What Is Gamification?

Gamification is a term you might have noticed us using a lot lately. You may not know exactly what gamification is, but if you’ve ever “checked in” with FourSquare, worked out with Fitocracy, established healthier habits using SuperBetter, or if your child does homework on Kahn Academy, then you are already a willing participant. Don’t use any of these things? You’ll still want to pay attention, because gamification is the future.

So what is gamification? Exactly what it sounds like — the use of the elements that make games so engaging to make things that aren’t games as engaging as games are. Was that confusing?

Okay, here’s the thing: people, not just kids, like to play video games for many reasons. They are challenging. They are rewarding. And the amount of risk involved in surmounting those challenges and getting those rewards is extremely manageable. Whereas some kids, especially those with executive function disorders, might balk at homework (What if I’m wrong? What if I never get through it? How will I even figure this out? What if I’m just bad at math/reading/writing?), there’s little to lose while attempting to take down a video game boss. Besides, you’re supposed to fail a little bit in video games. It’s how you learn. Meanwhile, little bonuses along the way reassure players and sustain their interest. Points, currency, collectibles — little pats on the head — keep them moving through the game toward the primary objective. What if homework was like that?

Well, that’s what gamification is all about. Educators are increasingly seeing the value of using games in the classroom. They understand that the vast majority of kids (about 91% by some estimates) play video games, so what better way to reach them? But more than just help kids pay attention, games are incredibly effective tools for helping them learn. Game-based learning is active learning; it’s one thing to sit and listen to a lecture or read a passage in a book, it’s another altogether to be able to dive in and interact with subject matter.

Minecraft, for example, has been used in the classroom for a long time now (in fact, MinecraftEdu, an incredibly popular version of Minecraft that was made specifically for use in schools, was just bought by Microsoft). Teachers use Minecraft for everything from computer science to creative writing. Minecraft’s massive popularity and emphasis on construction and creativity have encouraged the act of modifying Minecraft, and encouraging kids who love Minecraft to take control of their favorite game by creating their own mods is helping introduce a whole generation to coding.

What is gamification? This screenshot from SuperBetter illustrates points awarded for completing everyday tasks.

Apps like SuperBetter make forming healthier habits fun by awarding points for everyday tasks.

Minecraft isn’t the only game (or app) in school. The popular game Portal has been used to teach physics, and more than a few teachers use Skype for geography class. Then there are advancements like the game developed by North Carolina State University specifically for use in 8th grade classrooms, Crystal Island: Lost Investigation, which has already proven to be helpful in teaching common core science and English concepts with the same quality of graphics, storyline, and game dynamics found in many popular mystery video games. And when it’s time for kids to get out of their seats after all that learning, websites like GoNoodle gamify active play to get them moving around with games and videos.

But gamification isn’t just about using video games, it’s about applying the theories of game development, those things that make games so alluring and sustain kids’ attention, to otherwise mundane tasks. And it’s not just for school. As I hinted above, gamification is being used by corporations to make marketing interactive (and somewhat addictive), but it’s also being used to benefit individual health and well-being. In fact, two game designers, Jesse Schell and Jane McGonigal, aren’t affiliated with each other but are both most well known for their belief that games can make us better people.

McGonigal’s app, SuperBetter, is based on this very premise. Much like the fitness games and apps that are helping adults (as well as kids) get healthier, SuperBetter awards points for completing those things a person should be doing — whether it’s homework, avoiding bad food, staying social, or remembering to be kind to themselves. In this same vein, apps like HabitRPG and ChoreMonster give kids points for staying on top of homework, doing chores, and helping others. LearningWorks for Kids itself is founded on the knowledge that video games exercise a range of executive functioning, critical thinking, and academic skills, and we make translating these skills to the real world as fun as possible by prescribing video games.

So now you have a better understanding of gamification and its applications at school, at home, and in life in general. You’ll start to see opportunities for gamifying everyday things — whether it’s getting yourself to skip seconds at dinner or getting your kid to go through her backpack every evening after school. We have lots of suggestions in our blog, or you can check out our Playbooks and App reviews to start gamifying your child’s skill-building today.


Featured artwork: Leah Watkins, 2016

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