A learning science expert provides a primer.
GUEST COLUMN | by Audrey Kittredge
Gamified learning is an edtech buzzword. But what exactly is gamification? And how good is it for children – can it really help them learn?
What is gamification?
The term “gamification” means adding game-like features to a learning activity. A game is a form of play that has structured rules, like tic-tac-toe or Simon Says. Since games can vary greatly, gamification can take many forms. Some of the most common ways to gamify learning1 are:
- Showing learners how far they’ve come, with visual paths or points that reflect their progress
- Creating just enough challenge for learners, so that they find the game interesting but not so difficult that it’s frustrating
- Creating narratives with conflicts or mysteries, to delight learners and motivate them to keep going
- Providing side activities as a break for learners, so that they can focus better when they come back to the main game activity
- Encouraging competition and collaboration between learners or between the learner and the game, to increase motivation
How does gamification help children learn?
While gamification techniques are often described in terms of their impact on learner engagement, gamification isn’t just good for motivation – it can actually help children learn! Children find playing games fun and rewarding. Rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making learners feel satisfied and increasing their motivation to continue playing the game2. But it doesn’t stop there! When learners are motivated to do something, they pay more attention to it, really engaging with the material3. And when learners pay more attention to something, they remember it better4. So when children are motivated by gamification, they can learn more.
However, just because a learning activity is gamified doesn’t mean that it necessarily helps children learn well. The way that gamification features are used is critical to how well information is actually being taught. Here are some ways gamification features can be used to support children’s learning and motivation:
Directing children’s attention to the things they need to learn
Gamified activities often have narrative elements and delightful details to engage learners, but these bells and whistles need to be used carefully. Everything on a screen competes for learners’ attention, and learning-irrelevant features can distract children from learning5. To make a gamified activity effective, the most noticeable element on the screen should also support learning. For instance, if the goal is to teach young children the letter “m” and the sound it makes, making that letter very prominent on the screen will direct children’s attention to what they need to learn.
Making learning activities highly motivating
Games with really exciting rewards that are more interesting than the actual learning activities are not as good for learning. In this case, children won’t pay as much attention during the learning activities because they’ll find them boring – they might even rush through to get to the rewards. Gamification is most effective when learning activities themselves are meaningful and motivate learners to keep learning6. For example, if the goal is to teach children to read through stories, the stories themselves should be extremely interesting and delightful to keep children attentive and engaged.
Including rewards that convey a sense of progress in the game
One of the best ways to keep learners engaged is to reward them with the ability to advance further in the learning activity. This creates an “intrinsic loop”7 that motivates children to keep going (and learning more!). The more they play and learn in the game, the more of the game they’ll unlock, encouraging them to play and learn more and unlock more of the game, etc.
Using surprise to keep children engaged and motivated
When animals, adults, and even young children are surprised by something, this makes them explore and learn more8,9. Surprising events go against learners’ expectations, motivating them to update their knowledge so that it’s more in line with reality. It also signals that there might be more surprises coming in the future! Many games include occasional surprise rewards10 or narratives with surprising plot twists6, and the contrast of these surprises with more expected parts of the game motivates learners to keep learning.
To sum up, gamification can be great for children’s learning, when these features are used effectively. When the learning activity itself is really motivating, and directs children’s attention to the most important information, children learn. When in-game rewards give children a sense of progress, and games have occasional surprises in their rewards and narratives, this also motivates children to keep playing and learning!
1. Yee, K. (2013). 20: Pedagogical gamification: Principles of video games that can enhance teaching. To Improve the Academy, 32(1), 335-349.
2. Wise, R. Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nat Rev Neurosci 5, 483–494 (2004).
3. Dolcos, F., Katsumi, Y., Moore, M., Berggren, N., de Gelder, B., Derakshan, N., … & Dolcos, S. (2020). Neural correlates of emotion-attention interactions: From perception, learning, and memory to social cognition, individual differences, and training interventions. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 108, 559-601.
4. Chun, M. M., & Turk-Browne, N. B. (2007). Interactions between attention and memory. Current opinion in neurobiology, 17(2), 177-184.
5. Takacs, Z. K., Swart, E. K., & Bus, A. G. (2015). Benefits and pitfalls of multimedia and interactive features in technology-enhanced storybooks: A meta-analysis. Review of educational research, 85(4), 698-739.
6. Schlichting, M. (2016). Understanding Kids, Play, and Interactive Design: How to Create Games Children Love. CRC Press.
7. Miklasz, K. (2020). Intrinsic rewards in games and learning. Carnegie Mellon University.
8. Schultz, W. (2017). Reward prediction error. Current Biology, 27(10), R369-R371.
9. Stahl, A. E., & Feigenson, L. (2017). Expectancy violations promote learning in young children. Cognition, 163, 1-14.
10. Lewis, C., Wardrip-Fruin, N., & Whitehead, J. (2012, May). Motivational game design patterns of ‘ville games. In Proceedings of the international conference on the foundations of digital games (pp. 172-179).
Audrey Kittredge, Ph. D. (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 2012), is a Learning Science Manager at Duolingo, makers of a new free literacy app designed to help kids ages 3-8 years learn to read. Audrey has more than 15 years of experience in research and education, with special expertise in playful learning. She supports research-informed app development and efficacy studies for her company’s language learning app. Previously Audrey worked with UNICEF and conducted research at the University of Cambridge and Carnegie Mellon University. Connect on LinkedIn.