Gamification (Type 4 of 4) - Designing Student Engagement (Part 2/2)

An in-depth look at the fourth and final category of game-based learning: Gamification, or a game-design perspective of student engagement. This second and final segment covering Gamification will include several examples of Gamification in education, as well as frameworks for incorporating Gamification into any form of instruction.

Last Time

Gamification (Type 4 of 4) - Part 1

Last week we learned about Gamification and its role in education. Gamification can also be called "Human-Centered Design" because it optimizes for human motivation instead functional efficiency. The gaming industry was the first to master this technique because its livelihood was dependent on its ability to make the choices and actions of its participants feel meaningful. We then took a look at how the terminology of instructional design lines up with principles in game deisgn, and suggested that gamification can help increase student engagement in all fields.

Gamification (Level 1) - Points, Badges, and Leaderboards

If you were to ask someone with limited knowledge of gamification to help design your 5th-grade history class to make it more engaging to students, you might expect them to do some of the following things:

  • Create a points-reward system - students who behave or perform well earn "Star Stickers," which can be traded-in every week for candy or prizes from a goody-bag.

  • Create special challenges with awards - students are encouraged to achieve "perfect attendance," score higher than a 7/10 on every reading quiz, or create a top-quality project. For those that do, they earn a specially-marked sticker that sits by their name tag for the rest of the year.

  • Showcase top-performing students on a board - a board with three colored sections (Green for "Excellent," Yellow for "Acceptable," and Red for "Unacceptable") is hung at the front of the class for all students to see. Each student's name is written on a clothespin and hung from the Green section. Whenever a student misbehaves or forgets to turn in their homework, the teacher calmly and publicly moves their name from the Green to the Yellow or Red section. Once the student has improved their behavior, the teacher moves their name back.

Perhaps you've already seen these types of practices being used by teachers in their instructional environments. If so - that's great! Game designers have been using these kinds of motivational techniques for a long time, and it might delight teachers to know that game designers systematically train their apprentices to always focus on end-goals and learning objectives when they begin constructing their gameplay.

The three items listed above are examples of, in essence, the lowest level of Gamification that can occur in instruction - Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. At first glance, each of these ideas seem relatively intuitive and straightforward - humans love to track their progress with points, receive accolades for our achievements, and feel accomplished for achieving more than our peers. However, the science of behavioral economics and motivational psychology has spent the last fifty years digging beneath the surface of these techniques and uncovering deeper principles in game design that apply to education.

Only in the last ten (10) years have experts tried to organized these discoveries into a framework that can help industries outside of game design. I will show you the one that is most widely-used, and then provide examples of these advanced tactics in action.

Gamification (Level 2) - The Eight Core Drives

Our definition for Gamification comes from Yu-kai Chou's book entitled Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards​. Voted "Gamification Guru of the Year" in 2014 and 2015 for his work, Chou sought to specifically enlighten individuals outside of the gaming industry about how they can think about game design from a deeper, more psychological perspective. His goal was to help outsiders (like educators and instructors) to create actionable techniques rooted in theories of game design.

Are you ready to learn these fundamental theories of game design? Because thanks to Chou, we have a convenient framework from which to analyze eight (8) Core Drives that can be applied to instruction and learning.

Each of the points on Chou's Octalysis Framework marks a Core Drive which informs game design. I will define each of them below very briefly, but if you are curious to learn more than you can click HERE to go to Chou's website where he breaks them down with greater depth.

  1. Meaning - the desire for people to believe in their efforts as cause-worthy

  2. Accomplishment - the satisfaction of perceived growth towards a goal’s completion

  3. Empowerment - a feeling of freedom within creativity and feedback

  4. Ownership - the tendency for people to want to improve or protect their goods

  5. Social Influence - the habit for people to be inspired by what others do or say

  6. Scarcity - the tendency for people to desire things because they are rare or difficult

  7. Unpredictability - the preoccupation of people by uncertainties or chance events

  8. Avoidance - the motivation of people through the fear of loss or a negative outcome.

While most of these Core Drives seem intuitive, it is nice to know that behavioral economics and motivational psychology have backed up these claims. However, the depth of Chou's framework goes beyond the eight (8) Core Drives as individual principles.

I will remind the reader that they can get a much-clearer look at this framework HERE, but take a look at the following:

The top three Core Drives of Meaning (#1), Accomplishment (#2), and Empowerment (#3) are referred to as the "White Hat" Core Drives. This means that they are used as Positive Reinforcement used to shape user behavior. The bottom three Core Drives of Scarcity (#6), Unpredictability (#7), and Avoidance (#8) are the "Black Hat" Core Drives. They act as Negative Reinforcement used to shape user behavior.

With White Hat and Black Hat gamification combined, game designers refer to the Octalysis as a "Breadth Framework." This is because the potential for engaging a the highest number of participants is maximized when both positive and negative reinforcement are used in conjunction.

In addition, the Octalysis Framework reveals one more way of conceptualizing student engagement:

The left three Core Drives of Accomplishment (#2), Ownership (#4), and Scarcity (#6) are referred to as the "Left Brain" Core Drives. This means that they support engagement through Extrinsic Motivation, or rewards that come from outside the participant's control (such as prizes, candy, money, or grades). The right three Core Drives of Empowerment (#3), Social Influence (#5), and Unpredictability (#7) are referred to as the "Right Brain" Core Drives. This means that they support engagement through Intrinsic Motivation, or rewards that come from inside the participant's control (such as ambition, emotion, relationships, or inspiration).

With both Left Brain and Right Brain gamification combined, game designers refer to the Octalysis as a "Depth Framework." This is because it maximizes the potential with which an individual student can move from a position of surface-level attention to fully-engaged passionate pursuit of learning.


So to review:

  • There are eight (8) Core Drives which make up principles in game design. They are supported by economics and psychology and can apply to any field, including education.

  • White Hat and Black Hat gamification involve the use of these Core Drives to maximize a course's "Beadth Framework" - that is, the number of students who can be engaged.

  • Left Brain and Right Brain gamification are used to maximize a course's "Depth Framework" - that is, the degree to which any individual student can be engaged.

The Octalysis Framework exists only as a useful toolkit for content creators to ensure they are engaging their audience. A course can be successfully engaging without utilizing all of these Core Drives, since certain core drives will be more useful than others depending on the content and the audience.

And finally, since it is the goal of both Yu-kai Chou and myself to provide practical, concrete examples of Gamification in action, I will show you Chou's list of techniques before I provide some examples of how it is being used in the real world.

Gamification In Our World - Examples and Techniques

First, examine a list of Chou's favorite Gamification techniques that are associated with the eight (8) Core Drives:

If you look closely enough, you might catch some of the terms we've discussed earlier (Points, Badges, and Leaderboards). You might even catch a few other techniques that you've seen used in classrooms. However, other techniques might seem unfamiliar to you. If this is the case, don't worry - most of these terms come from game design, and Yu-kai explains all of them in different parts of his website.

If you feel you already understand the eight (8) Core Drives to some depth, then you might already be able to connect some of them with the techniques that you can recognize. If not, then that's okay - take a look at these examples, and you will gain a greater insight into just how powerful Gamification can be when used well:

Duolingo is not a game - it is an application designed to allow users to study foreign languages (such as, in my case, Japanese). However, it uses many of the game design techniques above to get maximize its student engagement:

  • Progress Bar (#2) - Shows students how far they progress in certain topics.

  • Virtual Goods (#4) - Players earn credits which they can spend on clothing for their avatar.

  • Progress Loss (#8) - Players slowly lose progress in subjects over time, motivating them to return to the game and renew their study.

  • Milestone Unlocks (#3) - At certain junctions in study, players can choose which unit they wish to encounter next.

  • Instant Feedback (#3) - When players make mistakes in exercises, it immediately flashes red, makes a sound effect, highlights the mistake, shows the correct answer, and visibly "shuffles" the missed question to the back of the exercise so the student can encounter it later.

There are many more techniques used by Duolingo, but the main idea is that it incorporates several different Core Drives to ensure that its content sticks. And the results speak for themselves - since its creation in 2011, Duolingo has amassed 200 million active users and is valued at over $700 million.

Classcraft is a supplemental role-playing game designed to work alongside teachers in a classroom setting. It allows students to make avatars, join teams, and complete their coursework and exams within the context of their avatar's "leveling up" by gaining EXP. Why would students care about performing well and leveling up?

Because the powers they unlock can have real consequences, both for themselves and their teammates.

Inspired by the way that role-playing games are designed, creator and Co-founder Shawn Young allowed students to select between different classes (such as mage, warrior, and healer) which unlock different superpowers that to help themselves and their teammates. Young argued that by creating complementary powers in his classroom, he was able to increase collaboration between students. Participants earn experience for performing well on traditional assignments (homework, quizzes) but also earn experience by helping out teammates and supporting positive behavior in the classroom. Student can lose health and suffer penalties by failing to turn in work or misbehaving in class. Let's look at some techniques involved with Classcraft:

Random Rewards (#7) - Teams can randomly encounter "events" after completing group tasks. These can either be helpful items (like a gem that grants them one hint on an upcoming test) or negative events (such as a troll that "takes" their pencils and makes them complete their homework using markers).

Group Quests (#5) - Teams win or lose together. When they begin an activity, they are motivated to help everyone in their team succeed in order for them to gain experience.

Avatar (#4) - Students customize their characters and can change their appearance after unlocking new content.

Boosters (#3) - Students can strategically choose when to use "power ups" during class. For example, a student will save a "skip quiz" potion for the day they will need it most.

Visual Grave (#8) - Students who lose all of their HP "die" and see their avatar perish.

How successful has Classcraft been at making learning fun? After five years of development, it is being used in 25 countries in thousands of classrooms, and teachers are loving it.

Kahoot! is a game-based learning platform that uses a display screen (often a projector) and mobile devices to engage in fast-paced quiz competitions. Designed to be simple-to-use and easy to set up, Kahoot allows teachers to write and save quizzes on their personal devices and generate a link to send to their students. When students pull up the quiz on their mobile devices, they are linked and compete to answer real-time questions. It can also be used for other purposes, like polling, content review, and reinforcing classroom etiquette. Here are the techniques it uses:

Count Down Timer (#7) - Players are pushed to answer questions quickly in order to outscore their peers.

Leaderboard (#2) - The Top 5 players are updated and displayed after each question, forcing certain players into (and out of) the top spots.

Conformity Anchors (#4) - Players see how many answered questions in certain ways, helping refine their judgment and focus their learning strategies

Dangling (#7) - Teachers can select to not show how many questions remain. Students do not know if the next question will be their last chance to secure a top spot (or win a prize).

The 2011 Norweigian-based Kahoot! has become a global sensation, with more than 2 million K-12 teachers using it in their classrooms in over 100 countries. It is valued at over $130 million.

Gamification In Education

Finally, we return to Bloom's Taxonomy to answer the same question we have answered with Games of Data, Concept, and Skill - namely, how does Gamification fit into developing student learning?

We've seen how Games of Data and Games of Concept occupy certain levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, and that Games of Skill help accelerate the process of developing complex thought. These three together look like this:

However, Gamification occupies a different dimension because it focuses not on cognition but on student engagement. As a result, when integrated it looks something like this:

This is the continuum of engagement. It starts at the lowest level of engagement ("attention") and moves up until the point where a student is passionately engaged with the subject matter and pursuing further learning out of a love of learning itself.

Any of the levels in Bloom's Taxonomy can be achieved at any position on the continuum or engagement. However, it is the mission of Gamification to ensure that the highest possible number of students are pushed the furthest-possible distance along that continuum.

Student engagement can feed into higher-order thinking, and vice-versa. As students move up in Bloom's Taxonomy, they will eventually Create experiences that will prompt them to want to engage further. As students become more intrinsically engaged with their content, they will want to think more deeply about it.

This is the beauty of Gamification and its symbiotic relationship with education. While principles of game design are used to make a more engaging learning space, principles of instructional design are using that engagement to create the most powerful learning possible within an educational context.


Throughout the last eight weeks, we have taken a look at four (4) categories of games and how they influence education:

  • Games of Data ("Pattern Puzzles")

  • Games of Concept ("Applications")

  • Games of Skill ("Simulations")

  • Gamification ("Human-Centered Design")

We've defined each term, mapped them onto their place within Bloom's Taxonomy, and provided examples that highlight their strengths. As we dug deeper with each topic, we've unlocked more tools and techniques which teachers can use to enhance their curriculum and inspire higher-order thinking and engagement with their students.

Games will continue to have an increasing impact on our education in the future - but not in the ways you would expect. As principles of game design begin to inspire experts in instructional design, we might reach the point where the education system returns to a status it once held a long time ago - a privilege, rooted in wonder, that fills our wide-eyed students with joy as they discover the universe piece by piece. For who needs games when the world becomes your playground?

Author's Notes

I was delighted to write this series as a function of Dr. Jing Lei's Technology for Instructional Settings course in the Syracuse University Master's program in Instructional Design, Development, and Evaluation.

My goal was to provide a clear, practical, and systematic understanding of educational games and gamification so that I could dispel some of its misconceptions and highlight the wonderful potential that games have in the future of education.

If you liked the blog and want to talk further about these idea, then feel free to send me an email or find me on LinkedIn. I am always happy to contribute my thoughts to this field, and would love to hear yours!

Work Cited

Chou, Yu-Kai. Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Octalysis Group, 2013.

#learningactivities #assessmentactivities #bloomstaxonomy #educationalgames #games #concept

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