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The Gamification of Learning

March 22, 2016

As part of our series exploring the future of learning technology, we touched briefly on the concept of gamification. Probably the most notable and mature concept being explored, gamification has a rich history of development on both the technology and pedagogy side. Here we’ll explore the concept, it’s origins, current developments, and future potential.


‘…is the application of game-design elements and principles in non-game contexts.’


The emergence of gamification practices to assist learning initiatives is difficult to pinpoint, however many academics point to the introduction of the modern school system in the 1700s as an important turning point. As formal education moved from an artisan trade for the aristocracy to the a basic need for mass-public, the use of ‘rewards’ became the prevalent method of managing the growing ratio of learners to teachers. Drawn from the field of behaviour economics and usually classified as an A to F mark, or a percentage point, students were able to get quantified feedback on their learning efforts, which provides motivation for future endeavours. As psychoanalytic theory developed in the 1900s, these reward systems were studied, adapted, and formalised across most modern schools. Indeed, as the reward principle is still the crux on which the gamification movement sits, many have questioned whether there was ever a true learning environment without it, and whether it needs to be named a movement at all. As one industry critic writes:

“Gamification has always been in, but there was no one to call it the name it now boasts.”

This kind of thinking doesn’t do justice to the rapid explosion of techniques developed by the gaming industry which are now spreading their way into the learning space. There are a few things to consider here as factors driving this. One is that it is difficult to seperate the concept of ‘games’ from children, and it could very well be a case of education in fact competing with gaming for children’s attention by employing the same sense of fun and excitement. Another is that the primary vehicle for games (certainly by dollar value) these days is digital video games - a market which by it’s very nature is intimately linked with the wider technology market, known to attract the top talent from a wide range of disciplines (which includes pedagogy and psychoanalytics). It may very well be a case of the last decade of innovative learning thought being directed towards video games, with the education industry now borrowing that learning. In hindsight, some of the most notable milestones of gamification (including the games Carmen Sandiego, The Legend of Zelda, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, Sim City, and Civilization), may not have even been intended to assist learning at all.

2002 marks the most cited year as when the modern gamification movement began, with the decade seeing concerted efforts by both public and private organisations to create platforms which operated successfully as both games and learning initiatives (BrainAge, Lumosity, and Immune Attack being notable examples). Many point to 2010 as the year that gamification began to inform course designs and curriculum development at the most fundamental level, with the Mozilla Open Badges Project, Quest to Learn (developed by the Manhattan public school), and Knewton Math Readiness positioned as premium offering in the education market. Gamification had quickly moved from something novel in the learning space to a ‘best-practice’ method.


Any parent in Australia will be aware of the great benefit that industry standards such as Mathletics and Reading Eggs. While these sector-specific solutions have received much fanfare in developed countries, the most interest innovation is coming from rapidly scaled solutions. The Khan Academy, operating since 2006, is on a rampant mission to provide free learning content for anyone in the world. In the words of founder Salman Khan, the academy was started “with the aim of providing a free, word-class education for anyone, anywhere”. Initially providing simple video content designed for learners, this library has now grown to include 9000 videos in various topic areas, dedicated exercise software powered by an open source engine under the MIT license, and a personalised learning engine that helps people track what they have learned and recommend what they can do next. While these solutions may be considered primitive next to more sophisticated solutions developed for schools and industry, the Khan Academy is operating on the largest scale in the digital learning space by far, with the website now the 1144th most visited on the web. This will result in an enormous set of data, which when analysed will likely provide some remarkable insights into the gamification of education. Another new venture, Brainscape is built entirely around a learning algorithm which takes the traditional flashcard model and uses a method called ‘confidence-based repetition’ to time then presentation and repetition of cards based on learner confidence and neural links between card content. Over 800 academic studies have verified the benefits of this technique, and by focusing on one simple element of learning gamification, Brainscape is providing the most convincing example of the benefits of the movement, or at least one aspect of it.

Future Potential

Gamification literature is beginning to point towards a convergence of another disruptive technology movement - crowdsourcing, which entails “obtaining information or input into a particular task or project by enlisting the services of a number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via the Internet.” The most notable example of crowdsourcing is in the current crop of popular crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter and Gofundme.

Where gamification and crowdsourcing converge lie some of the most fascinating developments in science. Foldit is an online science portal where anyone can solve puzzles to assist with science projects and research. Utilising human intuition in shape recognition and depth perception (which still greatly trumps that of a computers), users of Foldit spend their time folding digital representation of proteins. By understanding at an aggregate level the way proteins fold (and the responding effect this has on surrounding amino acids), scientists will gain insight into the cause (and hopefully cure) of protein based diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s. The collective brainpower of huge groups of people, motivated by game mechanics is providing both a rewarding experience for the users and solutions for scientists and the wider community.

At a more practical level, the Tin Can API (successor to the SCORM API) has been built from the ground up with gamification concepts in mind, including the collection of fine-grain data of learner activities (which can later be analysed for insights), and the framework for reward badges based on standard skill sets. The Tin Can API is growing it’s user base rapidly and is set to overtake SCORM as the predominant eLearning framework in the next few years. It will be fascinating to see how concepts like gamification evolve once they are freed from the constraints of existing technology.

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