“Many students who neglect school and get in trouble all the time aren’t like that because they are dumb or dislike learning - they just don’t see the purpose of learning the subjects that are taught in class.” - Yu-kai Chou, author of Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards.
This infokit explores gamification and its application to the field of education, learning and teaching. It is written for instructors such as lecturers and teachers, and is also of interest to learning system developers, education technology organisations, metadata specialists, librarians, and anyone concerned with effective learning either within, or outwith, curriculum requirements.
Chapters 2 to 5 discuss examples of gamification in education, describe some of the elements of gamified systems - with a deeper consideration of badges - but also highlight problems and weaknesses with the implementation and use.
Chapters 6 to 9 provide more depth on the evidence and psychology behind gamification, highlight issues you will need to consider before implementing gamification yourself, and indicate current gamification trends.
The three appendices provide links to further examples and reading, and a discussion on viewing the education sector in terms of games.
What is gamification?
Take a situation where people need to do a particular ‘thing’. Remembering some information; stopping smoking; reducing fuel costs; passing a test; learning a language; completing a monotonous work task. Much of our daily living consists of things that we need to do.
Completing the ‘thing’ has consequences, usually positive. For example, learning the language increases the employability of the learner, and makes trips to places where the language is spoken more enjoyable.
Not completing the thing does not result in the positive consequences of completion, or has negative consequences. Failing to pass a driving test means the driver cannot (legally) drive. Not completing the work task can result in disciplinary action, a loss of pay, or reduced promotion prospects.
Gamification is where “stuff” (some say ‘elements’, some ‘mechanics’, and some 'components') from games is incorporated into the process of doing the thing. In theory, this gives the person doing the thing a little boost, nudge, or incentive, or extra motivation, to either successfully complete the ‘thing’ where otherwise they would have failed, or to do better than they would otherwise have done. Importantly, the ‘thing’ isn’t turned into a video game; gamification just borrows a few elements from the gaming world and injects them into the task at hand.
For example; gamifying a ‘thing’ could mean associating points to food products for dieters, displaying a progress bar of an online task (“83% done! Only 17% to go!”), awarding a badge for the proven mastery of a skill, or displaying a league table of a cohort of learners, athletes, workers or some other group of people whose efforts can be measured quantitatively.
In these situations, it is hoped by the gamification provider that various psychological and motivational factors will kick in, or be boosted, by the game elements. The dieters can create (and therefore ‘own’) weight loss targets based on food points. The progress bar encourages the person carrying out the online take to reach “100% - task completed!”. The wearer of the badge gains confidence, pride, the respect of peers and is inclined to try (harder) to gain more badges. People, seeing their rankings on a league table, are motivated to either work harder to gain places and move up the table, or work harder to retain their existing high position.
That is the basic theory; the practice is less straightforward. But before examining aspects of gamification in detail, it is worthwhile looking at some common attributes and misconceptions.
Gamification is not new; there is a long history of adjusting processes or tasks to increase participation and completion. However, the application of this practice, under the label of ‘gamification’, is relatively recent  within the education sector.
As with other emerging educational technologies and theories, debate and speculation are not lacking as education commentators rush in to fill the ‘evidence vacuum’. Until there is a substantial collection of successful and relevant examples, or a significant body of evidence and research, such debate is likely to remain speculative, lacking in nuance, and above all polarised.
In the positive camp, adjectives such as ‘amazing’  and ‘awesome’  are commonly quoted, often by people and agencies from the marketing, software and advertising sectors. In the negative camp, the adjectives are somewhat different  , with terms such as ‘exploitationware’ being deployed, and the practice - and the people who engage in it - being parodied  in popular culture.
It is therefore important, when reading around gamification, to ignore the oft-present emotion that is encountered even in academic papers . Instead, consider:
This infokit strives to be calm and neutral in emotion and tone, occupying neither extreme position but the quieter land in between. It incorporates real examples and probes the current evidence base. It does not seek to persuade the reader - you - to either enthusiastically implement gamification or to reject the concept wholesale. Instead, it seeks to provide a nuanced and unbiased exploration of the subject, and explores the current trends and cooler ‘thinking’ based around gamification.
There are many game elements, such as progress bars, points, high score tables and leaderboards, which are used in gamified systems. However, one particular game element, the badge, has a particular notoriety.
One reason for the high profile of badges is their ubiquity. In the physical world, military personnel display medals, bars and other badge-centric insignia, awarded for experience and deeds. The staff of one fast food chain earn stars which they are obliged to display . Online, people can “earn” digital badges (but rarely the cash equivalent) by contributing reviews, pictures or other content to various services, or for providing altruistic help and advice . In education, badges can be earned for attending courses  or events .
Some badge schemes have limitations; once you have earned the digital badge you desired - then what? Others have a more substantive potential within the education sector. The Open Badges project, for example, allows learners to accumulate credible badges from diverse sources and build a portfolio of achievements.
While it is sensible not to forget the other components and elements of gamified systems - some of which are described later - the profile and prevalence of badges, and their potential and use in education, justifies further examination.
There is yet to be a “killer technology” which positively transforms education for all and has few, or no, drawbacks. Gamification continues this problematic run.
Despite the emotional overtone of much sceptical comment, there is substance in the negative reasons given for not using gamification, or at least being cautious in its implementation. Would students moving to a gamified learning system be focused on learning, or on “chasing the badge”? Does gamification increase the motivation to cheat? What happens to all of the data generated by the users of a gamified service, and is this data legal - or, at the least, ethical? Is a gamified system being used to mask other problems within a learning situation or organisation?
Cautionary points regarding gamification, its implementation and consequences, can be found through this infokit. In particular, chapter 4 points out a few problems with badges, chapter 5 focuses on issues, problems and weaknesses, while chapter 8 highlights some of the pitfalls of acquiring or developing your own gamified service.
At the root of gamification - and, of course, the root of learning and education - is the brain of the learner. How does a learner, well, learn ? How can they learn ‘better’ - and what is ‘learning’ , and what is ‘better’?
There is an extremely large body of theory which sits in the intersection of education research, learning theory, psychology and human biology. It is way beyond the scope of this infokit to explore in full detail; there is an active industry producing books, articles, papers and social media for those interested.
However, most forays into the theory or practice of gamification soon become encounters with the concepts of behaviour (current and changed) and motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic), which are introduced in the next chapter. At a more basic biological level, discussion on the neural aspects of learning - such as the effects of dopamine and serotonin - also appear in the literature. A later chapter therefore considers a few of the psychological aspects of gamification.
As already mentioned, gamification is high on the agenda in contemporary academic debate. This is illustrated - and sometimes encouraged - by inclusion in annual memes such as the Gartner Hype Cycle  and speculative education selections such as the NMC Horizon Predictions .
However, the inclusion of an educational theory or new technology in populist charts or tables is not a guarantee of there being robust, convincing, persuasive or (most importantly) transferable evidence.
While there is reference to academic and research texts throughout this infokit, the seventh chapter is a more focused examination of the research base. In addition, Appendix 2 lists a few freely available materials for exploring the evidence around gamification further.
While there is often an excited focus on the possible benefits of emerging educational technologies, the issues of finance, money, costs and budgets are not so frequently mentioned by advocates, evangelists, marketers and, especially, conference speakers. Most implementations of gamification do have an unavoidable cost, which can vary dramatically according to what is being implemented.
For example, and from personal experience in the 1980s, a school classroom may have a ‘merit mark’ chart on the wall, where pupils who attain a good mark in a test, or are judged to be well-behaved or are punctual, could put a star next to their name. At the end of each term, the pupil with the most stars was given a certificate. The cost of this gamified system was just the cost of a packet of stars.
In comparison, a contemporary online system which takes the performance metrics of pupils, produces gamified metrics and measures to encourage performance improvements, and adhered to various data, privacy and legal standards, could cost a significant amount for a school to commission from developers, or even just to buy-in and integrate with their existing systems.
These costs are not just monetary for software or hardware. Gamified systems, within and beyond education, can result in significant resource and human costs for tasks such as data verification, and assessing tests and exams. For example, some dietary programs - one of the most widely-used forms of gamification - adopt point-based systems  for participants to determine what they can consume. However, they also offer group meetings where employed staff check weights and progress, and provide support and advice for people failing to reach their targets.
There is a need, at the very least, to acknowledge the magnitude of costs for implementing a gamified system within the education sector. This is not a political consideration in a time of austerity. Rather, it is a pragmatic acceptance that ‘shiny badges’ may be cheap, cheerful and realistic if they are stuck on a chart on the wall, but unaffordable or poor value if envisaged as academic digital rewards with little ongoing use. This is discussed further in the chapter concerning gamifying your learning situation.
There is a common confusion, in the wider public media and even within academic writing, between games and gamification. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably; for example, TV news presenters sometimes show a video game being played and refer to what is happening as ‘gamification’. The next chapter in this infokit hopefully illustrates, through examples, the difference between the two.
To a degree, this confusion is understandable. Gamification borrows ‘stuff’ from games. The cognitive and biological processes in the brain from playing a video game, and using a gamified system, are similar. One word is a derivative of the other.
In addition, there is an argument that life itself is a game, a concept explored in philosophy  and popular culture (see the picture below). This argument can be developed to demonstrate that life is a collection of many game-oriented tasks, with skills (e.g. early morning routines, which are themselves a collection of nested trials e.g. cleaning your teeth competently), challenges (e.g. catching a bus to work on time), and motivations and rewards (e.g. starting work on time, not being disciplined for poor timekeeping).
Scene from the movie Battle Royale
Taking this concept to its possibly unnatural conclusion, the final appendix takes a field familiar to many readers: academia in the UK. It explores scenarios within education which are either accidentally or deliberately gamified, and the consequences of these scenarios. While it is not intended to make the reader consider leaving academia, the appendix may provide some context and additional thought for how gamification is used - or misused - within their academic life.
 Does Gamification Work? - A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification.
 Benefit of Gamification? Increased Engagement!
 Why gamification is awesome.
 Gamification is Bullshit.
 Usability, Samsara and Jedi mind control or why gamification is evil.
 Black Mirror is television science fiction at its best.
 A simple Google Scholar search on the term ‘gamification’.
 We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education.
 Education and the Brain: A Bridge Too Far.
 2014 Gartner Hype Cycle.
 A summary of 11 years of NMC Horizon predictions.
 Weight-loss, gamification and common sense: a delicate balance.
 Longread: Introduction to Gaming, Life, and Philosophy.