Rowan Tulloch

Gamification: not a gimmick but a radical new way of teaching

Despite the hype surrounding gamification the concept itself is poorly understood. I believe the real potential for the use of gamification in education, particularly schooling, is being missed.

For those who are new to the term ‘gamification’, it is used to describe a range of processes where the mechanics, or features, of games are integrated into traditionally non-game tasks, such as awarding badges for successfully completing tasks.

Education isn’t the only field attempting to use gamification. Marketing, health and fitness, human resources, and a range of other spheres, have embraced the use of gamified elements. These elements include things like points, badges, levels and leaderboards (which show a player’s progress or score compared to other players), These are all being used with varying degrees of success.

At present I believe gamification focuses too much on the use of such game elements without an understanding of how and why these mechanisms are used in gaming. The gamification we see in education is often simplistic at best and counterproductive at worst. To unlock the benefits of gamification we need to think about it differently.

To start it is important to understand the forms from which gamification emerged: traditional play and video gaming. Almost all play functions through teaching the player the rules. With most forms of traditional play, this is a straightforward task, rules are often listed in an instruction booklet, on the box, or taught verbally.

In video games the process can be somewhat different because the rules are often more complex and not written down anywhere. Yet video games ask players to engage in unfamiliar worlds, perform tasks and understand logics of which they have little or no prior skill, consequently video game designers have developed methods of training players and teaching them the skills and conceptual frameworks they need, without a written set of rules or having someone personally teach them how to play the game.

Many of the most identifiable aspects of video gaming are in essence teaching mechanisms. This is of great significance. Points and scores inform the player what they are doing right, levels and achievements signify progress, leaderboards help players understand the skill level relative to other players. These are all mechanisms that train the player with real-time and unambiguous feedback.

Current attempts to use gamification for education purposes are limited because they see gamification as taking some elements of gaming and adapting them for teaching purposes, overlooking that the initial purpose of these elements was, indeed, to teach.

I believe we have to stop trying to fit game design elements into traditional ways of teaching and think about gaming as an entirely different way of teaching.

Gamification is already a form of teaching. However it is not defined by the traditions of western institutional education (though is of course still influenced by these traditions). It is the result of over fifty years of refinement of specific teaching techniques in video game design, and an even longer history in traditional play.

What makes the gaming’s teaching tradition so powerful and productive is an emphasis on player/learner enjoyment. Games are a voluntary activity; without a game being enjoyable players are not going to engage. The field of game design is therefore a discipline dedicated to understanding what makes something fun, entertaining and engaging.

Whilst many teaching approaches have fun, engagement and enjoyment as secondary goals, for game design it is of primary importance. The player is being entertained throughout the process of learning how to play the game. This is what makes gaming distinctive and valuable, and this is what gives gamification its teaching potential. The centrality of enjoyment and engagement makes it uniquely effective in situations where other forms of teaching may struggle.

If we understand gamification not just as a set of mechanics but as a way of teaching that has been out there, used and talked about, for fifty years it becomes easier to work out how we can use it in schools. As a practice gamification does not assume engagement and interest, but instead seeks to generate it.

Once we understand gamification as a teaching heritage, a whole set of new approaches and frameworks open up. We can go beyond the most obvious gaming elements, like points and levels, and explore more sophisticated training techniques used by games. The discipline of game design, and its critical counterpart: game studies, offer new ways of thinking about teaching and help us think more deeply about how we learn, why we learn, and what it means to learn.

To reach its full potential, gamification must be understood as the drawing on the rich theoretical heritage game design and studies offers, and the recognition that in doing so one is accessing a developed and distinctive way of teaching.

Gamification offers educators a chance to blur the line between playing and learning, and perhaps even make that line disappear. Done properly gamification is not a gimmick or a novelty, it is an opportunity to make education fun. One that enables us to engage leaners in innovative ways without sacrificing the quality of effectiveness of what is taught.

Rowan Tulloch2


Dr Rowan Tulloch is a lecturer in digital media and video gaming at Macquarie University. His research looks at the technological and cultural logics embodied within practices of interactivity. His recent research project The Gamification of Higher Education Teaching Practices has analysed the effectiveness of different models of gamification in the university classroom environment.