May 09, 2019

Michelle Parrinello-Cason

Gamification: What It Is and How It Really Works

Topics: Learning at Home, Learning Through Play, STEM


Gamification is a buzzword that you’ve probably heard a lot lately. It’s become a popular method for increasing the enjoyment and interactivity of learning and shaping behavior in many different environments. We’re seeing it pop up in schools, businesses, and our personal lives. With so much focus on gamifying our activities, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and see what it is and how it really works.


What is Gamification?

Put simply, gamification is adding elements of games to some process where they did not previously exist. This could be adding points, a rule system, or competition to an experience. One situation where gamification has really picked up in recent years is in personal fitness. People are now able to compete with their friends to earn points and badges through devices like a Fitbit or through employee-sponsored wellness programs where they can trade in points for prizes.

This has paved the way for businesses to add gamification to their practices as well. Employee training seems like a natural fit for earning badges and bragging rights, but we’re also seeing gamification aimed at customers. While loyalty programs where you earn points and trade them in for prizes have been staples of the beverage and fast food world for years, online apps have added a layer of sophistication and companies like Target, Nike, and Starbucks are raking in the benefits.

Finally, gamification is a huge part of online and blended learning environments. Students are able to earn badges and accolades for moving through modules and improving their performance. In many cases, this ability to share badges and accolades can prove to be motivating for students as well.

Why does Gamification Work?

The psychology behind gamification is complex and multi-faceted. First and foremost, the human brain is hardwired to respond to rewards. The surge of dopamine that we receive when we get a reward is often enough to keep us motivated and working toward the next small goal (and subsequent reward).

Gamification helps to tap into our brains’ reward systems and, in turn, motivates us to do tasks that we might not otherwise care that much about doing. It also helps us see our goals in a more concrete, regimented way. Gamification can turn a large, daunting task (like “learn to speak French”) into several smaller, more manageable tasks (like “play this game about the verb aller”).

Are There Risks to Gamification?

Gamification can be an excellent way to motivate people to do tasks that are useful but not very exciting. It’s best suited for tasks that require repetition and rote memorization. Simply put, gamification can help make the most boring tasks of learning more exciting and interesting—and therefore more likely to actually be completed. It is particularly useful in getting people to make incremental habit changes (as is the case in the fitness challenges or the loyalty buying programs) so that they eventually adopt a new habit as a regular part of their lives.

Gamification, however, is not right for every learning goal. Daniel Pink explores human motivation in his best-selling book Drive. There, he explains that intrinsic motivation is more important than external motivation when it comes to creativity, innovation, and critical thinking. Therefore, gamification can be a nice way of presenting a goal but there needs to a real motivation behind making the change or performing the task.

In other words, gamification is not very useful for getting people to think critically about material and engage deeply with their learning environments. You may be able to help someone learn French through gamifying the verb conjugation, but it would be much more difficult to gamify them into having something interesting to say when they stood up to give a speech in their newfound language.


Is Gamification the Same as Play?

One important distinction to make when it comes to gamification and learning is that gamification includes elements of play, but the two terms are not synonymous. More and more, we see that play is a crucial part of learning, and play does have a role in intrinsic, self-motivated learning. The open-ended and creative nature of play makes it fertile ground for crafting new ideas and experimenting with them in a safe, low-risk way.

Gamification captures some elements of play and moves it over to more routine, repetitive tasks, but it’s important to understand its strengths and limits. Gamification often requires a specific path and end result, and overreliance on it can stifle true open-ended play and creativity.

Furthermore, not every game played in a learning environment has to be part of a larger gamification plan. Often, playing a game has peripheral benefits that don’t map easily onto a specific list of objectives, but it’s important to know that these benefits (creativity, problem solving skills, communication skills) are crucial to long-term success and the ability to actually use the more specific skills gained through learning objectives.

At the end of the day, gamification is great for making what are often dreaded tasks more playful and enjoyable, but it should be used in conjunction with genuine opportunities to be creative, to innovate, and to play.


IMG_4628Michelle Parrinello-Cason is an educator with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition who has taught in college, high school, and elementary settings. Her focus is on helping students who have struggled to find a fit in traditional classrooms find positive learning experiences. She has done this through teaching developmental writing classes, creating curriculum for gifted students, and engaging in the homeschool community to create non-traditional learning opportunities.



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