SIP 9.5 Gamification of the Curriculum

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

It seems like everyone is playing some sort of game these days—we collect points at the supermarket to use for discounts, we use our credit card more so we can earn early boarding or free drinks on the plane. Other, more “traditional” games have apparently invaded the virtual world—young people today seem particularly obsessed with “Fortnite.” I personally can’t stop playing “Wordscapes,” and even feel the pull to play during meetings or other inappropriate times! All this game playing can appear to distract from what we are “supposed” to be doing—especially in the college classroom.

Take a SIP of this: Gamification of the Curriculum

But what if we could harness the power and fun of gaming by “gamifying” our curriculum and methodology to positively impact student learning? In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011), Jane McGonigal defines games as having four characteristics: a goal, rules, a feedback system (tied to the goal), and voluntary participation. When I use my supermarket club membership to accrue points to earn discounts (voluntary participation with a goal), and receive those points according to how much I spend (a rule), and see an icon show up on my app telling me how many points I have earned (a feedback system), I am playing a game. We can do the same thing in our classes by gamifying the curriculum.

Vincent Tinto’s research on student retention posits that engagement is the most significant determining factor in persistence. A gamified curriculum allows students to simultaneously engage academically and socially, which contributes to increased persistence. Furthermore, we all seek to “meet the students where they are” — a gamified curriculum gives a nod to the 21st-century reality that our students navigate daily. Finally, while gamification is certainly no “magic bullet,” it is a cross-disciplinary and multi-level approach that has the potential to foster the development of the academic and career skills that our students need for success.

The curriculum can be gamified at the level of the lesson, course, or even program/major. Indeed, many schools have even gamified the entire undergraduate experience! By incorporating the four characteristics of games into our plans and pedagogical structures, we may just be able to improve student engagement, student learning, retention and, dare I say, spark the joy of lifelong learning in our students.

Here are a few ideas from Fortnite to incorporate in one’s class philosophy:

  • Part of Fortnite’s charm is that players engage with each other, virtually, in real time. They talk, laugh, interact, and make friends. This might be just the kind of connection that our MSU Denver students need at a commuter institution. Find ways to create virtual community in your class. For example, set up a course Wiki, a FaceBook page for the class, or even a section in your Blackboard shell where students can strategize together, keep track of points, or contribute to shared experiences as part of your course “game.”
  •  Fornite offers players a way to navigate new social situations and learn how to function in a community. Since the players all play together, each one has to be both proactive and reactive in social situations, and each player must respond with the appropriate language, actions, and growth in skills and playing ability in order to continue. Weaker players sometimes find themselves helped by stronger players, and players whose game ethics or behaviors are unacceptable are often corrected. Try to think about this when planning our class—how can you create “gamified” experiences in order to have stronger students scaffold and mentor their peers so that everyone develops and reaches new levels? Try this: offer “badges” for different skill sets, like good notetaking, strong oral presentation, perfect attendance, cultural insight, etc. All students in your class should be able to find a badge for a skill that they bring to the table. Then, have the students do a group project in which they need all badges represented on their “team.” Students will naturally complement each other’s skills and progress by depending on one another.
  •  Fortnite is all based on strategy. The strategy changes with each game and depends on the players involved. Players must strategize how to win by depending on the people they are competing against. We can try to create this in classes as well. Design your class using competing teams and “unlockables.” Unlockables are pieces of information or tools that become accessible after a particular task is completed. For example, reward individual students who successfully complete an experiment with the chemicals or tools they need to do the next experiment. Students on each team will have to strategize and work together to unlock everything they need to move on to the next stage. The road to the final outcome will be different every time, depending on the participants and how they interact and strategize their movement.

Gamification as structure:

  • Overlay Bloom’s Taxonomy onto your plans for gamified curriculum. Introductory levels should be based on low-level information gathering and tasks. For example, let students earn points just for turning in work on time, or for visiting your office hours. As students “level up,” advancement should be based on more higher-level critical thinking skills, like volunteering outside of class or doing advanced research beyond the minimum expectations of the course. Motivate your students further and inspire healthy competition by posting a “leaderboard” that shows who has the most points and how they are earning them!
  • People of all ages spend inordinate amounts of time on games—and it doesn’t feel like work. In fact, the effort we put into getting the right answer or making it to the next level is actually fun. So, don’t be afraid to make your gamified curriculum challenging—especially for upper-division courses. For example, you can use Blackboard to make online, timed quizzes designed to be taken as many times as the student wants during a set time period, e.g. two weeks. Make the quizzes difficult and use the Blackboard features that allow for the quiz to be different each time it is taken (you will need to have more questions in a “pool” than the students answer at each attempt). Allow students to use multiple resources to answer the questions. You may be surprised how many will keep trying until they get a perfect score—solidifying their understanding of course content and skills at each step of the way.
  • On that note, remember that in a game, losing is part of the fun! Think about how many unsuccessful combinations of words you might try in a game of Scrabble before hitting on just the right combo. Or how many “lives” you lose playing Ms. PacMan, only to give up because your arm hurts—not because you are bored. Gamified aspects of your curriculum give students the opportunity to learn powerful lessons about perseverance, self-confidence, and growth while at the same time moving toward mastery of skills and content outcomes. If you set up your course with a “leveled” structure, for example, students can see where they are going and understand how the class experiences—even “failures”—can help them get where they are going. Offer your students lots of low-stakes opportunities to earn points and give them rewards for overcoming mistakes (like turning in a test with the missed answers corrected) so that they see that they can continue to move along to the next level despite setbacks. This will be a great lesson for your course, and an even better metaphorical lesson for their university experience!

Still Thirsty” Take another SIP of Gamification of the Curriculum

1. Here’s a fabulous article from “The New Yorker” that explains the craze and the draw of Fortnite:

2. Teaching Literature in the Languages by Kimberly Nance:

3. A seminal article on how gamifying the curriculum can lead to the development of 21st-century skills: Kingsley, T. and Grabner-Hagen, M. (2015). “Gamification: Questing to Integrate Content Knowledge, Literacy, and 21st-Century Learning.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. Vol. 59, No. 1, p. 51-61 July-Aug 2015.

4. An article from the Chronicle that encourages a healthy skepticism when approaching gamification of the curriculum and undergraduate experience: “The Looming Gamification of Higher Ed” by Kentaro Toyama. 5. Vincent Tinto’s “Taking Student Retention Seriously.” (

6. Assessing the Potential of Gamification in Higher Education:

7. And an article from the Chronicle on Ball State’s successful development of a gaming app for Pell grant students:

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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