflect this, putting this as an experience component as well as a rules component.
  • Performance before competence: This simply means you let kids play with things before they prove that they are experts.  You don’t give them a lecture or make them pass a test to prove that they can do stuff, you let them do stuff from the start.  The result is kids don’t know everything when they start an activity, which is why you provide the information “just in time” and “on demand.” Basically, instead of a “Learn first, do later” philosophy, we need a “Do first, learn all the time” philosophy.
  • Situated Meaning: Put learning in context and give it real world value.  This about is all about where, when, and how you implement a lesson.
  • Distribute the knowledge required to complete the activity among various participant, and you end up with everyone becoming a local expert.  This make cross-functional teams and collaborative effort happen naturally over the course of doing the activity. Games allow players to choose a role, giving them agency and identity, but allow making them a specialized effort that contains knowledge others must use to succeed.

There are also three items from Gee that I don’t think fit into either of the Rules or Play categories.  These are more the sort of outcomes you should expect to see in students if you got the Rules and Play right:

An open-ended challenge that is task- and goal-oriented often allows students to explore, think laterally, and rethink goals, and to exhibit systems thinking as accomplishing open-ended tasks usually involves understanding how the system operates as a whole.  Additionally, giving students agency over choosing their tasks, allowing for risk-taking, and creating a cycle of well-ordered problems that allow for challenge and consolidation all lead to a task that is pleasantly frustrating.

I’d also add one item to the list of Play, not specifically noted by Gee but implicit to many of his concepts and in other’s writing on the subject: timely and informative feedback.  The faster someone gets feedback on their progress, and the more specific and informative it is to their task, the better the experience.

So, we’ve got 17 principles, grouped in 10 categories, and an answer to our question: “what does it mean to gamify education?” It means designing goal-oriented, open-ended lessons that encourage learning by doing and risk-taking.  It also means implementing the lesson in an environment that allows for student agency, risk-taking, performance before competency, and distributed knowledge.  In this environment, lessons are grounded in situated meaning, and feedback is provided often and informatively.  As a results, your students will engage in collaboration, think laterally about problems, understand the workings of systems, and most importantly be pleasantly frustrated.  And voila, you have fun and engagement.

Look for follow-up posts that compare a gamified education to our current system, and to Iridescent’s activities.  Until then, I’d love to hear from you on whether these ideas make sense, and how they might be used in our current school system.

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