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Gamification and Games-Based Learning

What is Digital Games-Based Learning and Gamification?
Digital Games-Based Learning is the integration of gaming into learning experiences to increase engagement and motivation.

Gamification refers to the use of a pedagogical system that was developed within gaming design but which is implemented within a non-game context. 

Where did they come from? 
The link between learning and playing is longstanding and predates the digital era by thousands of years (e.g. puzzle games physical games board games). Indeed 20th century theorists Jean Piaget and Leonard Vygotsky have argued that play is a crucial component of cognitive development from birth and through adulthood (Piaget 1962; Vygotsky 1962).

The advent of personal computing (1980s) and the internet (1990s) created new opportunities for “play” in the form of video and computer games. Within the last ten years digital tools and portable devices have enabled gaming to become a mobile and social activity (in which a single game might have thousands of participants from across the globe). This interactive graphic explores the history of the gaming industry in education from the late 1970s onwards.

See: Tiki Toki: The History of Educational Gaming

The potential benefits of applying gaming concepts in non-gaming contexts was articulated in the term “Gamification” which became popular in the mid-2000s (Marczewski 2012). The concept had previously been used by commercial organisations to incentivised customer behaviour using gaming approaches (e.g. frequent flyer-programmes and branded rewards cards). Initial Gamification practice focused on the mechanics of gaming and specifically the application of rewards systems; points levels badges leaderboards and onboarding (Zichermann 2011 Deterding 2011).

Critics of the approach have characterised it as “pointsification” which has mere surface value and does not constitute the core of a game. They have gone on to question the validity of Gamification in its entirety (Robertson 2010). Recent thinking seeks to move past the polarised debate towards a reconceptualisation of the topic which sees Gamification not as a series of techniques but as a pedagogical discourse rooted in game design. This alternative approach acknowledges the heritage of the discipline and particularly the symbiosis of learning and enjoyment (Tulloch 2014).

How does Games-Based Learning and Gamification work? 
Games have a number of common characteristics that can be used to create effective learning environments. These include:

  1. Complex environments where players are expected to make decisions and problem-solve in increasingly difficult circumstances.
  2. Experimentation and risk taking in encouraging players to try out alternative courses of action and experience a range of different outcomes.
  3. Narrative and thematic threads which encourage players to take on the identity of a range of characters to build a story around these characters and interact socially with others participants (Sandford 2005).

Gamification recognises these characteristics as opportunities to improve intrinsic and extrinsic motivation engagement and to change behaviour. A cope component of games is that they are fun and provide a form of “edutainment” for participants.

Sector snapshot

Macquarie University in Australia is a leading institution in integrating game design into the learning experience. Amongst their portfolio of designed games is The Reading Game which aims to enhance student cognitive development by asking and answering questions as a means of clarifying learning materials. The Reading Game is a collaborative space in which learners peer review and rate the quality of questions and answers in a cycle of continuous formative feedback. Readers are encouraged to become “question-makers rather than question-takers. By getting feedback making friends and having fun” (Macquarie University 2014).

Quest to Learn is a New York City school which takes an innovative approach to providing education for its students. It is a collaboration of learners teachers game designers curriculum specialists and parents who are designing education with 21st century problem solving in mind. Whilst this is an example taken from the US equivalent of secondary education it’s a model which provides higher education with food for thought.

What are the potential benefits of Games-Based Learning?
Gamification and digital games introduce fun and focus (structure and goals) into learning and can be a powerful motivator if designed with both intrinsic and extrinsic (rewards systems) motivation in mind. In addition Gamification systems collect a large amount data about performance which can be used to provide real-time adaptive feedback to students.

In the face of an increasingly competitive and agile higher education market and disengagement with traditional learning environments Digital Games-Based Learning and Gamification provides an alternative lense for HEIs to re-evaluate contemporary pedagogies and an opportunity to redefine the learner experience (Niman 2014).

Getting started

Step one: Watch this video from game designer Jane McGonigal who identifies some key themes including urgent optimism; social engagement; blissful productivity and epic meaning which arise from gaming and which can be transferred to our thinking on real-world issues.


Step Two: Visit the Games for Change community website which has a wealth of resources and useful tools on games-based learning. Engage with and learn from other enthusiastic gamers by joining its online discussion group.

Step Three: Read this paper on Supporting Teachers in the Process of Adoption of Game Based Learning Pedagogy from the European Community Games-Based Learning Conference in 2013. It provides a framework and a structured decisions matrix to support games-based teaching.

You could also access the Advance HE knowledge hub which provides a good place to start and offers various resources which are linked to games based learning and related content.

What should I expect if I try this approach?
Students and staff have varying levels of digital fluency and this approach should be introduced thoughtfully acknowledging that there might be a steep learning curve for some. Gamification can be time consuming to implement and relies on a digital infrastructure which includes technical support. 

Next Steps

Where can I learn more about Games-Based Learning and Gamification?
This JISC infokit on games-based learning provides a practical overview of the subject and some hints and tips to embed this approach into learning design.


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The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.