Gamification for Education


Education affects everyone. All the way from a toddler to really old fogies who want to learn something at their own time. Actually education affects us from the time we are born but for kids younger than toddlers there is no formal education. So they are, for now, out of scope for this discussion.

First, let us talk briefly about how people learn. Edgar Dale, an American educationist, developed the Cone of Experience.

Cone of Experience

In his book, Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, [1] Edgar describes the effects of audio-visual materials on learning. The base of the cone is where the most direct experience happens and the apex is where it is the most abstract. Each of the divisions of the cone has their place in learning. Some of the divisions are described with an example below.

An example of “Direct, Purposeful Experience” will be to go to a farm to look at what mango trees actually look like. This will include touching the leaves, the branches, etc. to get a feel for the real thing.

“Contrived Experiences” is editing of reality to make sure reality is easier to grasp. For example, by using the clutch of a car, it is hard to understand how a clutch works. But, it is easier to learn if a diagram is drawn to show how the mechanism works. It is a lot easier to teach this way than to pull apart the whole gear and clutch system to show it works. Similarly, other divisions of the cone have their own place in learning and cannot be replaced by the other divisions.

This being said, for a lot of people, abstract learning only makes sense if they have had the most direct experience possible. For example, verbal description of a famous painting will not really generate the real appreciation of the art till the person actually sees the real painting or some form of its reproduction. Depending on the topic and the audience, it is not always possible to give the most direct experience during education. So, one has to make do with what is possible to give as real an experience as possible. To do this, one uses the divisions at higher levels than most direct experience as shown above. This is where games come in. Depending on their design, it is possible for a game to address multiple divisions listed in the “cone” thereby providing the maximum experience other than the actual direct experience.

Education Delivery Mechanisms

Education, at all levels, can be delivered using one of two main mechanisms.

  1. Instructor led or
  2. Computer based

Instructor led

Instructor led teaching does not always have to be in a formal classroom setting. It can also be something as informal as a parent talking to a child about not lying, or a kid showing off his newly learnt yo-yo skills to his peers, or a colleague speaking to his partner over coffee about the newly formed regulation and how it may affect their business. Basically, any formal or informal setting where information is being imparted to one or more people by another human being can be clubbed under instructor led teaching.

The benefits of an instructor led teaching is that it is very interactive. People ask questions in real time and usually get an answer in real time too. Depending on the setting and the topic, it also has the potential of getting people involved in other activities like group discussion, demos, etc. All in all, it has the potential of creating an environment of direct experience for everyone involved without actually doing the tasks being taught.

The downside of instructor led teaching is that the effectiveness of this medium depends totally on the speaker. If the speaker cannot get the crowd involved, then even the best content will fall flat. The other problem with instructor led education is that it can get very expensive, especially when it is related to a career. Career related instructor led courses cost a lot because of the following reasons.

  • Payments to be made to a person to come to a meeting place and speak on a topic
  • Employees need to take time off to attend the course
  • Transport, accommodation, food, etc. may need to be arranged for employees

Computer based

Just like instructor led teaching, computer based education also does not always have to be in a formal style. Examples of computer based teaching are the following

  • A toddler learning about alphabets, numbers, colors, rhymes, etc. using an app on iPad
  • A kid learning about algebra online
  • Potential pilots going through basic flight training by watching videos on YouTube

The benefits of computer based training are that it is cheap and people can do it at their own time. They do not have to take time off from their regular work to attend this. The downside is that this method of teaching lacks interactivity. There is only one way for information to percolate. Receivers of this information do not have an easy way to ask questions and interact with others taking the same course. This makes it easy for people to “tune out”. So this fails to create an effective environment of learning.

How can games help?

Games can work with both methods of education delivery. It can accentuate the user experience one has with instructor led courses by introducing a level of interactivity and practice. This reduces the burden on the instructor a little bit to keep the attendees motivated and involved. In instructor led courses, games can also be the appropriate transition from one module to another or from one instructor to the next.

In computer based courses, games provide the much needed interactivity between the participants and also the “instructor”. Here, the instructor need not be an actual person but game based logic that can help a participant when they do not understand something or need help.

There are two ways games can be included in training regardless of whether they are instructor led or computer based.

  1. Gamify your course(s) or parts thereof
  2. Create a game for your course(s) or parts thereof

How do I know whether to create a game or to gamify my courses? To answer this question, let’s first understand what is gamification and how does it differ from a game.

What is gamification?

Gamification, in its strictest form, is applying game like mechanics to existing content. What this means is that you add things like points, levels, leaderboards, badges, etc. to your existing content to make it more interactive and improve user experience.

Some of the reasons to gamify education are

  • Increase interactivity & rewards – Instead of just reading text, you are actually doing something and still going through the same content
  • Increase awareness – You can be put in scenarios that will make you do & understand things which in a normal computer based training may be “tuned out”
  • Reward challenging tasks – Meeting deadlines, goals, targets, etc.

How to gamify?

Depending on how much game like features are required, one or more of the following can be done

  • Add points to tasks that need to be completed
  • Define badges/rewards to be given out after a criteria is met
  • Create a Leaderboard to show top performers
  • Define levels to repeat tasks or to perform harder tasks
  • Earning of badges can be tied to unlocking higher levels

Difference between games and gamification

The following table lists the differences between an actual game and gamification

Game Gamification
Games have defined rules & objectives May just be a collection of tasks with points associated to it
There is a possibility of losing Losing is not possible as the point of all this is to entice people to do something
Sometimes just playing the game is intrinsically rewarding People need to be motivated with rewards
Games are usually hard and expensive to build Gamification is usually easier and cheaper
Content is usually morphed to fit the story and scenes of the game Usually game like features are added without making too many changes to your content

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. People are said to be intrinsically motivated when they take pleasure & motivation from doing the activity itself. [2] These are activities they enjoy. [3] It could be playing games, watching movies, hanging out with friends, etc. People will do activities they enjoy on their own every chance they get. They do not need any sort of external motivation to do so.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside. This is required for tasks that people do not enjoy doing. So they need to be rewarded somehow to entice them to do the task. These could be tasks like completing a report on time, doing homework, meeting with an unhappy client, etc. Examples of extrinsic motivation in these tasks could be that your performance gets affected if you do not complete your report on time. Your grades may get affected if you do not do your homework. You may also never get paid if you do not meet the unhappy client.

By making learning more interactive and fun, games for education provide extrinsic motivation to learners who need it. Completing the objectives of the game, in this case, is the extrinsic motivation.

Types of Players

According to Richard Bartle, games, in general, have four types of players. [4]

  • Achievers – Need to be at the top
  • Explorers – Need to find something new
  • Socializers – Need to interact with others
  • Killers – Need to eliminate other characters

Player Type & Motivation

Even though games provide extrinsic motivation, if games are designed well for the player type, the extrinsic motivation will seem intrinsic. [5] So, if an Achiever is able to score lots of points and level up quickly, he will be intrinsically motivated to continue playing even though the motivation is coming due to the points. An Explorer will keep coming back to the game if he is able to explore new ways of doing something or finding something totally new in the game. Similarly, a Socializer will be motivated to play the game if there is enough interactivity with other players. Lastly, a Killer will be motivated if there are enough opportunities to eliminate or take over other characters.

What this means is that when the extrinsic motivation aligns with what the player values, it provides the greatest satisfaction which in turn leads to higher quality outcomes.

Player Type & Education

One has to keep in mind that the way educational games work is a little different from the way normal games work. People play normal games by choice but people are usually forced to play educational games. Some of the rules that apply to a normal game design do not apply to educational games.

For education based games, only Achievers and Explorers are the primary types of players. [6] To understand why, let’s think this through. First of all educational games have a purpose beyond entertainment. So let’s see how each of our player types measure up to this new purpose.

An Achiever will do whatever it takes to complete the course. An Explorer will explore all that the game has to offer thereby covering the whole course. The Socializer will work with all the other players of the game but may not complete the course. The course will have nothing that will motivate the Killer to complete it.

According to a paper “Game Design and the Challenge – Avoiding Impression Manager Player Type”, [6] there is an additional player type called Impression Managers. Unlike Achievers, who thrive on challenges, Impression Managers are Challenge Avoiders. They avoid situations where they know they will not do well. So they love easy tasks on things that they are not good at as they can easily show success.

In terms of educational games, unless the content of the game is for a basic course, it cannot be designed for Impression Managers. So just like Socializers and Killers, they will also be excluded during game design.

Player Lifecycle

In a social game, there is a defined player lifecycle.

  • Newbie – Players new to the game. They need some hand holding. Initial levels need to be easy and help players get familiar with the game.
  • Regular – After players get to know the game, it needs to become a habit for them. The next few levels need to provide satisfaction as per the player type.
  • Enthusiast – These players have pretty much mastered the game and need new twists and challenges to continue playing

In an educational game, the player lifecycle is a little different.

  • Newbie – Players new to the game. They need some hand holding. Initial levels need to be easy and help players get familiar with the game.
  • Regular – Here, regular players are those who are familiar with the game and are working to complete the course.

There is no Enthusiast level as mastering the game will mean that the player has covered all the concepts of the course. The player will then move to a new course for new or more advanced concepts. New challenges need not be added to the same course unless the course is being revamped for all the students.

Educational Games & Standards

Educational games targeting school students in US need to follow standards. There are two types of standards – National and State. Examples of national standards are given below.


The National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) are the standards for learning, teaching, and leading in the digital age and are widely recognized and adopted worldwide. [7]

Common Core State Standards Initiative

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort to establish a shared set of clear educational standards for English language, arts and mathematics that states can voluntarily adopt. [8]

National Science Education Standards

It defines science standards for all students. [9]

Educational Games Examples

Games have been used for education for a long time. With the advancement of technology, the kind of games available for education have improved in quality and have entered a lot of different subjects. Examples of where games have been used or are being used for education are listed below.

Franco-Prussian War

In the 19th century, during the Franco-Prussian War, Prussians used war games to help them defeat France. [10]

Flight Simulator

Computer hardware and software have been used for education in US since early 1940s. [11] At that time, flight simulators were built using analog computers to generated simulated onboard instrument data.

Sony Wonderbook

Sony has announced a new device called Wonderbook. It is a device that hooks up with their PS3. It is meant to create a virtual world allowing people to view and participate in the stories of the book instead of just reading it. This participation allows the outcome of the book to be different like a game. Currently, Sony is partnering with JK Rowling to create a Wonderbook for her Book of Spells. It is due sometime later in 2012. [12]

World Peace Game

John Hunter has created a board game called World Peace Game to teach 4th graders about by being future leaders by simulating real world scenarios. Some of the documented results from the game are

  • Students solving global warming
  • One student pre-empted a globally catastrophic war by blocking supplies to the offending country
  • Students shared resources with countries in need to bring overall prosperity to all countries

Due to this, John Hunter has been recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 12 education activists to watch in 2012.

Salman Khan

While not using games, Salman Khan has used video and interactive exercises to make learning easier and more fun for kids. He has topics like Maths, Science, etc. and preparatory  material for tests like SAT, GMAT and other competitive tests.

Ananth Pai

Ananth Pai is a 3rd grade teacher. He has incorporated games to teach his students about reading and mathematics. The result is that within 4.5 months Mr. Pai’s class went from being a below average 3rd grade class to a mid level 4th grade class.

Vermont DMV

In 2010, a company called Designing Digitally, Inc. created an online course for people seeking drivers’ permit in Vermont. A year and a half after its launch, the pass rate of the people taking the written test has exceeded 75%. Before the course, the pass rate was 55%. [13] This game is available online at A video explaining how this game works is available at

Mavis Beacon

Mavis Beacon teaches people how to type. They have a free online game on Facebook that allows people to practice their typing speed. [14]


Codecadamy does not have actual games but uses gamification to teach people how to code. It provides badges to recognize achievements. [15]


Edvento is a company in New Delhi, India that prepares students for tests like GMAT and GRE using games. [16]


ThinkingMonkeys is a company in Gurgaon, India that uses patent pending game to develop the following skills in kids aged 10-16. [17] [18]

  • Face Diversity
  • Make Decisions
  • Solve Problems
  • Plan & Strategize
  • Improve Leadership Qualities
  • Work in a Team
  • Face Setbacks
  • Think Creatively
  • Conquer Personal and Interpersonal Challenges

Their long term goal is to provide similar games for young adults and for folks in the corporate world.


InnovationGames is a company based in Mountain View. It uses games to teach companies to bring their ideas to fruition. [19]


MindTickle was founded in 2011. It is a 11-50 person company with offices in San Francisco and Pune. It has two SaaS platforms. Their first platform is called AllAboard. It has very basic gamification and it can be used for the following. Content from clients is given to MindTickle and they make it interactive and host it on their platform.

  • New Hire Training & Onboarding
  • Product/Sales Training
  • Customer Training
  • Policy & Compliance Training
  • Culture & Values Training

Their second gamification platform is called HiFli and it is used for employee engagement. They refresh the games provided in this platform every month. [20] [21]

Nobel Prize Games

Nobel has created games to teach people about the inventions and discoveries made by their laureates. [22]


DragonBox is an algebra game for kids aged 8 and up. [23] It is currently launched in Norway by a company called WeWantToKnow, a French-Norwegian startup. [24] This game is meant for anyone who struggle with algebra and like puzzle games. WeWantToKnow is partnering with The Center for Game Science at the Universoty of Washington to test DragonBox in over 100 schools. [25]


MediaSpark has three lines of businesses. [26] Out of these, one line of business called GoVenture, deals with educational games and simulations. It has iOS and Android apps for education which are listed below.

  • MATCHme – Memory matching game with hundreds of amazing cards and multiplayer options
  • HEARme – Sound matching game with hundreds of sounds
  • FLASHCARDme – Flashcard learning with hundreds of amazing cards and sounds
  • MAPme – Learn letters, numbers, words, geography, science and health
  • FINANCEme – Gain personal finance skills with this game for 2 or more players
  • MATHme – Visual and effective way to practice basic numeracy skills
  • Entrepreneur – Business Strategy game

Other than apps, they have an MMO game for business simulation, a gamified eBook platform and some board games.


Globaloria has online games for school going kids. Some of their games are listed below. [27]

  • The Adventures of Henry the Hedgehog – Learn how government functions
  • Addition Man – Teach addition to kids between kindergarten and second grade.
  • Are You Making the Right Decision – Deals with effects of teen pregnancy and how to prevent it
  • Back Alley Brawl – Rescue a kidnapped girlfriend & fight bad guys in back street alleys
  • Brokeville – Learn to balance your budget
  • Curiga – Create awareness of different diseases prevalent in society today
  • Deceptive Cadence – Teach music
  • Don’t be Mean, Go Green – Making environment friendly choices
  • Elemental Elegance – Introduction to basic chemical elements
  • Fix it with Food – Meant for teenagers. Teaches about eating healthy when in pressure.
  • Flood Escape – Teaches about how destructive floods are and how to help people in need
  • Frets – Learn about cords and notes on a guitar
  • Galaxy Guide – Teach about each branch of government
  • Gulf Coast Bird Rescue – Rescue birds from oil spills
  • House Fixers 2 – Teach factors to kids from 3rd to 6th graders
  • Journey of Gladius – Teaches about the life of a gladiator
  • Learn the Bones – Learn about bones and their scientific names
  • Math Blocks – Puzzle game teaching basic Math skills
  • Math Runner – Teaches order of operations in Math
  • Math Sports – Teaches about square roots in Math
  • Mathlodon – Solve Math equations

Filament Games

Filament Games was founded in 2005. It is a game production studio that exclusively creates learning games. [28]

Hue Shapes

Hue Shapes is a game developed by an Indian company called Ardor IT Solutions. This game involves pattern making using colors. It is supposed to sharpen your gray matter. [29]

Examples of Education using Games

The following list of examples is different from the ones above. These games are not created specifically for education but due to circumstances or how the games have been designed have indirectly generated education values.

Corrupted Blood Plague Incident in World of Warcraft

With patch 1.7, players were periodically stricken by debuff serious enough to sap their lives. This was passed on to other players by simply being close to them. Within hours, this incident aka Corrupted Blood incident brought down all the servers. This resembled real world epidemics so closely that scientists are looking at MMORPGs to model human behavior during outbreaks. [30]

Other Examples

Here are some other examples [31]

Game Circulation Time Educational Aspects
Civilization 1991 – 2005 History, Political, Economic & Military aspects
Placespotting 2008 – 2009 Geography – Find locations based on hints
Railroad Tycoon 1990 – 2003 History, Engineering & Economics of Railway Management
Airline Tycoon 1998 – Present History, Engineering & Economics of Airline Management
Hotel Tycoon 2010 – Present History, Engineering & Economics of Hotel Management
Farmville 2009 – Present Look & feel of different types of crops, flowers & trees
Cityville 2010 – Present City Planning
Words with Friends 2009 – Present Improving Vocabulary


So what should I do? Should I gamify my courses or create a game? The answer to this depends on a lot of parameters. The first three questions that one must answer are

  • What is the content that needs to be taught?
  • Why does this content need to be taught?
  • Who is the audience for this course?

The answer to these questions will limit your choices down to a manageable chunk. If you are still unable to decide, pepper your choices with the following questions.

  • What is your budget?
  • How much time do you have?

The last two questions, in addition to the first three, will definitely help you make an informed decision.


  1. Dale, Edgar. Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching. NY: Dryden Press, 1946
  2. Psychology Dictionary – Intrinsic Motivation
  3. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Which Do You Need?
  4. Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs
  5. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Gamification
  6. Game Design and the Challenge – Avoiding Impression Manager Player Type
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