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Gameful Course Design – What? Why? How?

5 Jul

by Emily Stull Richardson,
Educational Technologies Consultant
Liberal Arts Technologies and Innovation Services


If you have been involved in some way recently with online learning, you’ve likely encountered gamification, which involves employing game mechanics and strategies in non­game contexts to engage users and encourage specific behaviors. You will also have encountered gamification if you make use of popular wellness apps such as FitBit, Strava, and MapMyRide or MapMyRun, which provide opportunities for users to set goals, compete against themselves or others, connect with friends, and earn small rewards, ultimately increasing the user’s motivation to be healthy and active. While gamification – employing fun, playfulness, and games to motivate and engage people – is by no means new (heck, Mary Poppins was doing it in 1964), interest in and application of the idea in digital media has significantly increased in the last five years, as exemplified by this Google trend graph

Gamification: Google Trends, 2005 - 2016

Gamification: Google Trends, 2005 – 2016

So why is gamification so popular? Games work to stimulate users’ engagement, motivation, relationship building, and commitment. Consider this: over 5 million people play the video game World of Warcraft for more than 40 hour a week yet the average college student studies for only 14 hours a week. Those numbers illustrate some of the reasons educators, as well as other professionals, are so interested in harnessing the power of games.

Engaging gameful design

While trying to increase learners’ motivation and engagement through games is by no means detrimental, many designers and educators have taken a primarily extrinsic rewards approach to gamification. Rather than applying game strategies holistically, they have focused on employing external rewards such as badges, points, or leader boards, to make an experience seem more fun. Think of this as the “spoonful of sugar” approach that eventually fails: Extrinsic rewards ultimately devalue a user’s autonomy, and send a message that a particular activity is not worthwhile on its own and, therefore, a reward is necessary.

Reflecting this awareness, elearning professionals have adopted the term “gameful design” to represent a philosophical shift away from extrinsic rewards and mechanics to application of systems that tap into intrinsic motivation, leading to longer sustained learning-related behaviors. These behaviors, which games seem to engender so effortlessly, are in-action examples of self­determination theory, which identifies three innate and universal needs that motivate individuals to grow and change in their behavior: mastery, autonomy, and relatedness.

When all three are present, individuals are said to be intrinsically motivated to pursue their interest. Games accomplish all three:

  • mastery – by providing a space for skill progression, building competence, and reaching goals;
  • autonomy – by providing freedom, voluntary action, and places to curiously explore and
  • relatedness – by providing opportunities and space to interact and connect with other people and ideas.  

Gameful design in the classroom

While I would like to imagine an opportunity for radical application of gameful design in education (a course set up as a “choose your own adventure” or making use of World of Warcraft to explore aspects of economics in a virtual setting), a more practical approach would be to take small steps toward integrating gameful practices into a course design. The following four design-based examples propose bite­sized ways to be gameful in the design of online, hybrid, or face-to-face courses and class sessions. I hope that as you read through these examples – some of which may already be familiar to you – that you will be able to image an even intentional gameful way to image course design as a whole.

Four goals and examples

1. Clear, scaffolded expectations

By clearly articulating expectations, objectives, and goals, you create a concrete path for students to exercise mastery over the content they are learning. When you scaffold larger assignments by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable ones (for example, having students submit their research paper in stages and giving actionable feedback) you provide students the opportunity to master a feasible task that will lead to completion of a larger, more difficult one.

2. Visible progress

Regardless of whether you teach your class face­to­face or online, you can use your learning management system (LMS) ­ such as Moodle or Canvas ­ to list the major assignments in class using a progress bar or course completion feature. This allows students to have a more visual, concrete measurement of where they are in the class, what they have accomplished so far, and what work still remains.

3. Choice

By providing opportunities for choice in your course, you are creating space for autonomy. A few ways to introduce more choice into your course would be to provide choice in the topic of an assignment, choice in how a student will demonstrate her learning (for example, rather than write a paper, she may create a website, video, or story map), or choice in what case study she will lead a class discussion on in class.

4. Storytelling

Our brains our wired for stories and by incorporating narrative into your course, you also create an opportunity for students to experience relatedness. As David Gooblar discusses in his blog post, “Narrative in the Classroom”, many instructors take a paradigmatic approach to their teaching. Rather than focus solely on concepts, logic, and systems, find opportunities to share your own stories or, even better, opportunities for students to relate their own experiences or stories to the content.


Deterding, S. (2011, May 31). Don’t play games with me: Promises and pitfalls of gameful design. Retrieved from www.sildeshare.net/dings/dont­play­games­with­me­promises­and­pitfalls­of­gameful­design

Dichev, C., Dicheva, D., Angelova, G., & Agre, G. (2015). From Gamification to Gameful Design and Gameful Experience in Learning. Cybernetics and Information Technologies, 14(4). doi:10.1515/cait­2014­0007.

Gooblar, D. (2015, July 29). Narrative in the classroom. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1078­narrative­in­the­classroom.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: Game­based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Kim, B. (2014, May 6). Transforming libraries through gamification. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/bohyunkim/transforming­libraries­through­gamification.

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