Progressing Education Through Gaming

When Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn of Atari developed the arcade game known as “Pong” in 1972, they began a fascination and obsession with video games, or “gaming,” that has carried over for generations and is part of today’s classrooms. Games such as “Space Invaders,” “Pac-Man” and “Donkey Kong” captured the attention and money of individuals across the United States.

As technology evolves and original gamers advance in age, gaming continues to maintain popularity. After decades of video game dominance, educators are capitalizing on this popularity through gamification.

Why do we love video games?

Understanding what motivates people to play games is not as simple as just enjoyment. Clinical psychologist Scott Rigby devised a needs-satisfaction metric that narrows down the psychological needs met by playing video games into three basic categories: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.


When someone completes a difficult level of the puzzle game “Candy Crush,” there is a great sense of accomplishment even though the task is not of relative importance to their life goals. People need to feel a sense of accomplishment or progression. This is one of the most basic premises of video games.  Each time a bad guy is defeated or a puzzle is solved, the need to feel competent is met.


Teachers who implement STEM learning in their classroom find students eager for the next lesson because of the level of autonomy that is given. Proper STEM activities allow students the opportunity to learn and explore independently. This same level of autonomy is found in games such as “The Sims” or “Roller Coaster Tycoon.” Players can control the way the game is played.


An 8-year-old boy can challenge go-kart racers from around the world by simply turning on the TV and playing “Mario Kart.” This type of societal interaction would’ve been impossible a decade ago, yet is considered commonplace by today’s standards. Imagine this level of relatedness expanded across an entire school or school district. Through gamification, educators can connect these psychological needs to academic objectives and change the way students view present-day learning.

Gamification is everywhere

Gamification is the use of game design and mechanics to enhance nongame context. Americans have seen this approach in a variety of settings far removed from the local arcade.

A Facebook user may receive a free T-shirt for posting a check-in to their gym 10 times within a month. An avid beer drinker may receive digital “badges” for trying different styles of beer and entering them on the Untappd smartphone app.

In both of these examples, the goal is to increase motivation through frequent engagement. Coincidentally, this is the same goal many educators strive for within their classrooms.

How gamification works in school

Administrators and teachers may be quick to dismiss gamification simply because there is a lack of technology available to them. However, computer-based gamification is just one of the mechanisms that can be used to implement this process.

Lee Sheldon, a professor at Indiana University, gamified his grading process by implementing an “experience points” system. Although he still uses grading feedback to determine mastery, the format is now more familiar and appealing to this generation of learners. Educators may choose to award students with virtual badges for accomplishments in behavior, homework completion, and concept mastery.

If an educator wants to fully grasp the concept of gamification, technology integration should be the ultimate goal. The amount of educational resources that can engage students and diversify learning within a classroom is staggering.

One of the best examples of this process is a teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, named Ananth Pai. Within his third-grade classroom, Pai has brought together the technological resources to create a learning environment that is individualized and highly engaging. Through gamification, he has connected the curriculum to the students by emphasizing their interests and providing an avenue for them to learn in the style they favor rather than defaulting to the factory-method teaching that has been predominant over centuries of education.

Gamification and career readiness

Gamification extends well beyond the education field. According to a Gartner Research Report, it is estimated that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes. The Gartner report also predicts the gamification market is expected to reach $5.5 billion by 2018.

What does this mean for students today?  In an age of college and career readiness, exposure to gamification is crucial to making future graduates more prepared for the world outside of school.

Educators have the opportunity to experiment with the various methods that have been researched as well as create their own style of gamification through collaboration with students. Not only can a classroom become more engaging, but it also can be more relevant to the direction the business world is moving toward.

As a planet, humans spend 3 billion hours a week playing video and computer games. Gaming can provide our students with a refreshed desire to learn and encourage them to individualize and excel  at their own educational experience.

The resources are available for educators. The next step is simply to change the way education is viewed and make the bold move to meet the students where they are rather than where we want them to be.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he teaches Master of Education Administration courses.

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