in collaboration with Nele Van de Mosselaer ((Tilburg University, previously attached to the Department of Philosophy UAntwerp)

Gamification: using video game design to motivate and actively engage students. That’s what we’ll discuss in this tip. In gamification, game elements are applied in non-game situations (Deterding et al., 2011). A good example is Duolingo, an online language learning platform. Duolingo motivates and rewards users with badges for daily exercise (for example, a badge/medal if you practise three days in a row) and shows personal scores in leaderboards, where users can compete against friends or strangers.

It’s important to apply gamification correctly in education, as incorrect implementation can have negative effects on the learning behaviour and motivation of students. That’s why in this tip we’ll go into some do’s and don’ts of gamification in education.

Gamification: ludus and paidia 

In his book Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois (1961) distinguishes two types of play: ludus and paidia. Gamification in education often falls under ludus, where clear rules, a strong structure and a clear framework are central to the game, and where the activities of the player are quantified and rewarded with scores, badges or leaderboard rankings. Education often already has ludus elements, such as clarity, structure and external rewards (in the form of marks). This is because, like many video games, educational structures are often organised in a behaviouristic manner.

While scores, badges and leaderboards are motivating in games, they’re not the only elements that make games fun and keep players engaged in the long run. The paidia element of games, which emphasises freedom, creativity and self-regulation, also plays a major role. The paidia variants of gamified education are consistent with theories that emphasise self-determination and intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985). We can also include these paidia elements in education to engage and motivate students.

Ludus in education

Ludus elements are often already present in education, where they help ensure a strong teaching environment with a clear structure, clear learning objectives and clear communication about assessment methods and criteria. But ludus elements can also entail pitfalls, such as an overemphasis on extrinsic motivation due to a focus on external rewards, and a very rigidly organised teaching environment with little room for free exploration, personal interests and creativity. How can we avoid these pitfalls?

  • Connect extrinsic motivation and external rewards with intrinsic motivation or interest in the learning content (Glasbeek & Visser, 2018). For example, students can be encouraged to read a text before class and to write a short reflection on it, because they can earn points for doing so. This assignment can then enable valuable intrinsic activities, such as a group discussion where all students can make an informed contribution. This way, students will probably experience for themselves that the initially extrinsically motivated action is also intrinsically valuable. It leads to progress in the learning process, fruitful conversations with fellow students and the opportunity to clarify any ambiguities in the text.
  • Add qualitative feedback to quantitative feedback. Quantitative feedback (i.e. a mark) is like a score in a video game: a clear reinforcer of student behaviour. However, teachers can also provide qualitative feedback on individual performance, making students feel more personally involved in the learning process. Moreover, qualitative feedback can also offer suggestions for improvement (‘feedforward’; see also this ECHO Teaching Tip, from 2022). As a result, assignments are more likely to be perceived not as standalone tasks that can be forgotten once the marks have been obtained, but as steps in a broader learning process.
  • Give students the space to deviate from the imposed structure. Programme components are often organised in such a way that only course-related activities (such as interim assignments, participation during lessons and correct answers given on the exam) are rewarded. This is a shame, because it makes other valuable learning moments and behaviours seem less important. Try to reward students for aspects such as creativity, perseverance, cooperation and self-discipline if you can fit this into your teaching environment  (see also this ECHO Teaching Tip from 2015, info in Dutch).

Paidia in education

In addition to ludus elements, you can also include the following paidia elements to motivate students:

  • Freedom to explore based on personal interests and curiosity. Video games often focus on free play, where players can choose the actions they take and the goals they pursue. Such aspects of self-determination and exploration are what makes video games attractive to many players (Ryan et al., 2006). Open-world games like Minecraft are a great example of this. Here are some ways to incorporate this aspect of ‘freedom to explore’ into your teaching:
    • Give students as much freedom as possible to follow their own interests. For example, let them choose which lesson topics they want to discuss in an assignment. If possible, allow for a few lessons at the end of the programme component with no set content. Discuss and define this content together with the students, based on their questions and interests.
    • Involve students as much as possible in planning and organising lessons and assessments (Svinicki, 2016). For example, let them choose from different assessment methods, give them a say in deadlines and assignments, and let them decide which concepts to explore further in subsequent lessons.
    • Try not to overly steer students in the right direction. For example, avoid the temptation to correct them right away or give them the correct answer when they find a question difficult. Instead, ask additional questions that help them think things through for themselves.
    • Encourage students to process the learning content in a personal way. Where possible, ask questions that motivate students to reflect on the lessons in a personal way or give assignments that connect the learning content to their own world and experiences.
    • Make it clear to students through quantitative or qualitative feedback that further exploration or processing of the subject matter is appreciated, including in ways that are not a standard part of the programme component. Integrate valuable discoveries or associations that students make (such as current events that can serve as examples) in your lessons or motivate students to continue such searches in an individual final paper.

  • A healthy relationship with the potential for failure. Unlike gamers, students regularly struggle with performance anxiety. This is often associated with the fact that assessment situations in education offer few opportunities for success, while much depends on them. After all, it is often an all-or-nothing situation, in which students only get one chance to demonstrate their grasp of the subject matter. Games, on the other hand, offer many opportunities for success with little risk (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Morris et al., 2013). Specific educational tips based on this paidia element:​
    • Ask questions during lessons or in interim assignments where students are free to give wrong answers without consequences or risks (i.e. without deducting any marks).
    • Organise interim, formative assessments and mock exams (see this ECHO Teaching Tip  from 2017). This provides students with multiple chances of success with less pressure, which reduces stress (Svinicki, 2016). Moreover, every ‘attempt’ – successful or not – can contribute to the learning process. Formative, qualitative feedback/feedforward plays an important role in this (see ECHO Teaching Tips on feedback).
    • Make it clear at the beginning of the lesson or series of lessons that wrong answers are okay. This stimulates creative thinking. See wrong answers as an opportunity to learn or to get feedforward. Depending on the answer, you can discuss the reasoning behind the answer to gain more insight into where the problem lies, give hints so that the group can search for the right answer together, or analyse together what could be done better.
    • Start a lesson with a challenging question and create a safe learning environment. For example, emphasise that it is a tough question, ensure a positive classroom climate (see this ECHO teaching tip from 2020) and encourage students to brainstorm about possible answers together. Correct answers will motivate students so even more challenging questions can follow. If they answer incorrectly (see the previous point), explain that this is normal and that by the end of the lesson, they will be able to answer the question. This can lead to a productive lesson where students become aware of their progress.
    • As a teacher, try to deal with your own mistakes in an open and constructive way. After all, you are a role model in this regard, showing students how mistakes can lead to learning moments (Svinicki, 2016).

Want to know more?

Barata, G., Gama, S., Jorge, J., & Gonçalves, D. (2013). Improving participation and learning with gamification. In Proceedings of the First International Conference on gameful design, research, and applications, 10–17.

Centre for Teaching Excellence. ‘Gamification and Game-Based Learning’. University of Waterloo. gamebased-learning

Caillois, R. (1961). Man, Play, and Games. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M.(2001). Extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation in education: Reconsidered once again. Review of educational research 71(1), 1–27.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining ‘gamification’. In Proceedings of the 15th international academic MindTrek conference: Envisioning future media environments, 9–15.

Deterding, S. (2014). Eudaimonic Design, or: Six Invitations to Rethink Gamification. In Fuchs, M., Fizek, S., Ruffino, P., & Schrape, N. (Eds.), Rethinking Gamification, 305–331. Meson Press.

Glasbeek, H. A., & Visser, K. (2018). Motiveer mij intrinsiek! Leidt verschoolsing tot motivatieverlies bij studenten? Tijdschrift voor hoger onderwijs,  36(3), 5–22.

Lee, J. J. & Hammer, J. (2011). ‘Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?’ Academic Exchange Quarterly 15(2), 1–5.

Morris, B. J., Croker, S., Zimmerman, C., Gill, D., & Romig, C. (2013). Gaming science: the ‘Gamification’ of scientific thinking. Frontiers in Psychology 4, 1–16

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), 344–360.

Svinicki, M. D. (2016). Motivation: An Updated Analysis. IDEA Paper# 59. IDEA Center, Inc.

Toda, A. M., Valle, P. H., & Isotani, S. (2017). The dark side of gamification: An overview of negative effects of gamification in education. In Researcher links workshop: higher education for all, 143–156.

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