Gamifying an Online Course: It’s Not a Class, It’s a Story

A few years ago I was struck by a question: What makes students so motivated to engage in “work” doing tasks in video games, yet at the same time so regularly unmotivated to do work in class that could actually benefit them and their careers? That's when I discovered the concept of gamification—the process of applying the motivational techniques used in video games to courses.

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A few years ago I was struck by a question: What makes students so motivated to engage in “work” doing tasks in video games, yet at the same time so regularly unmotivated to do work in class that could actually benefit them and their careers? That's when I discovered the concept of gamification—the process of applying the motivational techniques used in video games to courses. What are video games doing so right that I wasn't doing in my classes? It turned out to be quite a few things. I decided to try implementing games as part of a major revision to my Journalism 101: Media & Culture online course with the help of instructional designers Owen Guthrie, Jennifer Moss, and Dan LaSota from the University of Alaska Fairbanks E-Learning department.


A great video game has a story behind it that is engaging and makes you sympathize with the characters. So what kind of story can you create about a Media & Culture course designed to educate students on the mass media and build their media literacy skills? Well, for a good story we need conflict. We need protagonists fighting for a good cause and antagonists trying to stop them. In the world of journalism today, one of the most pervasive conflicts is of newspapers struggling to survive. Many papers have been absorbed by larger corporations more interested in turning profits than in turning out solid reporting. So I decided the story behind the class would be that my students were interns at a newspaper that was struggling to stay privately owned rather than go public and have to start answering to stockholders. I created an elaborate history behind the family that owned the paper in an effort to make the students sympathize with the characters and want to save the paper. How would they save the paper? By collectively gathering enough “views” to save it. In other words, if they all did well on their homework, the paper would be saved.


One of the more amusing revelations I had in this process was in how I handled points in my classes. In a normal class, my students start out with an “A” the first day of class, and that grade goes down if any of their assignments are below A-level work. It's the complete opposite in video games. I've never seen a game in which you start out essentially having won the game and the more you play, the more you lose. You always start a video game with zero points, and you're motivated to play more so you can build that number up higher and higher to impress your friends and/or gain skills or other perks. So I started the students at zero points and referred to points as views. If they did great work, more people would read it online, they'd get more views, and their grade would go up. 


A successful video game creates what we call a “suspension of disbelief” within its players. This means that the story is convincing enough that the player feels it could be true. In regard to my class, it was important to me that the class website look like a real online portal for a newspaper, or the students would not buy the backstory at all. So we came up with a Wordpress design that was fairly convincing. I wrote up some fake stories to populate the site, and the students' work would eventually fill it in with plenty of material. This worked well with one exception. We still had to rely on the Blackboard side of the course for quizzes, tests, and posting grades, and that crushed any hopes I had for suspending my students' disbelief. We made up an excuse for Blackboard, telling the students it was our “Human Resources” portal, but there was no covering it up. Until Blackboard is customizable like Wordpress or Wordpress is reasonably capable of doing the job of Blackboard, this element of the class will wreak havoc on my efforts to suspend disbelief.


Another characteristic of a great video game is that it allows you rise through levels as you play and gain certain powers and abilities with each new level. One of the benefits of the newsroom story I was creating was that I could use the jobs in the paper as levels for the students. As they gained more points in the class by doing the coursework, they would level up and acquire titles like copy editor, news editor, and finally editor in chief. Each time they reached an established milestone of points, they'd get a letter from the newspaper's executive assistant congratulating them and explaining the benefits of their new position. One of the fun parts of putting this class together was trying to think of perks that would feel like real rewards to students but wouldn't always be just extra credit or getting out of work. Some of the perks we came up with were getting to choose your own group partners and submitting a story for the front page of the online paper. As a little experiment, I gave students who made the editor-in-chief level the opportunity to give out 1,000 points of extra credit (equivalent to 1 percent of their final grade) to any one of their classmates or to divide it up among several students. I was interested to see how knowing your classmate might eventually have extra credit points to hand out would affect group dynamics in the course.


This gamified class was a major revision of the original course, which was essentially an online correspondence course I had inherited from another faculty member. Students interact much more than they did before, and their assignments are much more interesting to read. I haven't yet tallied the official numbers, but I feel student success in completing the course has improved.

Creating your own gamified course

My first step was finding a conflict within my field to set as the basis for my class story. What are the conflicts in the field you're teaching? If your field doesn't have any issues people are battling over, then I'd love to visit the planet you live on. Then consider the levels your students might progress through, and try to make them cool enough to be worth striving for. Finally, consider what rewards you can offer for achieving these levels. That can be a fun and creative process, and polling your current students for ideas isn't a bad start.

What I can tell you about gamifying a course is that you should do it for yourself, first and foremost. It's a great deal more work to come up with a story for your course and implement these nontraditional elements. But at the same time, it's a much more satisfying and interesting way to teach. Most students have grown accustomed to the educational status quo. When you try to change that to teach more effectively, you can meet with ambivalence or straight-up resistance. In the end, however, this class represents me and my commitment to education, and I want it to reflect my desire to innovate and experiment rather than just tread down the same old well-worn path.

Robert Prince is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and host of the radio program and podcast Dark Winter Nights: True Stories from Alaska, which is available on iTunes or at