Gamification: What does it mean and how can we use it?

The lastest in our Critical Perspectives series of blog post comes In advance of Dr Vasilis Louca’s session on gamification (part of Digital Education Week). John Buchan from the Educational Development Unit (EDU) tells us what gamification means, and its current and potential uses in learning and teaching

According to Fitz-Walter (2018) gamification, as a concept, predates modern computing: the idea of using badges as an incentive has been used by the scouting movement for at least a century. Badges are not the only element of gamification used in academia, but one that is widely utilised. Those who have seen the university’s new Learning Environment, Brightspace, may have noticed that there is a built-in facility for this very thing.

Figure 1: Brightspace Badge and Certification Reward system

This approach may seem a basic, or even an arbitrary incentive to some, but to others it can provide just enough motivation to move forward and uncover further rewards. Curiosity itself can be a great motivator. Carolin Radtke, the EDU’s Lead Designer on the Brightspace Project, believes there is already great interest in the potential uses of gamification, within the new Learning Environment. Recalling discussions at the recent ‘train the trainer’ event, she comments, “Especially for online classes, people will get excited about them if they aren’t yet. Badges will provide great opportunities to encourage students to engage with the materials. Aside from awarding them for the completion of a certain portion of the class, they can be used creatively in many other ways, i.e., for competitions or tournaments to engage students further in the course”. Watch this (Bright)space for developments in that area.

Another example of where EDU identifies the value of gamification comes from Daniel Falconer, a former games designer, now an Instructional Designer working on the EDU’s ESIF projects:

“As an instructional designer I am always looking for ways to engage and retain the attention of the students who interact with my work.  I have used gamification as a simple, yet effective way to motivate students towards a desired goal.  It can be as simple as setting achievable, measurable and visually communicated goals with which students can engage with.”

Daniel’s work is primarily within health subjects, a curriculum area that has used game-based learning and gaming elements for some time (Brown, et al., 2016). Normally game elements are used to assist patients within the health area, however here Daniel has recreated the experience of a care worker visiting a patient’s home.

Figure 2: Stephens home was designed to put students in the position of a newly qualified dementia care provider.  Students have to find “hidden items” within the environment to progress.

You can find out more about the innovative work that Daniel and EDU team have been working on, at their Lightning Talks event on 23 January.

EDU are doing some great work in this area and there will more examples across the university. If you want to share your gamification work, do get in touch with

Defining Gamification

As we have seen, gamification is already utilised within the university, but what does this word actually mean?

Once a concept or phenomenon has a name, it inevitably becomes easier to talk about it. The first use of the term “gamification”, according to Werbach and Hunter (2012) came from British games developer Nick Pelling, in 2003. Fitz-Walter (2018) attributes the rise of gamification discourse in academia to Sebastian Deterding. This, along with 2010 presentations from Jesse Schell (TED, 2010b) and author of Reality is Broken Jane McGonigal (TED, 2010b), means that the conversation has widened immensely. Hamari and Sarsa (2014) identify a significant growth in the use of the term within academic literature in the three years following Deterding’s contribution. (Hamari, incidentally is probably the most prolific of contributors to gamification. He has been the sole or lead author on over 60 papers on the subject and continues to produce work, at an equally rapid pace.)

With regard to the definition of the term, it varies depending on who you read or speak to. A holistic definition comes from Deterding et al. (2011):

“an informal umbrella term for the use of video gaming elements in non-gaming systems”.

Deterding et al. (2011)

Hamari and Sarsa’s definition focuses omn the psychological aspect:

“a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioural outcomes”

Interestingly game-based learning guru Karl Kaap (2012) finds using terms such as “Badges, Points and Rewards” is exactly what gamification is not! His argument is that the real power of gamification is with aspects such as storytelling, visualisation of characters, and problem solving. Confusing perhaps, but these perspectives highlight the versatility of the concept. Personally, I would be inclined to consider the all-encompassing Deterding approach to the term and this is now being reflected in conferences around the world.

Regardless of its evolution and meaning, gamification is now well established within learning and teaching. Research is consistently teaching us more about the effectiveness of its use, as with any pedagogical style. The next step for educators is to try and make the most of this phenomenon and use the technology at their disposal, in the most appropriate way possible.


Brown, M. et al. (2016) ‘Gamification and Adherence to Web-Based Mental Health Interventions: A Systematic Review’. JMIR Mental Health, 3(3), 39

Deterding, S. et al. (2011) Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts. Vancouver, BC, Canada, CHI 2011.

Fitz-Walter, Z. (2018) Introduction to Gamification. Gamification Geek. Available at:

Hamari, J. & Sarsa, H. (2014) ‘Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification’. Hawaii, Proceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Kapp, K. (2012) The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

TED (2010a) Gaming can make a better world. [Online] Available at:

TED (2010b) When games invade real life. [Online] Available at:

Werbach, K. & Hunter, D. (2012) For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. Philidelphia: Wharton Digital Press.

One thought on “Gamification: What does it mean and how can we use it?

  1. scottuhi says:

    Good article John. The use of badges in Brightspace is interesting, more so in that you can add them to your Mozilla backpack. May concern with this is a risk of overuse (leading to them becoming a gimmick), devaluation of the Mozilla badges and the risk to the institution if we add badges that have little substance behind them. There will need to be some thought given to any badges that link to an outside badge system as there is an expectation of content quality and substance, you don’t want a water down the currency of the reward.


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