At what point does an educator turn to games? K-12 educators have a good track record of using games to engage children, but when it comes to higher education, students are largely on their own. As these digital natives make their way through college, professors are looking to use games and digital media to help students learn. The use of games by educators is often motivated by the desire to better engage students and align instructional practices. Some educators are turning to game-based learning, but gamification is also serving a purpose.

Engagement and games, however, is not without controversy. At the heart of the issue is gamification, a term commonly defined as the addition of reward systems to non-game settings and contexts. This can take the form of airline loyalty points or gold stars. Many game designers and scholars believe that these extrinsic motivators are not games at all. Rather, they feel that good games should rely on stories, quests and intrinsic challenges. These are characteristics of gameful design or game-based learning, as opposed to the mere badging and points that characterize gamification.

If a class runs exactly as it always has, except that students receive badges and points in lieu of marks and grades, is it really a game? Does this question matter if student performance improves due to the draw of extrinsic lures? How does student behaviour change in a strictly gamified class?

These are the questions professor David Leach set out to answer with an experiment he conducted at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. As a prize-winning magazine writer, editor and creative writing teacher, he understands the value of narrative, but he also has an interest in games. “Further reading led me into the discussion—and controversy— around gamification in education. I read a lot of pros versus cons but not a lot of real experimental evidence for the effectiveness of these tools. The Systems CIO at our university gave me research money to run an experiment on the effectiveness of gamification.”

To test the advantages and disadvantages of gamification, Leach ran two parallel sections of his Human Uses of Technology course. One was taught as a regular class, while the other section used leaderboards, badges and points and, to a lesser degree, quests. “The stages of various assignments were also described as ‘quests’ but this was a very superficial narrative element. Mostly, the experiment’s focus was on the crudest use of popular gamification tools,” said Leach.

In the end, the gamification group visited the online course site twice as often and spent double the amount of time as the regular class. Their blog posts were submitted earlier and they were significantly more active on the online class forum. A post-game survey revealed that 82% of the students believed that gamification was an effective motivational tool. Surprisingly, despite their higher activity on the class site, the gamified group demonstrated no improved learning outcomes in their academic performance in the course.

Leach’s research paper on the experiment concludes that “gamification can offer incentives for online activity and socializing but, on its own, may have little impact on quantifiable learning outcomes.” These results might change with alterations to badge criteria and/or how points are awarded, which might impact how students distribute their efforts.

Fortunately, gamified and gameful designs are not mutually exclusive, and combining both may cast the widest motivational net, significantly improving chances to capture hearts and minds.

A Playbor of Love

Recasting college level classes as games can be enormously rewarding and beneficial for students and instructors but, as all genuine innovation, hurdles must be cleared.

“Story, I think, is the real power of game-based learning,” said Leach, but he underscores a structural challenge to implementation when he adds that “the modular set-up of most university programs — 1.5 hour classes twice per week, students taking four or five different courses at a time — undermine developing that sense of narrative engagement in a university setting.” Can multiple courses be integrated into a single game? Can schedules be abolished to make way for more sophisticated asynchronous gameplay? Time will tell.

Leach also believes that universities could look to the K-12 system, where the emphasis is on pedagogy rather than research. “Mostly, I think university instructors have a lot to learn from K-12 teachers, where there is far more innovation in the fields of game-based learning. The lack of communication between the K-12 and post-secondary realms is a huge barrier to innovation.”

Implementing a game-based class also means an increased workload for already busy professors. Bob De Schutter, a game design professor at Miami University, writes that it can be a “long and laborious process to get it right.” However, tools like 3D Gamelab, and the benefit of tried and established models from pioneers like Lee Sheldon and Chris Haskell, will all prove helpful to reduce the time commitment for educators who want to jump into the fray.

Ultimately, it might be more accurate to frame the extra work as playbor rather than labor. “Truth of the matter is that I love doing the gameful course,” said De Schutter. “It is fun to ambush students, to bring their heroes in the conversation and to basically game-master a class, and it is just as fun for students to battle each other or slay vampire kitties. That does not necessarily make an already engaging teaching style any more engaging, but it does make your class significantly more awesome.”


  • Hannah

    Hi Paul! I’ve read a lot about gamification at the k-12 level but not at the college level, so this was an interesting read. Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa (2014) wrote a good literature review on studies about gamification. Their conclusion was that while most studies show a positive effect of gamification, there are limitations to many of the studies (namely being descriptive). Two findings of note were that (1) the positive effects of gamification may not be long-term since they could be due to the novelty effect and (2) removing gamification results in students having worse outcomes than they began with. I know there is a lot of support for the latter finding in the child development literature; Lepper et al. (1973) suggested the overjustification effect which, in this context, causes students to attribute their working hard to the rewards they receive such that when the rewards stop, their motivation to work hard also stops. Knowing this, I agree with you that good gamification should not rely on extrinsic rewards but instead on other aspects of games such as stories, quests, and challenges. When I looked into the effect on college students, I found that Deci, Koestner, & Ryan (1999) concluded from their meta-analysis on extrinsic rewards that (1) tangible rewards were less detrimental for college students than children, and (2) verbal rewards were more enhancing for college students than for children. So maybe at the college level, rewards (both tangible and verbal) would not be too bad. This design would probably make it easier for professors to implement some sort of gamification approach in their courses, since they don’t need to spend a lot of time creating storylines and fancy features. Also, college courses may be short enough so that the students’ motivation does not decline after the novelty wears off. Of course, if students end up taking multiple classes with a similar game structure, they might get bored of it. Anyways, I think this topic still needs to be explored and researched more before we can make good conclusions about it. Many professors I know would probably not be willing to restructure their entire course if they were not convinced that it would absolutely increase student motivation, engagement, and outcomes. Leach’s study, the studies I have talked about, and blog posts like yours are doing a great job of opening up the conversation, and I hope others continue to research and discuss it!

    • Thuy

      I completely agree with your’s and Paul’s sentiments and the inclusion of stories, quests, challenges and other engaging aspects to games rather than simply an extrinsic reward would seem incredibly beneficial to a curriculum. After reading the article and the comment, I was compelled to research a bit myself. According to Leicha Bragg (, games influence a student’s motivation, which is intertwined with their attitude and success. Definitely increasing a child’s motivation is beneficial, so having more engaging aspects to the lesson is great.

      Going more upon the idea of motivation, student’s motivations are based on their preferences. This may make it harder to include games into curriculum since stories can’t be individually tailored to every student’s interests unless copious amounts of money is spent. On the otherhand, an intrinsic motivator only goes so far. However, a way to motivate students is to include a sense of community. Cheryl Olsen ( surveyed several reasons as to why some children played video games and found that a considerable percentage of boys answered that they “like to compete with others and win”. Creating a sense of community where students can share information or compete with eachother can definitely serve as a strong method for motivation.

      Overall, I like the idea of incorporating such aspects into the classroom and curriculum and getting more and more students motivated to learn is definitely a problem that seems solvable with a little more research, convincing evidence and discussion. Keep up the good work!

      • Cora

        Your comment about boys wanting to “compete with others and
        win” made me realize that I would be interested to see more about gender
        disparities in gamification and game-based learning. Given the male-dominated and
        occasionally outright sexist nature of the gaming world (see “Gamergate” –,
        unless gamification is implemented in a manner that takes existing gender
        inequality in the gaming world into consideration, this divide may only be
        perpetuated. Framing a gamified class in a highly competitive light could
        motivate boys to participate more, but may intimidate female students if they
        do not feel welcome into this culture. Unfortunately, as the article states,
        gamifying a class can already require a great deal of effort from the professor
        to change the structure of the class. The more issues one has to examine, the more
        work it will be. I hope that despite this, anyone interested in implementing a
        gamified class structure will take the time to consider its effect on all
        groups of students in the classroom, because without this consideration,
        gamification could alienate students instead of motivating them.

  • SCSU TechInstruction

    Good morning Paul,
    I found your definition of gamification too narrow. Even if assessment was the point of your article. Here is more, if you are interested:

  • joebeckmann

    Amazing that nobody cites sports as evidence that games are remarkably well developed in higher ed, both in promotion, in finance, and in engaging otherwise less engaged students, alumni and others.

    Just as obvious are the gamification activities at MIT ( and Emerson ( where designing games is itself a subject that both engages and rewards student creativity and knowledge.

  • Fiona

    Thanks for the great post Paul! I love your definitions of gamification. I had never heard of it until reading about the post, and I feel that using the idea in a moderate and mature way can help the learning process of people of all ages. Coming from a montessori background, I know from experience that making relatable and fun ways to remember things can help us to reach greater understanding of concepts that we otherwise wouldn’t understand. This process can also help us to grow closer as a community and learn from each other as well.


Paul Darvasi

Paul Darvasi is an experienced educator whose research, speaking and writing explore the intersections of learning, technology, narrative and games. You can follow him on Twitter: @pauldarvasi

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