Create an Epic Win with Gameful Design


Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D; Online Learning Consortium

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Games are fun! Most people seem to agree with this sentiment.  So why not use games to make education a fun and engaging experience? This isn’t a new concept and there are plenty of buzz words people use to talk about incorporating game elements into classroom activities.  This blog focuses on gameful design, as well as a few thoughts on how it can be used to develop engaging learning environments. I want to point out that what I am sharing in this post is really just the tip of the iceberg. If you want more details and some hands-on experience, check out Create an Epic Win and Level Up Your Classroom with Gameful Design, the 2016 OLC Innovate pre-conference workshop that I am facilitating with Kevin Bell on April 19 in New Orleans, LA. 

Gameful Design and Motivation
A key component of gameful design is related to learner motivation.  Games use both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators to pull users into the game world and encourage continued play. Gameful design takes game design elements, like feedback, that support intrinsic motivation and incorporates these elements throughout the learning.  It is more than giving badges for signing up and liking an app on Facebook. Gameful design is meant to appeal to the core of the user by providing the right level of challenge, goals and meaningful rewards that encourage building deeper knowledge and connections within the learning.

Implementing Gameful Design
When I hear people want to incorporate gameful design into their classroom, the first question I always ask is, “What games are you playing?”  When I pose this question, I am not necessarily referring to educational games (although that’s ok), but am thinking about what games are played for fun. These games could range from  board games like Monopoly to Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft to trendy mobile game apps.  I ask this question because, if you want to truly understand game mechanics, you have to play games and know what makes that experience enjoyable. This understanding will make a gamefully-designed classroom activity engaging and enjoyable for your learners.

Once you know what makes the game experience enjoyable, think about what elements you would like to incorporate into your classroom.  There is no agreed upon list developed by experts that will tell you the exact mix of game elements that have to be implemented.  Keep in mind that there is also nothing that says that gameful design requires you to have a technical background and write computer code or design a mobile app.  While there are many tools available (free and not-so-free) that could be used if you wanted to use digital game elements, I have seen many people create amazing experiences using less technical options.  Instead focus on the outcome you hope to achieve and how you can reach that goal using intrinsically-motivating game elements.

Deterding (2013) indicates that “Maybe the most important thing educators across all examples of well-done gameful learning have taken from game design is the design process itself” (p. 63).  I have to agree with this statement which for me speaks to how the implementation of gameful design in classroom activities is a process that continues to evolve as the educator determines what works best to create an effective learning experience.  Be prepared for your initial ideas and plans to adapt through the design process.  More than once, I have started with a plan that morphed into something completely different but eminently more engaging.

For all of you educators and trainers thinking about adding gameful design into your learning experience, it’s ok for you to have fun too.  This can be a lot of work to implement but there is nothing more rewarding than seeing your learners engaged and enjoying themselves because of the experience you created for them.

Need More Convincing?
After reading this blog, if you still think that gameful design is not a serious way to educate, I encourage you to watch a TED Talk, Gaming Can Make a Better World, presented by Jane McGonigal in 2010. Just like well-designed games can be used to make a difference in the world, effectively incorporating gameful design techniques in your classroom activities (online, blended or face-to-face) can create a more engaging classroom experience for you and your students.

One last note, don’t forget to sign up for 2016 OLC Innovate Pre-Conference Workshop on April 19 in New Orleans: Create an Epic Win and Level Up Your Classroom with Gameful Design. If you can’t make it to New Orleans (and I hope you can), OLC also offers a workshop through our Professional Development Institute Designing Gamified Learning Environments or we can do customized event for your institution through OLC Advisory Services.

Deterding, S. (2013). Gameful design for learning: the features that make games fun are exactly what need to be incorporated into workplace training. Training and Development, (7). 60 – 63.
McGonigal, J. (2010, Feb.).  Gaming can make a better world [Video file]. Retrieved from  

About the Author

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Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D. is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Online Learning Consortium. Dr. Mathes has nearly 20 years of experience in both public and private for-profit higher education where she has supported online learning initiatives since she taught her first online course in 1997. She has been instrumental in working with start-up online initiatives as well as leading growth in institutions with an existing online program. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she wrote her dissertation on “Predictors for Student Success in Online Education.” She also has earned a Master of Science degree in Business Education and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications from Illinois State University.

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