Gamification – a way to understand #activeleaning

gamification logoI have been interested in games-based learning and playful learning since the early 2000s when I came across J. P. Gee’s work and since leading work on creative development in academic practice. The Creative Development Team I was responsible for was formed in 2004 just at Web 2.0 and social media began to surface and ideas about gamification emerged through discussion of the creative curriculum. Techniques like simulation and problem-based learning were an obvious fit, and remain so. As Landers (2014) says, game design and learning theories derive from the same psychological theories.

But I had never used video games. I am of an age and situation where that wasn’t on my radar. At the time, this felt like a disadvantage. The distinction between games and game-like behaviour wasn’t clear to me, but I knew enough to see that games of any sort could teach us a thing or two about student-centred design and motivation resonating with my apparent aim in life: to understand design for intrinsic motivation and learner engagement. Or, not falling back on the crutch of credit for summative assessment. Shouldn’t an education be challenging and fun? Everyday? Essentially motivating?

The idea of ‘game’ belies the different motivations, applications and genres for their use in education (Majuri et al. 2018). Designs tend to fall into the four categories of achievement/progression, social, immersion, and non-digital, though there are other miscellaneous applications. Within these high-level conceptions there are many other sub-genres of educational games as noted in Majuri et al.’s 2018 literature review. From these genres the idea of gamification emerges, what Deterding et al. (2011) call “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts,” the rationale being that “game design is a valuable approach for making non-game products, services, or applications, more enjoyable, motivating, and/or engaging to use.” Koivisto and Hamari (2019) summarise the literature saying people commonly experience feelings such as mastery, competence, enjoyment, immersion, or flow, when playing games; all of which are characteristic of intrinsically motivated human behaviour.

There have been several sessions addressing gamification at InstructureCon 2019 (there is some irony here – I always had a problem with the US use of the term ‘instruction’ – it is soo teacher-centred! I am glad to say Instructure, who produce the Canvas LMS, are very student-centred in their philosophy). The conference theme of ‘Learning Safari’ was itself very gameful, with references to surfing and fun, fun, fun almost obscuring the serious stuff!

The session led by Ryan Booth and Alex Koning on Using Canvas to Facilitate a Game-Based Learning Classroom suggested I could learn something about Canvas, but the main outcome for me was the time we spent looking at the Institute of Play’s game-like learning principles (

  • Everyone is a participant
  • Learning feels like play
  • Everything is interconnected
  • Learning happens by doing
  • Failure is reframed as iteration
  • Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  • Challenge is constant

This set of principles could be used to describe a success active learning paradigm. While everyone is a participant, Booth and Koning pointed out that the teacher needs to make this work. As with any group work there is a danger of free riding. You can use the idea of Captain, Crew and Cargo to talk to students about team dynamics. Captains are those students who will lead and take responsibility. They are needed but they can dominate. Crew are the decks hands, and they should think about taking the Captain’s role every now and then. The Cargo gets there but they didn’t participate, so they don’t learn anything and the teacher needs to challenge such students before running any game.

I went to a session led by Jared Chapman (So, What’s My Motivation? Students Barrel Towards Success!) who highlighted that the term ‘gamification’ is outmoded and is now maturing. He said game-like design or gamification is better understood as a ‘motivational information system’. He argues that students fail, not because what we teach is hard, but because we fail to motivate them. Chapman offers a gamification design framework for the motivational information system: Skill, Will, and Thrill (Hattie & Donoghue, 2016). If we look after those dimensions we should find ourselves devising fun and engaging students in their learning.

Skill – Learning, he says, is a skill (I would say it demands a skill set or literacies). He proposes that in learning the student assesses (perceives and evaluates) the task in hand, performs by executing a plan towards achieving goals, and evaluates their performance and achievement by monitoring and adapting to the situation. This cycle is in effect an experiential learning cycle, one that is familiar to gamers. Learning is caught up with identity – self-efficacy is important. Like gaming, learning also requires good behaviour (hygiene) – time on task, etc. Chapman describes the importance of effective ‘dashboard’ design too – ensuring the learner/gamer is clear about what to do and able to monitor how well they are doing. A good dashboard makes the complex clear while allowing the gamer/learner to drill down to the detail (and at InstructorCon I have been to several sessions on learning analytics and how it is catered for in Canvas).

Will – Will or motivation is the next dimension of a motivational information system. This brings us onto self-determination theory which I have discussed here and elsewhere on many occasions. I tend to focus on the ideal end of the motivation continuum (intrinsic motivation), but Chapman spoke a lot about internalisation, and rightly so. This is where the teacher and game designer should focus. Internalisation asks, how do we appeal to the learner to gain their interest and commitment? He says you need to design an environment that allows for success and achievement, a space where you can discover what you are good at. I emphasise: self-discovery. The environment allows for autonomy, echoing my favourite way of describing active learning as being agentic. The environment should be meaningful – hence authentic learning strategies and contexts in a social setting are key to good design. Finally under Will, Chapman identifies urgency – a reason to act now even if it means failing safely.

Thrill – the third dimension in the gamified system of learning, can be understood as requiring design that generates creative flow (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). If the game is too easy the player gets bored. Too hard, the player gets anxious. Given that a gamified classroom is made up of diverse students who may each be ‘on a different page and at a different stage’, this can be tricky, however, the next gamification session I went to talked about self-paced design as an important strategy for addressing this.

Derek Rinks gave a paper called Authentic project-based learning through gamification – a title containing many of my favourite words, so I was keen to hesr what he had to say. He asked a very knowledgeable audience, “What makes a great game?” Here are some of the responses:

  • Fun
  • Goals
  • Chance
  • Multiple play
  • Levelling up – progression
  • Safe to fail
  • Challenge
  • Interesting
  • Decision making
  • Immediate feedback
  • Rules
  • Personalised experience
  • Collaboration, either co-operation or competition
  • Winners and losers.

He said teaching often shared those essential ingredients found in:

  • Syllabus
  • Grades
  • Strategy (pedagogy)
  • Teams or individual players
  • Fun
  • Goal/Reward

Every student journey is unique (a point made in many of the gamification sessions). Exploration or adventure-based design focuses on the self-paced learner who navigates their learning autonomously. Referring to his own adventure-based approach, he discussed how he created a rich backstory – you could call it a scenario or a conceit. His students undertook a daily writing assignment to capture their personal narrative. Along the way, as his students undertook their own exploration, they created artefacts the purpose of which may become clear later, i.e. the things they find or piece together could have a purpose later in the game.

Rinks said adventure-based designs are complex, rich, and interconnected – a world or ecology of ideas. This means having to create 50% more content than would normally be required – some knowledge/tokens/artefacts/ideas might remain undiscovered, but added to a sense of discovery, potentially offering ‘bonus’ or kudos value. Self-paced environment means providing real choices within the framework of the project. This abundance of content allows “…the students to believe they are pioneers able to discover something that nobody else will.” He advised using pictures to create mystery and intrigue, and he found that students are motivated by wanting to know what comes next. He said, “You need to be as excited as you want them to be, enthusiasm and intrigue are contagious.”

Skill development is necessary to take part and complete. Students are less anxious when they have time and choice and have more fun. There is space and time to build relationships and they can learn life-work balance. While students are required and free to navigate the content, they don’t choose the content, so the academic’s role is scoping and providing access to content remains from more traditional approaches, the shift is about developing student motivation and behaviour.

In a gamified approach, all students are on task but on different tasks!


Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Coreaxis (2017). Gamification: When too much of a good thing is a waste of time and budget. [Blog post: Tuesday, 11 July 2017, online at:

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R. & Knacke, L. (2011). Gamification: Toward a definition. In the proceedings of CHI 2011, May 7–12, 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada. ACM 978-1-4503-0268-5/11/05.

Hattie, J. & Donoghue, G. (2016). Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. NPJ Science of Learning, 1, Article number: 16013

Koivisto, J. & Hamari, J. (2019) The rise of motivational information systems: A review of gamification research. International Journal of Information Management, 45, April 2019, pp. 191-210

Landers, R. N. (2014). Developing a theory of gamified learning: Linking serious games and gamification of learning. Simulation & Gaming, 45(6), 752–768.

Majuri, J. Koivisto, J.  & Hamari, J. (2018). Gamification of education and learning: A review of empirical literature. Proceedings of the 2nd International GamiFIN conference, Pori, Finland, May 21-23, 2018, pp. 11-19.

Ryan, R.M., Rigby, C.S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30 (4), pp. 344-360.


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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2 Responses to Gamification – a way to understand #activeleaning

  1. Pingback: Discovery, gamification and loosely structured #activelearning | Tactile

  2. Pingback: Competition and co-operation in the #activelearning classroom | Tactile

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