Every teacher knows that the line between play and learning is extremely fine, if it exists at all. Gamification involves turning learning into play in a deliberate manner that engages the human brain.

Gamification is a topic of broad and current interest in both business and education. Researchers like McGonigal (2011) and Gee (2003) have identified the power of gamification to motivate and reward humans for achievement.  Przybylski et al., (2010) summarize it succinctly with their assertion that “thirty years ago, few anticipated that video gaming contexts would transition from an activity pursued mostly by young male technophiles into a dominant, mainstream entertainment media that appeals to all demographics.” (p. 165). Gaming contents have come into our world in a myriad of locations. Fitbit gamifies fitness. Amazon’s audible gamifies the consumption of books indulged in by the listener.  Snapchat gamifies communication. Everywhere we turn, it seems that we have a cabinet filled with digital badges specific to the task at hand. Yet in K-12 education, we remain behind in this area.

Given that Lenhart et al. (2008) determined that nearly all of today’s adolescents (ages 12–17) are gamers who primarily play games socially in networked or online environments, it is unwise to ignore the value that games can bring to the classroom.  However, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties teachers face in incorporating games in their classrooms. “Many cast a cynical eye toward the idea that games offer anything of value, especially within the educational context” (Joseph, 2008, p. 252). Osterweil and Klopfer (2011) address the challenges teachers face in embracing game-based learning in their classrooms when they state that “proponents of games in schools also have to overcome the objections of parents, teachers and administrators who see games as insufficiently serious” (p. 153). 

Reluctance to embrace gamification of learning is very real, and this is despite that researchers such as McGonigal (2011) have taught us that “gameplay isn’t just a pastime. It’s a twenty-first century way of working together to accomplish real change” (p. 13).  She makes an authoritative argument for the significance of games when she says, “We will have to overcome the lingering cultural bias against games, so that nearly half the world is not cut off from the power of games” (p. 14).  It is erroneous to limit the usage of games to commercially- produced educational games that target the acquisition of information and understanding.  Osterweil and Klopfer (2011) assert that “the starkly obvious difference between games and traditional schooling is that good games always involve play and schooling rarely does” (p. 155). To make the pedagogical shift, teachers will require evidence to the curricular value of games, as well as to any extra value that games may provide beyond what the traditional methods of instruction have been.

For decades, humans have been aware of the close ties between play and learning. Piaget’s (1962) research can be summarized with the assertion that play is integral to the evolving nature of children’s cognitive development. Plass, Homer, and Kinzer (2015) summarize it succinctly with the statement that “play – the essential activity in games – has long been thought of as a critical element in human development” (p. 259). Certainly, the majority of teachers are aware of the correlation between play and learning, yet the adoption of either gamification in education has been slow. Denham, Mayben, and Boman (2016) determined that of teachers who use digital games in their classrooms, “80% agreed that integration was challenging, especially because of the difficulty in finding games aligned directly to the curriculum” (p. 71). 

Teaching just a short trip north of our school division  (Fort Saskatchewan) is the winner of the prestigious 2015 Gamification in Education award. Scott Hebert is a local trailblazer in the area of classroom gamification, and the author of an excellent book that provides a guide to gamifying your class. Michelle can discuss this topic with you if you’re interested, as she gamified her French Second Language course in 2017-2018. She can also arrange a field trip to visit Scott’s classroom to allow you to see first-hand the daily ins and outs of operating a gamified class. It’s pretty awesome stuff!


Denham, A.R., Mayben, R., & Boman, T. (2016). Integrating game-based learning initiative: Increasing the usage of game-based learning within K-12 classrooms through professional learning groups. TechTrends, 60(1), 70-76. doi:10.1007/s11528-015-0019-y

Gee, J.P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York:Palgrave Macmillan. 

Joseph, B. Why Johnny can’t fly: Treating games as a form of youth media within a youth development framework. In K. Salen (Ed.), The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning.  (pp. 253-266). The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 253-266. doi:10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.253

Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A.R., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. (2008). Teens, video games, and civics: Teens’ gaming experiences are diverse and include significant social interaction and civic engagement. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Penguin Press.

Osterweil, S. & Klopfer, E. Are games all child’s play?  In S. de Freitas, and P. Maharg, (Eds.). Digital games and learning. (pp. 152-171). London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2011. 

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Plass, J., Homer, B., & Kinzer, C. (2015). Foundations of game-based learning. Educational Psychologist, (50)4, 258-283. doi:10.1080/00461520.2015.1122533

Przybylski, A. K., Rigby, C. S., & Ryan, R. M. (2010) A motivational model of video game engagement. Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 154-166. doi:10.1037/a0019440.