What does the Research Say? / by Tyler Wood

The term ‘gamification’ is relatively new (coined by Nick Pelling in 2002) and, as such, is lacking in a large amount of research, though "learning from play is not a new concept. It is the fundamental way young mammals acquire knowledge of the world around them. In both the fields of education and psychology, much research has shown that human children are no different" (Sheldon, 2010, loc. 356). Though play is well documented, gamification itself is still a young subject. Having said that, there is still research that has been done with gamification specifically. There is also research on gaming generally that can be applied, because of the nature of gamification. There is also the research that has been done around now well established pedagogy that gamification lends itself to. I will address the established pedagogical practices for motivation first. 

There are four main categories of established pedagogical practices of motivation that align nicely with gamification: ability to fail, quick feedback, progression (scaffolding), and storytelling (continuity). 

Students that are allowed to fail and learn from that are learning from a mastery mindset. “If students are encouraged to take risks and experiment, the focus is taken away from final results and re-centered on the process of learning instead” (Stott & Neustaeder, n.d.). Teachers have been using this approach for a long time by way of formative assessments. This is also linked to student self-assessments because the game will allow the student to learn directly from their mistakes without a teacher to point them out because of results. This leads us quickly into the second category - feedback.

Game feedback checks off all the necessary boxes that support positive results for feedback. According to Grant Wiggins feedback should be goal-referenced, tangible and transparent, actionable, user-friendly, timely, on-going, and consistent (Wiggins, 2012). Any well designed game will have a clear and transparent goal, and the feedback will be directly aligned with that goal. “Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer of Columbia University encourage teachers to "maintain this positive relationship with failure by making feedback cycles rapid and keeping the stakes low”” (Stott & Neustaeder, n.d.). It must, unless the game is impossible to beat, be a tangible goal. It will be actionable and timely because you will be able to attempt whatever you just failed again and again immediately after failing. It will be on-going because the game does not end until you reach the goal and it is designed to be consistent because it is a game, it has rules. The way in which it is on-going leads us to the next of the four categories - progression.

There is plenty of research in support of scaffolding for better student success and that is just what games do with progression. The first levels are easiest, and usually teach controls and basics of the game (like grammar or terminology). As the game progresses, the difficulty rises and rises. In a gamified educational setting, this progression can even be applied directly to Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide. Two graduate students at The University of Arizona, Hackathorn and Lieberman, used Bloom's Taxonomy in their gamified class “by incorporating lower order thinking skills into the first stages (identifying, remembering, understanding), progressing to higher order thinking skills in subsequent levels (analyzing, evaluating, critiquing, summarizing) and finally arriving at the highest order thinking skills in the final levels (composing, creating, designing, planning, inventing)” (Stott & Neustaeder, n.d.). This is the epitome of scaffolding, but by design in a gamified classroom. 

The final category is storytelling. Storytelling needs very little research to validate itself, but there are mountains of research anyway, and thousands of years of history to boot. However, the one thing that most classrooms do not have is a unified story that connects the entire year. This is something gamification can, and should, provide. “Providing a unifying story throughout a curriculum can put the learning elements into a realistic context in which actions and tasks can be practiced, something that is considered extremely effective in increasing student engagement and motivation” (Stott & Neustaeder, n.d.). Studies have shown that students retain information better when couched in a story than when learned independently. Those facts you want your students to remember will be remembered better if they come packaged in a storyline. 

There have been two relatively recent studies that looked at educational games specifically from NYU and Stanford that have proven to be generally positive for gamification. The NYU study was of middle school students and showed that math educational games boosted motivation. It focused on the two types of goal orientations - mastery and performance. Mastery goal orientation is when the student simply wants to get better at the task and allows for mistakes. Performance goal orientation is when the student wants validation or to look smart. ““Educational games may be able to help circumvent major problems plaguing classrooms by placing students in a frame of mind that is conducive to learning rather than worrying about how smart they look,” adds co-lead author Paul O’Keefe, an NYU postdoctoral fellow at the time of the study and now at Stanford University’s Department of Psychology” (as cited by NYU, 2013). One of the worries of gamification, with competition built in is that it was assumed that the performance goals would outweigh the mastery goals. However, “the findings revealed that students who played the math game either competitively or collaboratively reported the strongest mastery goal orientations, which indicates that students adopted an optimal mindset for learning while playing the video game with others” (NYU, 2013). So, ironically, competition in the game created a mastery goal orientation. 

The Stanford study was looking into math proficiency by way of educational games. They used the game Wuzzit Trouble (this is the Stanford study Gabe Zichermann referred to in his TED Talk) to test students’ number sense. “Number sense involves being mathematically proficient with numbers and computations. It moves beyond the basics to developing a deep understanding about properties of numbers, and thinking flexibly about operations with numbers” (Pope, Boaler, & Mangram, 2014). The game involves tapping cogs to rotate them a certain number of times in order to get a key. “With the action of tapping the smaller cogs to activate them and turning them a certain number of times to retrieve the keys, the player is using mathematics in an authentic environment to reach a goal. The player is immediately able to reflect on her choices and apply them to completing the challenge of the next level” (Pope, Boaler, & Mangram, 2014).

Finally, I looked at a pretty comprehensive literature review of the studies directly about gamification. “The literature review suggests that, indeed, gamification does work, but some caveats exist” (Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa, 2014). The caveats are a concern, but related to what has already been mentioned, that games need to be designed well. We can take the backward design approach to gamification and ask, what goals do I want the students to attain? Then design the game accordingly, or find a game that matches what goals you think would best suit the students. In other words, just picking any random game will not do at all. Games are good at motivation and engagement, but can cause negative effects as well because of heightened competition, problems with task evaluation, and some even fail with design features. Each student will have a different experience with the game, so that is something that should be adjusted for continually. According to Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa, one student might want to be at the top of a leaderboard and another might be happy with just being on the leaderboard. Or one might be excited and motivated by competition and another will be turned off by that. 

What can be gleaned from the research, is that, although it is still in need of more research, the evidence is looking very strong for supporting a gamified learning environment for your class. You can even add your experience to the growing pool of research and offer more insights we can all learn from. 



Stott, A. & Neustaedter, C. (n.d.) Analysis of gamification in education. School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University. Retrieved from http://clab.iat.sfu.ca/pubs/Stott-Gamification.pdf

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014). Does Gamification Work? – A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In proceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, USA, January 6-9, 2014. 

NYU. (2013, Nov.). Educational video games can boost motivation to learn. New York University. http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2013/11/06/educational-video-games-can-boost-motivation-to-learn-nyu-cuny-study-shows-.html

Pope, H., Boaler, J., & Mangram, C. (2014, April). Wuzzit trouble: the influence of a digital math game on student number sense. Stanford University. Retrieved from http://www.brainquake.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Pope_Boaler_Mangram_PAPER.pdf

Sheldon, L. (2011, June). The multiplayer Classroom: designing coursework as a game. Engage Learning. Kindle Version. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Multiplayer-Classroom-Designing-Coursework-Game-ebook/dp/B00B7RE84E/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Wiggins, G. (2012, Sept.). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership. ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx