Incorporating Gamification into Your Courses

The power of games as learning devices is well established, but transforming course content into an actual game is a huge undertaking. After all, gaming companies spend millions of dollars developing each game. A better approach is to incorporate gaming elements into regular course activities. This is called the “gamification” of education.

But which gamification elements should faculty choose? Jen-Wei Chang and Hung-Yu Wei of the National Taiwan University recently did a study of the features of games that best engage students. The results can guide faculty members looking for ways to incorporate gamification into their courses.  

Gamification features

Self-expression: One of the primary human motivations is the desire to express oneself. This taps into our sense of autonomy and individuality. Games appeal to this motivation by allowing for multiple paths to success. There is not just one best play on any hand of cards but multiple options with different considerations for choosing each. The joy of the game is in the choice, which will be different for different players. By contrast, traditional education tends to provide only one path to success on a task, such as the correct procedure for solving a problem. Thus, faculty members can gamify a task by allowing for choice in paths to the goal.  

Self-discovery: One of the appeals of games is that we learn about the underlying principles that lead to success in the game as we play it. Chess players develop mastery by learning the patterns that underlie formations on the board. In fact, most forms of expertise involve learning the deep patterns that constitute mastery, be they physics principles used to solve problems or literary devices used to analyze books. 

This feeling of mastery is an internal reward, as opposed to the external reward of the grade. Recall Daniel Pink’s famous talk on how extrinsic rewards, such as money and grades, have been shown to lower performance on complex tasks of the sort we expect of our students. By contrast, intrinsic rewards such as a sense of mastery improve performance on those tasks. Thus, faculty members can improve student motivation by incorporating into course activities the ability of students to learn about the task itself, the hidden principles that constitute mastery of the task and lead to achievement.  

Time pressure: Most games involve time limits, which help focus the mind and draw the player’s attention into the task at hand. Outside distractions are put aside and excitement builds as players rush to beat the clock. Academic content is normally given without a time limit for completion, such as with reading an article. Adding a simple time limit to a learning exercise, even if the exercise can be repeated over and over until completion, will heighten student interest in the exercise. 

Status: Unsurprisingly, status is a primary human motivator. Students who play a multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft generally share their achievement levels almost immediately upon meeting another player. Status does not really come up in traditional teaching because differentiators such as grades are secret. But a leaderboard system that publicizes student accomplishment through some form other than grades will key into the natural interest in status. 

Goal setting: One critical feature of games is that they provide short-term, achievable goals. A game is broken into smaller goals, such as reaching the next level, that are strung together toward higher goals. Games are built so that goals can be achieved with a certain amount of time and effort that keeps the game from being boring or the player from giving up. Unfortunately, the goals in most higher education courses are far off in the future, such as the end-of-term paper due date. Introducing short-term goals with immediate feedback will help keep students interested in the content.   

Rewards: The short-term goals of games also bring immediate rewards. Players start at a score of zero and then add to that score with each new achievement. This allows them to continuously see the rewards of their efforts. By contrast, a grade is not generally interpreted as a reward for achievement but rather a measure of failure because it is calculated by subtracting from the perfection of the A. This means that faculty can improve student motivation by building a system of rewards into a course that counts up for each achievement rather than subtracting for each imperfection. 

Altruism: Games are generally thought of as purely competitive, but in reality there is a healthy dose of altruism in many games. Multiplayer video games often require players to group into teams to attain the next level, as the combined forces of the bad guys are too great for a player to beat alone. Players in these games help each other and provide advice. This taps into the natural joy that comes with helping one another. Similarly, faculty members can look for ways in which students in their courses can assist one another in their learning. 

Group identification: Team games foster a sense of group identification. Players in a multiplayer online game form a “band of brothers” group identity and, in a broader sense, an identity with other people who play the same game. The same sense of group identity will arise when students are put into groups to solve tasks in a course and will increase motivation for achievement. 

Gaming devices

Online instructors will undoubtedly see a variety of ways to incorporate these features of games into their courses. But Chang and Wei also provide some general strategies for incorporating gamification into online courses. 

Virtual goods: Some faculty have experimented with assigning virtual goods for achievements, such as points or badges, rather than grades, as a means of moving students from motivation by fear of failure to motivation by accomplishment. By adding up from the bottom rather than subtracting from the top, these points or badges provide a constant positive reward for achievement. Of course, these virtual goods are often transformed into grades to calculate the course grade, and one has to wonder to what extent this dampens the motivating effect. However, the mere intermediary of the virtual good will help sustain motivation on the journey toward the goal.   

The authors also mention that virtual goods motivate achievement through a sense of ownership. Few students think of themselves as “owning” a grade. A grade is given by the instructor, and so students think of it more as achieving instructor approval than an objective accomplishment. By contrast, the points automatically accumulated for each success by players in a game feel more like an earned achievement independent of the opinion of others. Thus, faculty members can improve motivation and engagement by offering a badge for each successfully completed activity and an end grade based on the number of activities completed. The student who achieves a badge in a class for accumulating a certain number of points on activities feels like the owner of that badge.  

Team leaderboards: A number of companies have tried to improve employee health and well-being through their own Biggest Loser competitions. But to protect employee privacy about their weight, companies put players into groups and track the group weight loss in public leaderboards. This group formation has the additional benefit of creating a group élan. People will work harder in a group than they would alone so that they do not let down their fellow group members. Similarly, putting students into groups with a leaderboard tracking group success can greatly improve their motivation to perform well in an activity. 

Game discovery: As noted above, one of the attractions of games is the ability to acquire knowledge of the game itself. Faculty members can take advantage of this motivator by making discovery about the activity part of the activity. Students might be given real-life simulations where they discover that certain moves will improve their standing within the simulation. For instance, I could gamify student work through case studies in my medical ethics course by having students make decisions and achieve an outcome based on that decision. I could further rig the activity so that when students involve a patient’s family in the decision-making, the solution often comes quicker than it would otherwise. This discovery about the game itself teaches a valuable lesson about resolving real-life situations. 

Redeemable points: Students in the study by Chang and Wei said that being able to redeem game points for a reward was highly motivating. The authors suggest that an in-course reward might be the release of course material needed to move forward. The authors also mention noncourse rewards such as software. Of course, these rewards might cost some money, but an institution’s admission department might have access to very simple branded items, such as water bottles or t-shirts, that it would be willing to donate as rewards for class achievement. These might sound hokey, but it is surprising how a simple reward can be a motivator for achievement. Moreover, businesses or professional organizations related to the subject matter or the course are often willing to donate items to charitable causes and might find it intriguing to provide interesting rewards for achievement in a course.

Consider how to incorporate some of these gaming features into your online courses.


Chang, J.W., and H. Y. Wei. “Exploring Engaging Gamification Mechanics in Massive Online Open Courses.” Educational Technology & Society19, no.2 (2016):177–203.

Pink, D. (2009). “The Puzzle of Motivation.”   

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