Gamify Education: 10 Ways to Engage College Students

Gaming has steadily gained popularity worldwide, with 1.17 million gamers ages 18 to 34 in the US alone. It’s easy to understand why this form of entertainment is so popular.

Video games offer engrossing challenges, the chance to level up and gain new skills, and take down the bad guys. Gamers have a lot of freedom to develop their own strategies, pick missions, and even customize their character’s look. Compared to a long lecture, most educators can’t compete.

Or can they? Many educators take the most exciting qualities of gaming and apply them to classroom learning activities to create an engaging, interactive classroom experience with improved learning outcomes. Let’s unlock 10 ways you can gamify education in your classroom with the help of a little creativity and classroom tech.

5 benefits of gamified learning in higher education

Video games may get a lot of flak for distracting teenagers and adults alike, but they come with many benefits, ranging from increased student engagement and retention to improved critical thinking skills.

A thoughtful approach to incorporating game elements into your curriculum enhances student success by adapting your lesson plan to learners’ needs. Be sure to not overemphasize rewards and leveling up, and don’t overdo it—gamifying every learning opportunity can diminish the effect of gamification.

Additionally, be sure your rewards support students’ control over their academic success rather than manipulate their choices.

That said, here are some ways video games and educational games help students develop lifelong skills.

1. Boosts critical thinking

Just like real life, video games have consequences. Gamers need to learn how to weigh the choices they’re faced with during gameplay and think critically about which outcome is best. Game mechanics also encourage players to think logically about those outcomes and the game contexts that influence them.

Since many of these decisions are made during high-pressure situations, gamers learn to think on their feet and resist panicking.

2. Encourages perseverance

Puzzle games like Portal 2 and Stray teach patience and perseverance. Patience allows players to take their time analyzing every step in the puzzle to determine the best possible course of action, while perseverance keeps them going even if their initial idea doesn’t work.

The immediate feedback games provide quickly reveals whether a solution was correct or if the player needs to reassess their situation. These scenarios help students learn how to work through a problem knowing that a solution is right around the corner.

3. Promotes creativity

Minecraft, ARK, and other building-focused games teach players how to creatively use the in-game materials they’re given. This can be done in what’s typically called Creative Mode, where there are usually no consequences and players have free reign to build as they please.

This creative gaming leads to some extraordinary results that may involve collaboration and teamwork as well, such as this Minecraft Middle Earth project that started in 2011.

Survival games also often rely on building creative solutions, and none so much as crisis management games like Frostpunk or Icarus, where success in the game is directly tied to creative problem-solving.

4. Teaches leadership

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are played by multiple people in real-time, and these types of games often require groups of players to team up to achieve a goal, like defeating a boss. Teaming up means someone ends up in a leadership position, giving them a valuable chance to learn communication, collaboration, and how to boost morale.

Other opportunities to lead and mentor other players often crop up in MMORPGs as well, giving players a chance to gain this valuable skill (and level up while doing it).

5. Fosters financial know-how

Many games have an in-game currency players can earn through activities, and opportunities to purchase upgrades and necessary materials from vendors or other players. In-game currencies give gamers a chance to learn how finances work in the real world (without risking their credit or actual savings).

Additionally, some games include an auction house or trading post where players can learn how to set up a shop and price items to make a profit. Some games even have entire communities dedicated to the in-game economy, such as World of Warcraft’s r/woweconomy subreddit.

10 ways to gamify education in college classrooms

1. Turn lessons into quests

Every great game starts with a series of missions. As you develop your lesson plan, figure out how to sprinkle in quests and missions throughout the semester.

For example, physics students may need to create a powerful new invention for their final class project. To unlock materials they can use while building the invention, students must complete quizzes and assignments throughout the semester.

2. Create a competition with gamer tags

Video games are fueled by a sense of competition. Transfer that competitive fire to your classroom by challenging your students to a live competition using tech like Poll Everywhere.

To encourage participation, allow them to participate with anonymous gamer tags. Once the competition is complete, students can see who earned the top score and MVP title.

Use a leaderboard: Learn how to create a competition with a leaderboard in Poll Everywhere.

3. Let students level up

Video game designers place ongoing milestones throughout the game to keep players engaged through extrinsic motivation. This may include the ability to level up after defeating bosses, accruing a certain number of experience points, or achieving a certain goal.

How can your students level up in your classroom? Will you use a point system and assign a value to different types of homework? Or will you use other gamification techniques like achievements?

Leveling up your students could involve turning in a certain number of assignments or completing a project (your classroom version of a boss). The challenges should become harder as students progress through your class.

Also consider what status or privileges are assigned with certain levels. Ideally, when students level up, they earn a new privilege that gives them additional agency over how they learn in your classroom. For example, leveling up could unlock five free points on the next exam of their choice or give them the first choice of group project partners.

4. Give students choices

One of the features that many gamers like about video games is that they can forge their own path through the game. If possible, give your students the power of choice in your classroom.

Yes, they’ll have to get through all of your lesson plans but consider offering different assignment options connected to learning objectives. This inclusive teaching approach allows students to explore course topics in a way that appeals to them most.

5. Create achievement badges

Gamers love their in-game swag—including flashy gear, new abilities, cool costume updates, or badges that prove they’ve mastered a certain skill. You can create your own badges to recognize different achievements in your gamified classroom.

You can even create special weekly challenges with badges. For instance, an English literature instructor may offer a badge for the student who can read the most pages of an assigned novel in a week. A psychology professor may decide to further explore how habits are developed by awarding badges for daily accomplishment streaks, similar to how the language-learning app Duolingo rewards you for completing lessons each day.

Canva and Accredible have hundreds of badge templates you can update to match your classroom focus and integrate into your lesson plan.

6. Offer side missions

Want to encourage your students to explore a topic outside of the lesson plan? Create side missions.

These could be anything from reading an original source to watching a relevant movie, visiting the city courthouse, interviewing grandparents about historical events, and more. Offer extra points and special badges for completion of side missions or even level up your students who complete the most.

Trade pop quizzes for side missions: Everyone groans when a pop quiz is announced, but side quests get excitement levels soaring. Try these fun online learning games and see who scores the most points.

7. Turn failure into opportunity

A beautiful aspect of video games is that failure is just another part of the experience. When a gamer’s character dies, they start back at the beginning of the level or at their last checkpoint with the opportunity to try again. This is how gamers improve their skills and eventually succeed.

You can transfer this awesome life skill to your classroom by offering to let students redo assignments or quizzes if they initially score poorly. “This motivates students to learn for themselves in order to master skills and raise achievement, while eliminating the pressure or stigma of failure,” writes Mike Acedo for TeachThought.

8. Encourage teamwork

MMORPGs, one of the most popular types of video games, encourage gamers to team up and use their unique strengths and specialties to benefit the whole team. As you gamify your classroom, look for ways you can encourage teamwork in the style of an MMORPG.

For example, group students together, provide them with a topic, and ask them to prepare an argument in support of a specific viewpoint of the given topic. Preparing the argument requires them to analyze their assigned viewpoint and the topic, as well as consider what the opposing team may argue. Another idea is to have groups of students pitch Shark Tank-style ideas for a fictional problem—or a real one.

9. Add Easter eggs

All the best games include Easter eggs—little surprises hidden throughout the game. You can hide Easter eggs in your lesson plan to incentivize thoughtful discussions, collaboration, and study.

Gamified classroom Easter eggs can include surprise rewards or activities:

  • Unlock a bonus challenge activity
  • Earn a study packet for the upcoming exam
  • Award special badges for daily accomplishments
  • Give students bonus points for exhibiting leadership
  • End class early if all students participate in discussion

10. Use great apps

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Implementing gamification in your classroom doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may seem. There are lots of amazing apps that can help you gamify your lesson plan, like the GradeCraft LMS and Habitica habit tracker. Other apps like Poll Everywhere help you build gamified online activities like “Gut or Group,” a game instructor Katherine Jacoby plays with her class.

Jacoby uses Poll Everywhere and PowerPoint to pose a question and a Clickable Image that allows students to select what they believe is the right answer. The game encourages students to think for themselves and decide if the group’s answer is correct—or if they should go with their gut and choose a different answer.

If different choices are selected, the instructor can initiate a group discussion about which answer is correct and why.

Games can positively impact your students’ success

Your students are already immersed in video game culture, so use that familiarity to create a learning experience that engages and excites them. The use of gamification improves academic performance as well as motivation, commitment, and interest in the subject by presenting course material in an interactive way.

Gamification strategies, along with interactive tech tools like Poll Everywhere, enable educators to capture students’ attention and foster an engaging learning process.