Game Time Decision! The Case for Gamified Learning in Higher Education


By Sarah Moore

This semester I had the opportunity to complete an internship at a private Canadian eLearning enterprise that specializes in developing online learning management systems (LMS) solutions for a wide range of learners, including higher educational institutions. It was through this internship that I became intently aware of and interested in the growing market demand for game-based learning solutions. Through this blog, it is my intention to briefly introduce and discuss the topic of gamified learning, and the ways in which it provides opportunities to enhance students’ experiences.

What is gamified learning anyways?

The term gamification refers to the use of game elements in non-game applications (Muntean, 2011). Previously, gamification has enjoyed popular success in the commercial realm, promoting products and business brands by increasing the user’s experience, loyalty, and engagement (Lee & Hammer, 2011; Dominguez et al., 2013).  With the ability to strongly support user engagement and motivation, many educational practitioners and researchers have worked towards applying the principles of gamification to educational contexts, specifically online learning environments, to help address the challenges of student isolation and lack of content engagement (Liaw, 2008).  As gamified learning is gaining academic momentum and quickly becoming a popular learning tool for higher ed. institutions, this topic warrants critical attention and academic inquiry.

Gamification: The New Educational Revolution?

Upon reviewing the research, there are many educational advantages associated to incorporating gamification in online learning environments. Central to Lee and Hammer’s (2011) research, gamified learning is beneficial because it motivates students and has a positive influence on their cognitive, emotional, and social development.

1. Cognitive Development

According to Koster (2005), gamified learning provides challenging and complex activities that require students to utilize their prior knowledge to explore new concepts and progress through difficult tasks and challenges. For example, scenario-based learning helps support students’ cognitive development. Leaners work through a series of problems that provide multiple pathways of progression, or possible regression, based on their response. Challenges are tailored to different levels, and as the learner masters the content, they are rewarded and advanced to higher levels of difficulty to expand their skills. As Locke and Latham (1990) report, games that provide multiple pathways and degrees of success allow learners to develop their own learning goals through each activity, thus directly supporting their motivation to pursue and advance their own learning. For post-secondary application, the use of scenario-based learning games provides learners with the opportunity to apply course theory to real-world examples. McGrath & Bayerlein’s (2013) research indicated that students who participated in scenario-based learning found the online gaming environment informative and engaging, and saw their performance rates increase.

2. Emotional Development

Regarding emotional development, students also benefit from gamified learning through success and failure. Positive emotions are associated to students receiving in-game rewards by overcoming challenges and progressing through levels. In contrast, gamified learning also involves students not progressing until the correct learning is achieved. When students fail, they are given immediate feedback, and often provided a formative tip to guide their learning. As Lee and Hammer (2011) state, learners begin to view failure as an opportunity to improve and learn. Thus, students are able to learn from their mistakes, and grow from positive feedback as they become more interested and engaged in their learning progress.

3. Social Development

Lastly, learners are also able to socially develop through adopting and exploring new character identifies and making decisions based upon their assumed identity roles (Squire, 2006, Gee 2008). Additionally, group-learning modes allow students to work towards a collective goal and co-construct knowledge from each other, or compete in learning competitions to achieve the best score (Dominguez et al. 2013).

Gamification: is this just trend?

Although there are many research studies supporting the use of gamified learning in higher education, it has encountered criticism. Radoff and Robertson identified a lack of storytelling, a central gaming element, while others have argued that gamification provides a false sense of achievement (Sweeney, 2013). Additionally, gamification can prove to be costly, time-consuming, and require technical multimedia development (Lee & Hammer, 2011).

The gamification of e-learning undoubtedly provides a unique learning opportunity that encapsulates student engagement and motivation. While I do support the inclusion of gamified learning in higher ed., additional research is still required to analyze the impact on student performance. Gamification is also not a cure-all for boring courses. Educators should ensure gamified learning is implemented for the right reasons, and that it meets the needs of the learners and the school institution. After all, “gamification does not imply creating a game. It means makes education more fun and engaging, without undermining its credibility” (Muntean, 2011, 328).


Domínguez, A., Saenz-de-Navarrete, J., De-Marcos, L., Fernández-Sanz, L., Pagés, C., & Martínez-Herráiz, J. J. (2013). Gamifying learning experiences: Practical implications and outcomes. Computers & Education, 63, 380-392.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Computers in Entertainment, 1(1), 20–20.

Koster, R. (2005). A theory of fun for game design. Scottsdale, Arizona: Paraglyph Press.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Liaw, S. (2008). Investigating students’ perceived satisfaction, behavioral intention, and effectiveness of e-learning: a case study of the Blackboard system. Computers & Education, 51(2), 864–873.

McGrath, N., & Mayerlein, L. (2013). Engaging online students through the gamification of learning materials: The present and the future/ in 30th Ascilite Conference. Retrieved from

Muntean, C. I. (2011, October). Raising engagement in e-learning through gamification. In Proc. 6th International Conference on Virtual Learning ICVL (p. 323-329). Retrieved from

Sweeney, S. (2013, August). Game On? The Use of Gamification in e-Learning. Retreived from

Squire, K. (2006). From content to context: Videogames as designed experience. Educational Researcher, 35(8): 19-29.

Van Eck, R. (2006). Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(2), 16.

Additional Resource

Johnson, L., Adams, S., Cummins, M., Estrada, V., Freeman, A. & Ludgate, H. 2013. The NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education Edition. NMC. Retrieved March 1, 2014 from


3 thoughts on “Game Time Decision! The Case for Gamified Learning in Higher Education

  1. Sarah, thank you for offering your experiences and insights on this topic. I believe that our goal as educators is to continuously find new ways to facilitate meaningful learning and to engage all students. Technology and gaming are definite contenders in reshaping teaching and learning in education today, and you have provided ample resources to support the positive influence of gaming on cognitive, emotional, and social development. I am very intrigued by learning through gaming, in the sense that every student can learn at their own pace, be given an unlimited number of opportunities to achieve their goal, construct and investigate simulated worlds, and learn by doing (Arici, Barab, & Gresalfi, 2009; Squire, 2006).

    On the contrary, however, I will admit that I have many questions and concerns regarding technology, gaming, and education. To begin, could gaming work in an elementary school context? What kind of implications might there be for young learners and their future for learning? I have included an interesting video in my additional resources to view at your convenience.

    Additionally, a question that also concerns me is the overexposure to technology, and the impact this may have on our brain and learning. In a CBC radio broadcast, Mohapel (2013) discusses the two largest concerns of technology’s impact on the brain, which are distraction and addiction. Mohapel (2013) connects the link between the use of technology and attention deficit traits, and maintains that we are over-stimulating our brain through information overload. Furthermore, electronic multitasking, in addition to being continuously stimulated, has significant implications for the way we learn, reason, communicate, create, and understand the world (Wallis, 2006). Thus, there must perhaps be a balance between traditional and 21st century methods of teaching to provide optimal learning environments. The next questions might be: how do we know that we have achieved a balance, and when is it appropriate to use either method?


    Arici, A., Barab, S., & Gresalfi, M. (2009). Why educators should care about games.

    Educational Leadership. 76-80.

    Mohapel, P. (2013). Technology and the Brain. CBC Radio Podcast. Retrieved from

    Squire, K. (2006). From content to context: Videogames as designed experience.

    Educational Researcher, 35(8), 19-29.

    Wallis, C. (2006). The multitasking generation. Time Magazine, 167 (13), 48-55.

    Additional Resource

    Anderson, P. (2012). Classroom game design: Paul Anderson. Ted Talks. Retrieved from

  2. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your well written blog. It is clear that you have a personal connection and definite interest in this topic. I was not familiar with the idea of gamified learning and I appreciate being able to increase my awareness of education-related topics.

    You provide a solid theoretical analysis, especially with your focus on how learners may benefit from gamification. I find it very interesting that when students are playing the “game” and they do not initially succeed, they are given “immediate feedback, and often provided a formative tip to guide their learning” (Moore, 2014, para. 5). I wonder how this impacts upon students’ learning, and how this compares to students’ experiences of not initially succeeding in a traditional course (that is, one without a gamified learning component).

    Like Amanda, I also worry about students’ overexposure to technology (Marino, 2014). Since Amanda’s commentary provided an interesting analysis of the impact of technology on the brain, I will focus my questions in other areas, such as possible concerns or barriers course instructors may encounter if they wish to incorporate gamified learning.

    Lee and Hammer’s (2011) concerns surrounding gamified learning being costly, time-consuming, and requiring multimedia development gave me the opportunity to reflect on barriers I might face should I wish to incorporate gamified learning into my future courses. How would instructors unfamiliar with gamified learning (such as myself) implement these courses? In order to help answer this, I found a few websites that compile a wide range of gamification resources (e.g., The Knowledge Guru, 2014 and Gamification, 2014). However, as with all internet based sources, we must be judicious when evaluating the legitimacy of these resources.

    For those wanting additional information related to motivation and design techniques, Coursera offers a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on gamification, which is currently taught by Kevin Werbach, an Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and an expert in field of gamification (Coursera, 2014). Based on the listing of topics covered in this course, those who are unfamiliar with gamified learning can gain a broad understanding of its principles. However, practical questions still remain. Who is responsible for designing the actual game content? The course instructor? A third party company? According to Watson, Hancock, and Mandryk (2013), who share their prototype for a game designed to promote self-study through casual game play, their game is “implemented in C#, using XNA. Instructors add challenges using an XML file” (p. 89). While this statement is certainly written in English, I find the technical jargon to be incomprehensible, which may indicate my need for specialist assistance. What costs would be associated with this? Who bears this financial responsibility? Is it the instructor’s responsibility? Do universities have funds to offset these assumed charges? Is it an additional cost, similar to a textbook, which students would incur when enrolling in courses with gamification? While there are apparent benefits of incorporating gamified learning (Moore, 2013), there are a still a number of outstanding questions, especially those related to the practical implementation of gamification, which must be addressed.

    A Marino. (2014, March 6). Re: Game time decision! The case for gamified learning in higher education [Web log comment]. Retrieved from 2014/ 03/04/ game-time-decision-the-case-for-gamified-learning-in-higher-education/

    Coursera. (2014). Gamification. Retrieved from

    The Knowledge Guru. (2014). 100 great game based learning and gamification resources. Retrieved from

    Gamifying Education. (2014). Resources on the gamification of education. Retrieved from

    Lee, J. J., & Hammer, J. (2011). Gamification in education: What, how, why bother? Academic Exchange Quarterly, 15(2), 1-5. Retrieved from /Lee-Hammer-AEQ-2011.pdf

    S Moore. (2014, March 4). Game time decision! The case for gamified learning in higher education [Web log post]. Retrieved from 2014/ 03/04/ game-time-decision-the-case-for-gamified-learning-in-higher-education/

    Watson, D., Hancock, M., & Mandryk, R. L. (2013). Gamifying behaviour that leads to learning. Proceedings of Gamification ‘13, 87-90. Retrieved from 321-ReadingGarden5.6-cameraready-dw.pdf

  3. Pingback: Gamification in Higher Ed Briefly | Crystal's Research Blog

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