Gamification 101: Why Gamify? Part I


Meet my niece and nephew, Brody and Riley.  They were three and two when these pictures were taken.  That is my iPad.  They are now five and four.  I live in India, so sadly, I only get to see them once or twice a year.  We usually meet up at my parents house while I am home for the summer.  I count the days and then hours until I hear the sound of the car in the driveway and catch a glimpse of the excitement on their faces when they first see me on the back patio.  My nephew can hardly contain himself as he desperately tries to break free of the seat belt, scrambling for the car door.  He runs towards my open arms, shouting, "Aunt Rory! Can I play with your iPad?!?!". 

Angry Birds 1:  Aunt Rory 0. 

I take what I can get.

Typically, I don't see my iPad for the duration of their visit.  The lengths that my nephew,  will go to to play games are astounding.  Who knew such small people were capable of such sinister manipulation and deception.  One afternoon, we spent about half an hour looking for Brody, only to find him hiding behind the couch in an Angry Birds trance with the sound turned off to avoid detection.  We have all been there, or know someone who has lost all will power and surrendered to the call of the game Sirens.  Just ask my students.  The other day this post from one student to another showed up on my feed.


You know it is bad when they don't respond to Facebook messages!  My response?  STOP PLAYING CRIMINAL CASE AND STUDY FOR YOUR IB EXAMS!  Hmmmm... Maybe if IB exams were more like a game.  Now there is a thought. 

I decided to give it a try.  About an hour before my seniors went in to take their IB exam for Biology last week, several of them showed up in my classroom in a state of sheer panic.  It was time for the pep talk.  "It's just a game.  Go in there and grab as many points as you can while trying to beat your own high score or better yet, beat Mr. Roy. Exact your revenge for all of those times that he took advantage of your age and inexperience just to add another mark to his win column. Just think of it as a game."  I immediately saw the tension drain from their faces, and a couple of them had gone to their happy place replacing the panic with a confident smirk.  It was obvious that they were about to engage in an epic battle against Mr. Roy for the next three and a half hours and the odds were in their favor. 

24 hours after exams, the teachers are given the exam materials, including the multiple choice booklets that the students mark up before putting the answers on their answer sheet.  While searching for a clean copy to add to my files, I discovered this on the cover of one of the exams.


Anonymous Student 1: Mr. Roy 0

So what makes games so appealing?  I have been reading a book called Designing Games by Tynan Sylvester.  Tynan does a great job at defining the emotional journey of a game by breaking it down into the elements that make us so vulnerable to those game Sirens.  The first piece of the puzzle is the mechanics of the game.  Mechanics are the elements of games that define how a game works and determine the complexity and level of player interaction.  Things such as risk and rewards, movement, resource management, victory conditions, timing, loss avoidance etc. are all examples of game mechanics.  Mechanics create an arousal state using threats and challenges.

Mechanics are then layered with fictional elements or the story of the game.  This gives the game emotional meaning, which as we know is important for learning (see below). 

When you combine the mechanics and the fictional layer, you create events that provoke emotions and ultimately lead to an integrated experience. 

So what does this have to do with education?  Rule #4 from the book Brain Rules by John Medina, is "We don't pay attention to boring things".  Medina goes on to explain, "We pay attention to things like emotions, threats and sex. Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? Have I seen it before?"  A perfect example of this is Apple"s 1984 commercial introducing the Macintosh computer.  He also talks about the positive effects of stress and emotional memory (check out slide #2).  Games are great at creating emotional experiences with the right combination of mechanics and story elements.

Games also have an element of repetition or grinding built in that enhances the brains ability to retain learning for a longer period of time.   

When you compare the elements of games with current brain research on learning enhancement, gamifying learning is theoretically a win-win, a "no brainer" if you will.  The trick is to find a way to make the learning objectives an integral part of the game play so that the only way that a winning condition can be achieved is through the mastery of these objectives. 

Examples of Gamification

The first example is an activity from my 10th grade Physics class called "Save Earth".  See if you can identify the game mechanics in this activity.  Here is a video clip of the students working on saving the world from destruction.  By combining the game mechanics with the fictional elements I was able to successfully design an emotional experience for the students to enhance their learning of Newton's Laws. 

Jason Roy is the review game master.  You can find many examples of gamification on his blog,  Two great games of his that are easy to adapt to different disciplines, are Crocodile Dentist and Danger Cards.  They definitely do the job of creating fun, emotionally charged experiences while accomplishing the learning objectives.

If you are just getting started and want to start with something less complicated, check out for a ready-made online jeopardy template, or give technology taboo a try. 

If you have gamified content in your class, please share your experiences and suggestions.  I would love to hear about them! 

In my next post, I will discuss a strategy for getting started on designing longer-term classroom games.