Gamifying the Educational Experience

Key lessons for learning.


September 9, 2015

Many parents and some psychologists decry videogames as a waste of time – or worse, as actually harmful.

Videogames, according to this view, are socially isolating and desensitizing, conveying age-inappropriate images, fostering addictive behavior, creating attention problems, discouraging physical activity, inducing repetitive stress injuries, hypersexualizing men and demeaning women, suppressing emotional responses to aggression and violence, and cultivating feelings of hostility, aggression, and misogyny.

However accurate or inaccurate such claims might be, there is no doubt that videogames offer important lessons that can improve teaching and learning.

As James Paul Gee and others have argued, much can be learned from videogames about how to enhance engagement, intensify motivation, and encourage productive practice.

Whatever their downside, few doubt that videogames promote certain positive outcomes, enhancing visual acuity, eye-hand coordination, situational awareness, strategic thinking, pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, memory, concentration, and perseverance, and accelerating reaction times.

But what lessons do videogames offer to educators?  Several stand out.

Games encourage a sense of flow (that is, a feeling a complete immersion in an activity) by presenting players with challenges to be met, puzzles to be cracked, and tasks to be mastered. In videogames, one does not rely on an instructor or guide book. Instead, the games encourage players to be resourceful problem solvers and risk-takers who learn to navigate a complex system by themselves and through that process acquire a sense of competence and self-confidence.

Unlike most other sports, game players aren’t typically pitted against another player in a competition; rather, they are striving to prove their skills and to rise to a higher level. Videogames also allow players to assume various persona and learn how best to interact with those who have adopted very different roles or identities.

In other words, games provide a model of:

  • Active, participatory learning
    Unlike rule-based or rote learning, videogames players learn by doing. Games also provide many opportunities for practice that are necessary to achieve mastery.
  • Social learning
    Whether games involve a single player or multiple participants, game players offer one another tips, share strategies, and exchange information about their experiences.
  • Situated learning
    An immersive gaming experience is embedded in a rich context and playing has readily observable consequences.
  • ​Personalized learning
    Games automatically adjust to the level of a player’s competency. Using the language of Lev Vygotsky, games place players in the “Zone of Proximal Development,” finding that sweet spot in which a player can move constantly toward higher levels of difficulty without experiencing undue frustration.

In designing learning experiences, instructors would do well to follow game designers’ example. They should provide:

  • Explicit levels of achievement, so that the challenges students encounter are progressively ordered, offering clear benchmarks of their growing competence and a pathway to expert status.
  • Timely feedback, so that students can accurately assess their strengths, weaknesses, and confusions.
  • An immersive, captivating experience.
  • A safe environment where a students can take risks without acquiring a debilitating sense of failure.

So what design tips might instructors acquire from videogame makers?

  • Present material in a variety of media – audio, visual, textual – in order to engage all of a student’s senses.
  • Carefully order the material so that it is arranged in levels of challenges and provide students with points and dashboards so that they can measure their progress.
  • Incorporate micro-celebrations to mark off students increasing mastery.
  • Replace lectures with activities to make learning immersive and experiential, remembering that interactivity requires more than a mouse click.
  • Create opportunities for collaboration and sharing.

Videogames should remind us that the most important value of an activity is not whether it is fun, but whether it wholly engages us.​

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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