Educational Games vs. “Gamification” in Education

I am a huge fan of games. Here are some things I learned by playing the computer game SimCity 2000, when I was around 11 years old:

  • what zoning is, and the difference between residential, industrial, and commercial zoning types
  • what utilities cities provide, and how utilities have to be connected to all areas of the city
  • how cities generate revenue through taxes and bonds
  • the advantages and disadvantages of different types of transit systems
  • how high crime or a lack of city services can create a “blighted” neighborhood
  • the advantages and disadvantages of coal, nuclear, wind, hydroelectric, and solar power
  • and on a sillier note, I found out that if you build high-rise offices next to your airport, planes will run into the buildings attempting to land (I finally realized the recurring “boom” sound effects and the disappearing buildings were connected)

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More importantly, I still remember all this, unlike most things I was taught in 6th grade! I learned at least this much from several other games, such as Civilization. Games are amazingly powerful learning tools. They are especially useful for learning about complex systems, such as how a city works or the broad patterns of technological change and development over time. And as a bonus, games can be a very fun way to learn.

So I like games. The issue with gamification is that, by its nature, it’s adding game elements, such as point systems, achievement badges, or “leveling up” into content that is not already structured as a game. Those game elements can have very powerful influences on behavior, but in a way that is often unhelpful to education.

Why? Game elements are a form of extrinsic motivation; that is, they motivate people to engage in behaviors for reasons other than the intrinsic worth of the activity. There is a large body of research that shows that extrinsic motivators will temporarily and often powerfully shift behavior, but will ultimately lead to less interest in the activity that is being rewarded.

Moreover, there is reason to believe that students learn much more when the game is an intrinsic part of the content that is supposed to be learned, rather than an extrinsic element added on top of the content.

If our goal is to create intrinsically motivated, life-long learners, extrinsic game elements won’t help. Gamification means we’re taking the risk that students won’t learn much and will lose interest in learning over the long term.

If you’ve had an experience with educational games or gamification, we want to hear from you. What worked? What flopped? What kept your students engaged? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.


  • Reply May 2, 2012

    George Rislov

    See this recent New York Times article about the “Queen of Games,” Jane McGonigal, and also my blogpost here in March regarding her appearance at SXSWedu. She had this to say about motivation:
    “I don’t do ‘gamification,’ and I’m not prepared to stand up and say I think it works,” she said. “I don’t think anybody should make games to try to motivate somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If the game is not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.”

  • Reply May 2, 2012

    Lorin Rivers

    I have mixed feelings about this, particularly regarding video games. I love to play them myself, to excess and so does my son. It has to be a balance

    • Reply May 2, 2012

      Adam Percival

      I’m with you Lorin! Games often have a very powerful effect on behavior, so we have to think carefully about when to use them.

      • Reply May 7, 2012

        Amber Simpson

        I’m also with you Lorin and Adam! It has an effect on your behavior and if your a kid it can mess you up with your school work also. But if you have young kids between the ages of 3-5 can learn stuff from video games. That is one good point about all these video games. But Adam we also have to let your mind roam freely. We have freedom, we don’t have to restrict ourselves, either. Let’s face it, kids and adults have the choice to either play video games or for adults act mature in front of your kids. But you shouldn’t play them when your kids are sleeping either. But I do agree with you both.

  • Reply December 1, 2012


    You said “there is a large body of research that shows that extrinsic motivators will temporarily and often powerfully shift behavior, but will ultimately lead to less interest in the activity that is being rewarded”. Where did you find this research? I’m giving a speech and trying to find statistics on this topic.

    • Reply December 3, 2012

      Adam Percival

      Hi Goldie,

      Edward Deci et. al. have completed a meta-analysis of the research behind external rewards (in the context of games, examples would be things like badges, points, and so forth) and their effects on intrinsic motivation:

      Dan Pink’s book, “Drive,” is a nice and readable discussion of many of the issues around intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

      In general, it is somewhat of a complex topic (not surprising, since people are complex!) so reasonable minds can disagree. There are also many effects that influence the degree to which extrinsic motivators are harmful. Good luck with your speech and thanks for your interest!

  • I agree that there are educational games that teach skills and knowledge. I’d add that even shooting games can skills in spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, strategy, and observation. But I disagree on your principle that education needs to be intrinsically, not extrinsically, motivated. That’s too dogmatic. My kids’ school used “Reading Counts” so they read books to earn points and become a “millionaire” and get ice cream. At the end, my kids had read a lot of books and really enjoyed them. They developed a reading habit that stayed with them. And they ate a lot of ice cream. Being motivated by ice cream did not detract from their picking up of a reading habit.

    • Reply April 2, 2013

      Adam Percival

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience! I appreciate your point that being too dogmatic about ideas like intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is probably not useful when we’re dealing with something as complex as education.

      Making the transition from external motivation to an intrinsically motivated habit can be tricky. How did you handle going from “reward” to “no reward” in your case?

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