Meaningful Gamification in K-12 Learning

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Gamification is everywhere. From coffee rewards to fuel points to cash payouts for weight loss, people living in today’s society could easily gamify almost every aspect of life. However, just because we have the ability to do something does not mean that we should. As game designers create new, gamified experiences, they need to keep one seemingly small but extremely important concept at the forefront of their thinking: Fun. As I read Why Fun Matters: In Search of Emergent Playful Experiences and Exploring the Endgame of Gamification, I was challenged with some new ideas that helped expand my understanding of games and learning.

Why does this happen?

As a teacher with experience in elementary and middle school, I understand the appeal of gamification. Students love games in all forms. Teachers play Beat the Clock to see who can clean up their materials the fastest. Teachers play Around the World to see who knows their math facts. Teachers play Jeopardy to review facts related to every content area imaginable. While these games might provide short-term motivation for students, a few questions remain:

  • Are students being motivated for the right reasons?
  • Do students care about the learning aspect of games?
  • Does everything need to be a game?
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In short, Gabe Zichermann’s answer to these questions would be no, at least not in the way gamification is currently marketed. Zimmerman might also pose another question: “What does the world look like from the point of view of gaming?” (Fizek, 2014, p. 277). “In his Google Tech Talk, promoting Game-based Marketing (2010), Zichermann mentions the gamification loop, a mechanism based on the allocation of points through creating challenges, win conditions, leaderboards, badges, and social networking, which in turn lead to the achievement of status” (Fizek, 2014, p. 273). Zichermann “encourages researchers critical of the marketing usage of gamification, to stop using the word entirely and replace it with exploitationware or develop innovative approaches to the use of games in different contexts” through a shift towards playful literacy (Fizek, 2014, p. 274 – 278). Meaningful gamification considers the players, their actions, and interactions, as well as the creative and cognitive skills required. As Nicholson (2014) states, meaningful gamification “reduces the emphasis on or avoids rewards, and, instead, focuses on the non-reward based aspects of game design” (p. 300). In addition, Fizek encourages creators of gameful experiences to “embrace the seemingly ungraspable concept of fun through the lens of emergent playfulness, which may guide researchers and practitioners in explaining the fun driven mechanism of successfully gamified activities” (p. 275).

Society’s Victimization

After reading these two articles, I could not help but feel that my previous understanding of gamification was all wrong. I decided to do what I always do in times of frustration and confusion, which is find a TED Talk. This quest led me to The Power of Gamification in Education by Scott Hebert at TEDx UAlberta. In his presentation, Hebert discusses the stagnant state of education, especially as it relates to engagement. He had three main points:
“Give me a reason to care if this isn’t important to me.”
“Trust me, and I can do great things.”
“Let me be creative. Let me use my passions. I will surprise you!”

Herbert calls for educators to move past grades, standards, and unrealistic expectations in favor of a judgement free space where students can learn, experiment, and explore. Much like the readings from Fizek and Nicholson, Herbert’s philosophy of education revolves around fun and real word application. He also believes that society is “totally victimized by gamification a daily basis.” The perception of fun has been misconstrued as a waste of time, energy, and resources. Herbert suggests that this has happened due to both the fear of change and the fear of failure. Far too many people believe that certain educational practices are tried-and-true when a more fitting term might be outdated. A few ideas that come to mind are standardized testing, classrooms set up in rows where students work quietly, worksheets, memorizing facts, homogeneous grouping, and forced gamification. Instead, it is imperative that educators foster student voice, autonomy, and creativity. Herbert declares that “We need crazy wild innovative thinking, not someone who can say, ‘Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, and I’m going to write that down and pretend I’m good at Biology.’” I could not agree more.

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As I reflect on my growth and new understandings of gamification’s role in learning, I have a few key takeaways to apply within my own practice. First and foremost, gamification is not one-size-fits-all. Creating gameful experiences often takes the mindset of an artist, rather than the skills of a craftsman (Fizek, 2014, p. 285). Although gamification has become a buzzword similar to synergy and disruptor, educators must thoughtfully consider the context and content being applied to gamification. Some lessons may easily relate to gamification, while others may not. Gamification for the sake of gamification is not the answer. While “points are not inherently bad,” pointification systems should come after design and playful fun have been considered (Fizek, 2014, p. 282). While short-term rewards may entice learners initially, educators must plan with long-term impact in mind. As Nicholson (2014) states, “the gamification designer needs to create a system that is designed to engage someone in an authentic manner directly with the real-world setting (p. 301).

To-Do List

Moving forward, I plan to utilize Nicholson’s (2014) RECIPE when implementing meaningful gamification in the classrooms:

  • Reflection – Creating situations where users reflect to discover personal connections with the real-world setting
  • Exposition – Using narrative and user-created stories to create deeper connections to the real-world setting
  • Choice – Allowing the user to select paths and develop goals within the real-world setting that are more meaningful to him or her
  • Information – Providing the user with information about the connections between the gamification activities and the real-world setting
  • Play – Creating a safe space and set of boundaries where the user can choose how he or she wishes to engage with different gamification activities in the real-world setting
  • Engagement – Using the gamification system to connect users to a community of practice that surrounds the real-world setting (p. 300)

My goal as an educator is to utilize gamification in ways that support students’ connections to the real world while fostering creativity and intrinsic motivation, rather than pushing students to become another cog in the machine of gamified living.

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Fizek, S. (2014). Why fun matters: in search of emergent playful experiences. In M. Fuchs, S. Fizek, P. Ruffino, & N. Schrape (Eds.), Rethinking gamification (p. 273-287). Lüneburg: Meson Press.

Nicholson, S. (2014) Exploring the endgame of gamification. In M. Fuchs, S. Fizek, P. Ruffino, & N. Schrape (Eds.), Rethinking gamification (p. 289 – 303). Lüneburg: Meson Press.

TEDx Talks. (2018, May 7). The power of gamification in education [Video file]. Retrieved March 18, 2019, from

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