Gamification is a term that describes using “game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems.” (Zicherman & Cunningham, 2011, p. xiv). Games are very good at manipulating behavior because they keep us engaged in an experience not by happenstance, but by design. They do this by intentionally appealing to what we value, want, and need, which is why many companies have “gamified” their marketing campaigns to captivate consumers and drive profitability (e.g Nike +). Game mechanics refers to the tools used to meet this goal, such as points, levels, leaderboards, badges, etc. So what does this all have to do with education?

In many ways, education somewhat resembles a game (Lee & Hammer, 2011). A game can be thought of as a highly structured system designed with specific rules, goals, and challenges. Successful games are fun – they motivate players to engage in the task at hand, from collecting coins and saving princesses (gotta love Mario Bros.) to storming battle fields in multiplayer combat scenarios (the Modern Warfare series comes to mind).  At a deeper level, games activate a very primal response; they tap into the learning and behavior processes of the brain. People becomes so completely engaged in gameplay precisely because they are challenged; they must acquire and master new skills if they wish to advance to higher levels of complexity. If a task is too challenging it will lead to anxiety; if it is too easy it will lead to boredom. That perfect balance between the two is termed flow – that state in which a person is fully immersed in the experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

The process of leveling up and enhancing one’s status through the collection of points is not so different from that of the education system. In a masterfully written article, Sarah “intellagirl” Smith-Robbins, Director of Emerging Technologies for the Kelley School of Business (Indiana University), stated “Education has been a system of status and points since the dawn of the Industrial Age. Scores on assignments serve as points. Graduation is a level achieved. A diploma is a badge of confidence from an accredited institution.”

Education has been a system of status and points since the dawn of the Industrial Age.” – Sarah Smith-Robbins
The problem is that in this game students can become so fixated on the “points” and badges they forget the true goal of education; learning.

Once students misunderstand the goal of education, they cease to derive satisfaction or meaning from their educational experience. For young children, every newly acquired skill brings delight. They are enthralled by challenge and fascinated with learning. At what point does learning become boring? When does it become a chore? More importantly, is there a way to recapture that magic and go back to a time when learning was fun? The goal here is not to make learning a game, but to make a game of learning.

Would you believe it if someone told you that with gamification, college students are likely to complete quizzes for fun? I was able to obtain an unpublished manuscript describing a study in which gamification was used to improve learning in an undergraduate course at Old Dominion University (thanks to Dr. Richard Landers).  This is exactly what happened. Students received points and earned badges for completing nonmandatory quizzes and they mastered the concepts in the process. Check out the video description of the study called socialPsych.

socialPsych Introduction from TNTLab on Vimeo.

Anecdotal support for the benefits of gamification in higher education lies in the stories of professors like Lee Sheldon from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who replaced the traditional grading system with experience points (XP) to enhance student engagement; elementary school teacher Ananth Pai who used computer games (e.g. Timez Attack,  Brain Age 2, Flower Power) to improve his 3rd graders reading and math levels from somewhat below average to mid 4th grade levels in only 4 months!

One of the most shockingly awesome stories on gamification comes from the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology (NSMB September 2011). Using a game called Foldit, players tried to figure out the protein structures of retroviral proteases (PRs), enzymes that facilitate the maturation and proliferation of deadly viruses like HIV. You see, under a microscope, these images are one-dimensional but the foldit game allows players to create an accurate 3D structure of the enzyme if they can successfully unfold the amino acid chains. Understanding the enzyme’s protein structure helps scientists develop a method for disrupting its activity to fight disease. What scientists had been struggling with for over a decade, online gamers solved in just 3 weeks.

The ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems
 Possibly the first time in history that online gamers solved a long-standing scientific problem, researchers stated “These results indicate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems” (Khatib et al., 2011, p. 1177).

Perhaps the most inspirational example of gamification in education is the story of the Khan Academy. Salman Khan was a hedge fund analyst who started a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the world (for free) through the internet, video, and… game mechanics! The Khan academy flips the traditional model of education on its head, encouraging users to experiment and learn by trial-and-error. Users can watch videos to learn about various concepts and complete practice problems for math-related content. As users progress to mastery, they earn points and badges along the way, reinforcing their effort and skill.  Additionally, you can get accurate and immediate feedback with their data analytics so you can determine where you need help and where you are proficient.  From universities to primary schools, students are using the Khan Academy to make learning fun. This is a must-see video:


Gamification is already transforming education and the way we learn. Colleges and universities may be slow to adopt such methods because learning couldn’t possibly be fun right? Higher education institutions want to be taken seriously and how can that be if they use frivolous games and gaming mechanics to motivate their students? The culture in higher education needs to change because games are not just for kids. Imagine a university in which players, I mean students, are so utterly rapt with excitement they forget that they are learning; they are totally engaged. Why not? I hope to see more research in this area from institutions innovative enough to try such methods.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins

Khatib et al. (2011). Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, 18, 1175-1177. doi: 10.1038/nsmb.2119. Retrieved from

Landers, R. N. & Callan, R. C. (in press). Casual social games as serious games: The psychology of gameification in undergraduate education and employee training.  In M. Ma, A. Oikonomou, & L. C. Jain (Eds.), Serious Games and Edutainment Applications. Surrey, UK: Springer

Lee, J. J., & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in education: What, how, why bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2). Retrieved from

Smith-Robbins, S. (2011). “This Game Sucks”: How to improve the gamification of education. EDUCAUSE Review, 46(1).

Zicherman, G. , & Cunningham, G. (2011). Gamification by design. Sebastopal, CA: O’Reilly Media