Gamification and game-based learning

Big Bang Theory charactersGamification and game-based learning are similar in that both strategies promote engagement and sustained motivation in learning. However, gamification and game-based learning can also be usefully distinguished:

Gamification is the process of incorporating game elements into “conventional” learning activities in order to increase engagement and motivation. This is accomplished through elements such as point systems, leaderboards, badges, or other elements related to games. For example, an online discussion forum for a Physics course might be gamified via a badge system: students might be awarded a “Ptolemy” badge after they have made 10 postings, a “Galileo” badge after 20 postings, “Kepler” after 30, “Einstein” after 40, and so on. Students can see the online badges that their peers have earned.

Game-based learning, in contrast, is the process of designing learning activities so that game characteristics and game principles inhere within the learning activities themselves. For example, in an Economics course, students might compete in a virtual stock-trading competition; in a Political Science course, students might role-play as they engage in mock negotiations involving a labour dispute.

In short, gamification applies game elements or a game framework to existing learning activities; game-based learning designs learning activities that are intrinsically game-like.

Gamification and game-based learning both promote engagement and sustained motivation in learning, but they do not necessarily result in improved learning outcomes.

Game elements and their pedagogical role

Most games feature elements such as rules, goals, interaction, feedback, problem solving, competition, story, and fun. These elements can be leveraged in learning contexts in order to encourage student engagement and motivation. Not all of the game elements named above are needed to successfully gamify a learning activity, but carefully selecting those elements that help meet the objectives of the course can be useful.

Other game features

With respect to the features often associated with gamification endeavours – points, badges, and leaderboards – some utility can be found in each:


Similar to conventional grading schemes, game points or experience (XP) systems reward students for completing various tasks, assignments, or assessments. Whereas traditional grading schemes collect artifacts of learning which accumulate to 100% of a course’s grade, points or XP systems simply accumulate points with no fixed end in sight. Students are presented with a wealth of possibilities to earn points, and they either accumulate as many as they want, or they complete a certain number of tasks to reach a desired point total. Choice is crucial to the success of a points-based system. For example, students might be able to earn points by focusing on reflection activities, or by opting to complete a number of tests, or any other activity relevant to the course.  You can track points by simply using LEARN’s gradebook feature with points instead of percentages, or Google Drive to share the results with the entire class.

Points can of course be supplemented by actual academic rewards: when a certain point threshold is reached, a student might be given an extra week to submit an assignment or bonus questions on the next test.


Badges are a digital means to acknowledge student work in a course. They can be granted for completing certain milestones pertaining to the course. They may be allocated if students achieve certain levels of success on assignments, or if they do additional work, such as submitting a draft or sharing notes with another student. They may even be the result of simple participation: accessing the course through the LMS five times a week over the course of a semester could earn a badge. Student badges may be displayed to other learners in the class as a means to encourage competition or to demonstrate the variety of badges which can be earned.

Create your own badges for your course with free programs such as Credly or OpenBadges.


Competition can motivate students, and can be leveraged by leaderboards that showcase the distribution of point totals that students have accumulated through various learning activities. However, caution must be taken when constructing leaderboards because displaying all students in order of point totals can be a disincentive for students at the bottom (Farzen, DiMicco, Millen, Dugan, Geyer & Brownholtz, 2008; Landers & Landers, 2015). Consider using a system in which students see only the two students who are directly above them and below them, in order to foster a healthy sense of competition without discouraging students who are performing poorly.

For examples as to how to create a leaderboard, see the following walkthrough.

Implementation strategies

You can gamify learning activities online, in-class, or even outside of class.


Discussion boards

Students may be incentivized to discuss readings before or immediately after class by making them optional but allotting XP points for each post or reply to another post. You can also facilitate real-time discussions using tools like Padlet or Todaysmeet, each of which allow students to make anonymous contributions.


Rather than presenting a set of seemingly unrelated questions, consider creating a narrative or quest that draws learners in and helps them see the consequence of their responses. Think of your quiz as an interactive narrative: each question leads into the next, and may build upon previous answers, all the while being part of a larger narrative or story that compels the learner to remain engaged. You may even include hints that the learner can choose to use or not. Be cautious of making these high-stakes assessments – the game-like features of the task will be mitigated and potentially impaired should learners be focused too much on the grade attached. An alternative method is to have students complete a quiz in the online environment, and then come to class, form groups, and complete the same quiz, but now try to convince one another of the correct answer. This can be facilitated through Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) cards too.



Creating Jeopardy-style games for review of chapters or in preparation for a midterm can provide enjoyment and interaction with others in a familiar game structure. Create a game using PowerPoint, or use a free Jeopardy game creator like Instant Jeopardy Review.

Classroom response systems (Kahoot, TopHat)

Gathering responses from an entire class can be difficult, but doing so with classroom response systems like Kahoot or TopHat can encourage participation through game elements like points and competition between individuals.

Out of class

Game-based learning environments

These include any game designed for educational purposes such as QuizUp or Trivia Crack. As an instructor, you can make learners aware of these educational games, but the game itself acts as the educator.

Game-enhanced learning environments

These environments employ commercially-available games that are designed with entertainment in mind. Learners play these games for fun, and must then be provided or find means by which to discuss gameplay experiences with like-minded individuals. As an instructor, your role can be to provide or invite examples of games that are related to the discipline, and importantly, provide the space for learners to reflect on their gameplay. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games like World of Warcraft or Second Life are great for immersing language learners in another language, or games like SimCity can help understand economic principles.

Some final notes

Incorporating games, gamification, or game-based learning into your teaching doesn’t require a monumental shift in your teaching. Many activities or active learning strategies that you already use likely contain some of the game elements listed above and, with some modifications, can be modified into even more effective learning tools. At the same time, gamification and game-based learning should not be implemented in a cavalier manner, but should be thoughtfully integrated into a course. 

Examples of gamification and game-based learning tools

  • Duolingo – gamifying language learning by having students complete drill-and-kill grammar and vocabulary exercises while receiving experience points to gain levels and access more difficult exercises
  • Minecraft – a vernacular game that has been adapted for learning environments by giving students a sandbox to build and construct their own virtual worlds
  • Second Life – a virtual world where students can create their own avatar and embody a 3D space, which can in turn promote easier communication through text and reduce anxiety to speak
  • Coursera – a platform that provides free educational courses for anyone who is interested, but to promote interactivity and retention, badges and other reward systems are implemented for participants
  • Brainscape – improved flashcards that promote retention of knowledge using what they call “confidence-based repetition”, designed to be more appealing and fun to use to also assist in retention
  • Kahoot – a classroom response system that is free to use and doesn’t require student sign-up; simply create a game of Kahoot, enter in questions, and supply the provided pin to your students, who will then use their phones or laptops to play the game and answer questions
  • Credly – an open-source badge making tool to create badges for tasks in your course, with the ability as well to distribute badges to students as well
  • OpenBadges – another open-source badge making tool, like Credly, but is more complex to create badges with
  • Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique (IF-AT) – the IF-AT provides immediate feedback to learners on multiple choice questions by having a card that learners scratch to determine the correct answer; allows for collaboration when answering questions and provides a sense of excitement when scratching the card
  • TopHat – a classroom response system, like Kahoot, that allows students to provide responses to questions in the class anonymously; unlike Kahoot, this has a fee associated with it, but it allows for better integration in the LMS for grading purposes, and has a tournament mode to encourage competition in-class


  • Farzan, R., DiMicco, J. M., Millen, D. R., Dugan, C., Geyer, W., and Brownholtz, E. A. (2008). Results from deploying a participation incentive mechanism within the enterprise. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, 563–572.
  • Landers, R. N., & Landers, A. K. (2015). An empirical test of the theory of gamified learning the effect of leaderboards on time-on-task and academic performance. Simulation & Gaming.
  • Moore-Russo, D., Wiss, A., & Grabowski, J. (2017). Integration of Gamification into Course Design: A Noble Endeavor with Potential PitfallsCollege Teaching, 1-3.
  • Vandercruysse, S., Vandewaetere, M., & Clarebout, G. (2012). Game-based learning: A review on the effectiveness of educational games. In M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Serious Games as Educational, Business, and Research Tools (pp. 628–647). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

teaching tipThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Gamification and game-based learning. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

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