Gamification in the K-12 setting

Have you ever played Solitaire or Minesweeper on your computer? Like many early PC users, I’ve played each of these games many times beat the game to hear the fulfilling sound of the shuffling cards or clear a level without detonating any mines. Interestingly, the digital versions of these games “weren’t actually designed for entertainment.” Rather, the PC version of Solitaire was bundled with Microsoft OS for “teaching mouse-fluency by stealth” and Minesweeper to “to make the idea of left and right clicking second nature for Windows users, and to foster speed and precision in mouse movement” (Hunt, 2015).

Assisting users familiarize themselves with key computing skills in a game-based environment exemplifies gamification. In its most basic form, gamification “is about applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging” (Swann, 2012). Rather than introducing personal computer novices to a point-and-click or drag-and-drop tutorial, Microsoft bundled these applications to make the learning fun.

In K-12 education, teachers have been employing aspects of gamification in their classes for years. In many cases, teachers use games like Jeopardy or Family Feud style competitions to review topics. Teachers have also utilized various gamified tools to assist with classroom management from the simple behavioral star chart to newer applications like and which provide similar rewards and consequences for positive and negative classroom behavior. These applications also include enhanced features like a parental communication component, longitudinal data tracking and the ability to transcend behavioral management to other aspects of the class such as posting student work.

However, when gamification is utilized to assist with behavior modification, ”Kevin Werbach, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics who co-wrote a book on gamification called, For the Win …  cautions that like any management tool, it can be ‘oversold or abused’ and “needs to be done thoughtfully to have a good chance of success” (Forbes, 2014). In the examples above, these classroom management tools should not be overly used and should be introduced in the same fashion as another learning tool in the classroom, providing students with the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the platform and how it works.

There is tremendous potential in applying gamification to assist students achieve learning outcomes beyond the above two examples of subject review and classroom management. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education in their 2017 National Education Technology plan describes several benefits of digital games such that it “allow students to try out varied responses and roles and gauge the outcomes without fear of negative consequences” and they “increase empathy, self-awareness, emotional regulation, social awareness, cooperation, and problem solving.”

Furthermore, outside of the classroom, video games have never been more popular, and according to Trevor Nath reporting for Nasdaq (2016), the video game industry now earns more revenue that the movie or music industries. Gamers can play for hours or days at end performing menial tasks often referred to as grinding to achieve a virtual achievement that will play a role to unlock a later success. There is much to be learned from video game designers in how they design and create these immersive environments. For instance, an article published in identified that game designers incorporate the following key elements when designing successful games: “Narrative, Immediate feedback, Fun, ‘Scaffolded learning’ with challenges that increase, Mastery …, Progress indicators …, Social connection, [and] Player control” (2017).

Unfortunately, K-12 education does not have even a fraction of the research and development budget accessible to a video company. Therefore, the path to the future is to create private public partnerships through teaming up educators, learning theorists, and video game designers to help create immersive and compelling digital learning experiences.