Gaming education

Classic ed-tech games and build-your-own methods are now joined by the "gamification" movement.

There are at least three different classes of digital games in schools. Which you prefer speaks volumes about the role you believe schools should play.

The first group, the classic edu-tech games, have danced in and out of schools for so long that many kids take them for granted. Most of these programs are cute, but they fall short on pedagogical ambitions and graphic design. That doesn’t make them worthless; it just limits their effectiveness. (One person’s drill-and-kill can indeed be another’s guiding light. When educator and blogger extraordinaire, Scott McLeod, asked, “Do most educational games suck?” he drew fire from just about all sides.)

By contrast, a handful of educators a few years ago sought to put game controls directly into students’ hands by teaching them how to build their own games. Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT’s Media Lab, is the reigning champion here. (Here’s more of my take on Scratch). There are a few others, too, including Microsoft’s Kudo, a programming language that kids can use to build games for the Xbox game platform.

Screen from The Fly, a game built with Scratch
Screen from “The Fly,” a game built with Scratch.

And now comes what I would dub a third approach, something that has picked up its very own buzzword before it has even reached most school gates: gamification. The term is as elegant as a teenager jawing a mouthful of bubble gum. But it suggests adding far more sophisticated game mechanics to applications — no matter how stuffy or serious the application has been. Gamification probably has more momentum outside of schools than in. Case in point: Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat has written about how DevHub, a place for web developers, added gaming feedback and watched in awe as the percentage of users who finished their sites shot up from 10 percent to 80 percent.

Most games are naturally social, which means gamification depends on that other ubiquitous web trend, social networking. Sure, go ahead and play Solitaire. But most of us take a certain pleasure in besting the competition — whether it’s the Texas Rangers or some ugly troll in World of Warcraft.

Academics are creating a skin of respectability for gamification. Byron Reeves of Stanford University has recently co-authored “Total Engagement” to outline his ideas about how gaming can turn the erstwhile plodding company man into an engaged and motivated worker. (Reeves is also putting his ideas to the test by co-founding a consulting firm, Seriousity, that will coach companies on how to do this.) The first gamification summit is slated to take place in January in San Francisco.

What does each of these approaches say about education?

The first type of games were willing to entertain kids to keep them engaged — the “just-make-it-fun” school of thought. But any standup comedian will tell you how tough it is to keep people entertained for long. It’s even harder with kids who outgrow the “fun” of a game faster than most games can evolve.

The Scratch camp is more about empowerment. Scratch appeals enormously to kids who want to control their environment and be in charge. Those who build Scratch games get feedback from others when they post their games. They say they love the comments and feel great when hundreds of others play their games.

Ultimately Scratch aficionados bring their ambitions to learn with them. I’d wager that if these kids were born a generation or two ago, they’d be building transistor radios. The Scratch kids have to be self-motivated: most use Scratch outside of school. No one makes them do it. All it took to get them going was for someone to introduce them to Scratch in the first place. That’s a great argument for exposing more kids to the tools.

Gamification, by contrast, doesn’t rely on internal motivation. Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated — at least at the beginning — and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.

I’m betting that gamification, in spite of its throat-clearing name, is going to be big in the commercial world — and in schools. Gamification can help build kids’ competitive spirits. As they gain confidence, they may become hungry for tools that put them in control. At the end of the day, those who know how to create the rules of the game, know how to win.


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  • Great article! That’s a helpful framework, thank you. fyi, if you haven’t seen it you may be interested in this TED Talk (which seems to me very related to ‘gamification’, if I understand the concept correctly):

    Two follow-up thoughts:

    (i) I think that more powerful technology will enable greater and greater ability to individualize learning/games, in terms of academic topic area, challenge level and subject-matter/context/relevance to the user. I think that’s another important change that is and will continue to take place in educational gaming.

    (ii) I’m very interested in seeing how the relationship between extrinsic motivation (some of which is addressed by ‘gamification’) and intrinsic motivation evolves over time as students begin more externally driven by their environment/tools they’re using (i.e. ‘gamification’), and how we can then use those engaging tools to create lifelong learners that are internally driven to challenge themselves and learn throughout life, without need for external stimuli to shape their direction. I don’t have answers here, just an interest and curiosity to track that over time.


  • elizabeth corcoran

    Thanks Ed. I totally agree. How intrinsic & extrinsic motivation develop is particularly fascinating when you think about the development of the teenage brain (which is such a work in progress:

  • This is really interesting and thanks for the link to the Scratch game. We did an article on Scratch recently on the Innovation Investment Journal website ( making resources like these available to kids is a really innovative approach to education and can only bring positive results.

    We also did an article recently on gamification and included a really interesting video of Jesse Schell speaking about “introducing game mechanics into things other than games”. The whole presentation is enjoyable to watch as well as being informative on this subject and I thought your readers might welcome the chance to check it out –

  • elizabeth corcoran

    Thanks Debbie. Really liked the collection of videos and the shout-out you gave to Jesse Schell.

  • An impresive collection of videos, i like it :)

  • I would tend to lean towards the value of internal motivation as opposed to external motivation as a learning tool that becomes a life skill. At our summer computer camps for kids I’ve seen this at play over the last seven years running the programs. Kids who are internally motivated are curious and are not afraid to explore and follow their curiosity wherever it takes them. They can stay “on task” longer and will often come up with their own projects and lessons. These are the kids that end up teaching the teachers more about the software than the teacher can teach them! They’re also the kids that will end up developing games that the rest of us play, or software programs, apps or hardware for that matter.

    Kids who are motivated by external factors can be somewhat of a nightmare for a teacher because they are not able to maintain focus once the thrill of certain stimuli wears off. These are the kids that will come to the teacher asking what to do next and constantly need to be entertained to stay on task.

    If I’m looking ahead to life skills that can be applied as adults, as a manager, I’d much prefer to work with someone who is able to collaborate rather than compete with fellow team members. That said, I think that emphasizing competition in learning can prove to be a detriment to kids. This is not a new tactic. Ask any adult who remembers their teacher having a star chart in the classroom. It was nice to get a star but often a bit humiliating for the kids who didn’t do things that pleased the teacher enough to earn a star. And you have to wonder if the kids with more stars are really better people or if they’ve just learned to play the game, no pun intended.

  • Cazare Mamaia

    I think children learn more fast in schools if they are motivated with such educational games. It is a good way to have fun learning.

  • Madison Florence

    Nice article! Couldn’t agree more on the positive effects of gamification even in the school. When you think about the power of gamification it is truly outstanding. I recently read a post about how a company as using gamification for employee scheduling to increase sales. Check it out “How Gamification Can Help Increase Sales”(

  • I enjoy reading and learning what others are sharing thank

  • World Of Warcraft is a seriously awesome great pass time for my whole family….