The Game of Education


Donald Clark is a reliably controversial blogger but a post last month took the biscuit. Based on some recently-published research that cast doubt on the claims of “brain training” software to produce learning that will generalise to other contexts, he concludes that “Gamification does NOT work!” in education. This is like finding a broken-down rickshaw and concluding that transport does not work.

Education is already a game

Formal education is a game and always has been. Students compete for prizes such as university entrance via a series of activities “lessons” in which they proceed through various levels (SATs, O-levels, A-levels, etc) by scoring points (marks, grades). Most of the time, their motivation is entirely endogenous; Johnny is not motivated to do his homework by visualising a glittering career as an insurance actuary. He does it to avoid getting moaned at. And here’s the problem in a nutshell: the game of education is not fun, and it’s not very motivating.

So we have established that education as a game does not work very well. Here are two things we can do about that:

  • We could crap all the gamification. No more exams or marking. Concentrate instead on drawing out our natural, intrinsic joy in learning. This is the Montessori approach. I applaud it, but do not see where it will get political support in the current climate.
  • Or, we could make the game work better. Overhaul it so that short-term motivations are aligned with long-term goals, and above all make it more fun.

How do we make the Game of Education better? Four questions.

Just because the existing game is poor, it does not follow that any new approach is necessarily better. I would apply these four tests to any proposed change or addition to the system:

1. Where does it sit on Bloom’s Taxonomy?

A good educational game prompts students to deeply evaluate the content they are learning. A bad one delivers nothing better than rote learning.

2. Does it align long and short-term goals?

Almost any gamification will increase motivation to complete short-term tasks, compared to the same content covered in a non-game way. The risk is that these tasks won’t build towards your final goal. Are skills being deepened? Is knowledge being retained over the long term?

3. Does it reward collaboration?

Competition is a great motivator, but it comes at a price; every winner begets a loser. The solution is teams. By balancing and occasionally reorganising mixed-ability teams, you can ensure that even the weakest student gets to taste the sweet wine of victory once in a while. In this way you keep the motivation of competition and reward collaboration simultaneously.

4. Does it effectively replace the existing demotivators?

Look at the things that de-motivate students. Lack of perceived relevance, boring delivery, weak pacing, bullying by peers, lack of agency, getting moaned at by teachers. You won’t find a single one of these in Pokemon Go, or football, or chess. A well-constructed game builds motivation through lots of little motivators (the famous points, badges and levels) but more importantly by building a passionate community that really believes the game matters.


Gamification is not a gimmick. Education has been gamified at least since the first exams were introduced around 600 AD. The current game does not work terribly well but, as the estate agent said, it has tremendous potential for improvement. If you want to improve the gamification of your school or institution, start from the idea of improving your existing game rather than adding something on top. To explore the idea more deeply, I’d like to recommend the book that launched my gamification journey; Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.


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