Gamification in Higher Education: What and Why?

Most people, when they think about gamers, picture teenage boys who are so addicted to games that they are glued to their computers. But the actual statistics show that the population of adult women gamers outnumbers that of males under 18. This means that games have a wide appeal, and everyone has the capacity to derive joy from games if they are well designed and engaging. The same applies to learning. In fact, a simple comparison (Table 1) reveals that there are surprisingly many similarities between gaming and learning.


Gaming Learning
  • Exploring a new world
  • Quests
  • Points and badges
  • Social interaction: collaboration and competition
  • Learn from failures
  • Time limit and stress
  • Exploring a new subject/topic
  • Learning objectives
  • Grades and awards
  • Social interaction: collaboration and competition
  • Learn from failures
  • Deadlines and pressure 


Since many of the fundamental mechanisms of gaming and learning are the same, more and more educators are beginning to explore the possibility of gamifying the process of learning to make it as much an automatic and fun process as gaming. Gamification of education is the application of game elements in non-gaming situations to motivate or influence behavior and it should be distinguished from game-based learning (which has a narrower scope).

The application of gamification in higher education will incentivize students to learn on their own and with more efficiency. A primary reason is that it helps build connections among members of an academic community through encouraging collaboration and competition. It is very important to be mindful of the social dimensions of teaching and learning whether the instructor is teaching in person or remotely, and gamification is an excellent tool for achieving this goal. Furthermore, a gamified learning process has the potential to immerse your students in the curricular content and cultivates a positive attitude toward study. Learning is no longer a laborious task but a fun and rewarding quest.

There are multiple ways through which one can harness the power of play and introduce gamification into higher education to produce positive outcomes. Gamification could be applied in a wide range of situations, ranging from the digitally sophisticated to the casual, informal, and analog. The instructor can create gamified activities of different scales, duration, and complexity to: 1. Grant students extra-credit awards; 2. Promote in-class team competition and/or collaboration; 3. Implement complex multilevel schemes over a longer period of time to give students an immersive experience.

The following section will provide an overview of gamified activities in different educational contexts. For the sake of convenience, the examples of gamified activities are organized around two axes – level of technical complexity (from no-/low-tech to high-tech) and duration of activity (from short to long). The instructor can freely adapt the gamification activities to increase or decrease their complexity and change their duration to suit his/her pedagogical needs.

Gamification in Action

Short duration 

(Single in-class use)

Medium duration

(regular, repeated use) 

Long duration 

(duration of a class)

No-/low-tech Trivia/Jeopardy-style review game (Quizlet Live, Kahoot)

Virtual scavenger hunt for class warm-up (Zoom)

Interactive game (Mentimeter)

Debate (Canvas Discussion, Ed Discussion, Twitter)

Research-strategize-argue activity (Slack, Discord, Ed )

Gamified writing with accountability (Google Docs, Google Sheet, Google Jamboard, shared workplace apps)
Medium-tech Low-stakes assessments and review quizzes, class warm-up activities (Poll Everywhere) Pre-packaged games for language instructions (City of words)

Instructor-designed content-based learning activities (Google Suite products)

Pre-packaged simulation games for non-language courses (ARTé Mecenas)

High-tech Escape room activity (on site or Google Forms) Reacting to the Past games (Humanities/Social sciences examples; STEM examples) ECHO (Fourcast Lab)

Low-tech Examples


No-/low-tech, short-duration gamification activities either make no use of digital tools or else use digital tools that require minimal technical explanation from the instructor. They include a variety of participatory, low-stakes engagements during class time, e.g., trivia or jeopardy style review games created using tools like Canvas Quizzes, Quizlet Live, Kahoot, or class warm-up activities like virtual scavenger hunt using Zoom, and interactive games using Mentimeter. The ease of implementation illustrates that even gamified activities of less sophisticated design can be pedagogically useful, intellectually challenging, and socially engaging for students.


Low-tech, medium-duration gamified activities make use of similar technical tools, but take up more class time or preparation time. A great prototype for this kind of activity is a Twitter debate (alternatively on Canvas Discussion or Ed Discussion) or a research-strategize-argue activity using Slack or Discord. Such activities require students to make creative use of familiar communicative tools, bolster collaborative skills, and find an efficient way to synthesize delegated research work.


Low-tech, long duration gamified activities encourage students to work toward a big-picture outcome or on an iterative process using a manageable set of digital tools, e.g., Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Jamboard, and LucidChart. A prime example is that of gamified writing with accountability, e.g., by using Google Docs as a virtual space in which to develop individual writing practices and share feedback with one another. With minimal technical preparation, students report on their progress, share feedback and reflections, and together track their progress toward a long-term writing project. By cultivating a collaborative writing environment, this provides supportive accountability.

Medium-tech Examples


The powerful but easy-to-navigate UChicago-supported polling tool Poll Everywhere can be employed to develop short-duration, medium-tech gamified activities such as low-stakes assessments/review quizzes, “getting to know you” activities, and interactive idea-generating/opinion-gathering activities. These types of gamified activities can be impactful tools for maintaining student attention, interest, and motivation by chunking segments of course content.


Typical examples of this category include web-based, off-the-shelf (OTS) games available for instructional use, e.g., the City of Words game offered by the Goethe Institute for German Instruction. The instructor can draw inspiration from these games and design similar gamified activities tailored to the needs of his/her students to provide them an immersive learning experience.

Adopting an innovative approach called content-based teaching, three language instructors at Northwestern University designed three language courses in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish based on the iconic cities of Cairo, Jerusalem, and Istanbul. Instead of traditional textbooks, they use authentic texts and multimedia sources as teaching materials. These materials were presented in a multisensory way and are accompanied by creative language-learning exercises that use various digital tools to advance students’ language proficiency and broaden their cultural knowledge.

This content-based, immersive learning method could be employed for non-language courses as well. The pre-packaged learning game ARTé Mecenas is a single-player simulation game for students to understand art and how the artworks were created in Renaissance Italy. The player engages in banking simulation as a member of the Medici family who must build his wealth and reputation through the transaction of goods and art works. Games of this kind can be used before, during, and after the term, in a variety of ways that enable students to stay in touch with course content.

High-tech Examples


For short-duration, high-complexity gamification activities, an excellent example is the escape room activity designed by medical instructor Dr. Christopher See. Dr. See customized the escape room puzzles for his students to help them recall what they learned in the class (about the cardiovascular system) and strengthen their memory. The activity achieved great success and had an impact beyond campus.

Escape room challenges can be digitally sophisticated (like the one designed by Dr. See) but also humble and quick. The Peters Township public library created a Harry Potter-themed game with Google Forms, without substantial investment in props and venue. But in all cases, escape rooms require lateral thinking, comprehensive advanced planning, and a fair amount of storyboarding and testing on instructor’s part.

Medium to Long-duration

In terms of medium to high-tech, medium to long-duration gamification activities, the role-playing game Reacting to the Past (RTTP) stands out as a prime example. In the RTTP games, students are assigned character roles with specific goals and they must devise their own means of expressing those ideas persuasively in papers, speeches, or other public presentations. Since class sessions are student-led and there is no fixed script or outcome, RTTP activities give students more control over their learning process and extra motivation to continue learning outside the classroom. Furthermore, they emphasize the social aspect of the learning process as students must communicate, collaborate, and compete effectively to advance their objectives.

While it started out as a game for history instruction, instructors in other disciplines have also created gamified activities using the RTTP framework. This website is a repository of Reacting to the Past games for use in STEM courses.


Launched in early 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ECHO is a community-building game developed by members of the Fourcast Lab at UChicago. Players competed as teams and sought to accumulate points by completing discrete text quests and video quests developed by faculty and staff members at the University. It represents a huge collaborative effort of many scholars, artists, programmers, game designers and developers and nicely illustrates how complex, wide-ranging, and long in duration a gamified activity can be. Even if a game of this scope can not be incorporated into a single course, some of its constitutive elements may be fruitfully employed for instructional purposes.

Resources and References

Image Attribution

@ on Adobe Stock.