Designing a Gameful Language Learning Classroom

by Christopher Jones


Image from Access Awards - A gameful classroom design

Image from Access Awards – A gameful classroom design



Over the last decade or so, the use of digital games, and the techniques learned from them, to improve engagement in educational contexts has enjoyed a great deal of attention (Seaborn & Fels, 2015). Digital games have been recognised for their potential to engage users with “unparalleled intensity and duration” (Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, & Nacke, 2011, p.10), making them powerful tools in learning environments. In studying the principles and mechanics that make games so appealing, researchers coined the terms ‘gamification’ and, more recently, ‘gameful design’, for the application of these elements to environments that may not involve actual digital games.

In this chapter of the Game-Based Learning Compendium, the theory and application of ‘gamification’ and ‘gameful design’ are examined in the context of a tertiary academic English language Course. In this course, adult international students are, in theory, aiming at acquiring the language skills required for studies at the University of Tasmania. However, in many cases, their primary focus is on passing the ‘in-house’ tests and moving on to university, rather than on actually improving their language skills. As a result, many students do not approach learning tasks, especially those outside of class, with much enthusiasm or rigour, and their learning outcomes often suffer as a result.

This study explores how the principles of gamification and gameful design might be applied to this situation, and examines a brief experiment in implementation of these techniques. This experiment seemed to indicate a considerable degree of success in improving engagement and learning outcomes, and it is hoped that this study may help provoke consideration of these techniques in future courses in my organisation.


What is Gamification and Gameful Design?

Gamification, although a term with no very fixed definition and several applications, can be generally understood to be:

“those features of an interactive system that aim to motivate and engage end-users through the use of game elements and mechanics” (Seaborn & Fels, 2015, p.14). These game elements and mechanics can be used to “engage people, motivate action, promote learning and solve problems” (Kapp, 2012, p.23).

Since the application of these mechanics does not necessitate the involvement of an actual digital game, the term gamification is often used to contrast with ‘serious’ or ‘persuasive’ games, which centre around purpose-made or ‘commercial-off-the-shelf’ games as a means of delivery (Deterding, et al., 2011). In fact, many definitions often specify the application of game-design elements and game principles in “non-game contexts” (Robson, Plangger, Kietzmann, McCarthy, & Pitt, 2015, p.2).



Gamification has achieved notable success in many areas such as commercial entertainment and marketing (Seaborn & Fels, 2015), and it was anticipated to be widely adopted in universities and schools in 2-3 years according to the Horizon Reports for K-12 and higher education (Johnson, Adams, Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2014a, 2014b).

Unfortunately, application of gamification, especially in marketing and corporate worlds, has resulted in an over-emphasis on the more superficial aspects of game mechanics (Kapp, 2012; Deterding, et al., 2011). This, in turn, has led gamification to experience a ‘fall from grace’ in the last few years, and led commentators such as Bogost (2011) to vilify the concept as “exploitationware”. This tendency also extends to gamification in education where, instead of capitalising on the crucial advantages of game design, such as allowing greater agency and risk-taking (Gee, 2005), students are locked into a system that often replicates the problems of traditional teaching, “such as a focus on performance metrics rather than learning and mastery… and an over-reliance on extrinsic rewards that can decrease deep and lasting engagement” (Fishman et al., 2013, p.1).

As a result of these issues, researcher Jane McGonigal (2011) coined the new terms ‘gamefulness’ and ‘gameful design’, which have been widely adopted in the Game-Based Learning (GBL) community (Dichev, Dicheva, Angelova, & Agre, 2014; Seaborn & Fels, 2015). This term is intended to bring the focus back onto the playful and ludic ‘spirit’ of games, rather than simply applying a handful of flashy ‘mechanics’. It signifies a return to a much broader scope of game design principles, which, when they are combined, are “able to drive behaviour by sparking people’s motivation and potentially tapping into a range of human emotions” (Fishman et al., 2013, p.1). Furthermore, gameful design suggests greater transferability to, and positive impact on, real life, where the ‘fun’ of the gameplay itself remains a more central facet of the design (McGonigal, 2011).

McGonigal, J. (2011). We don’t need no stinkin’ badges: How to re-invent reality without gamification.

McGonigal, J. (2011). We don’t need no stinkin’ badges: How to re-invent reality without gamification.


The Language Learning Classroom Context and the need for Gameful Design

As mentioned earlier, to achieve their goal of moving to university, international students must pass in-house tests, demonstrating very specific language skills. Fundamental to these assessments, and to coping with university life, is having a sufficiently broad and functional vocabulary. As a result, vocabulary building forms a crucial pillar of the course.

In order to maximise learning efficacy, the course introduces words from the Academic Word List (AWL), devised by Coxhead (2000). In week one, students are gradually introduced to sixty AWL words using a purpose-created handbook. Every day students complete twenty text-based questions, and the next morning the task is checked and corrected by the teacher. In the second week, the same sixty words are reviewed by completing a second round of text-based questions. This pattern continues in the third and fourth weeks until 120 words have been covered. There is, however, no direct assessment of vocabulary knowledge associated with passing the course.

The result of the above system is fairly predictable; with no immediate and obvious incentive to complete the daily tasks, and little in the way of collaboration or fun, many students do not apply themselves to this task.

In a preliminary survey of a previous course, only 70% of students completed 70-100% of the daily vocabulary tasks, and even these students did so partially, with several questions they deemed ‘too difficult’ left blank. Web-links on the learning management system to online quizzes and extension activities were similarly underutilised, with only 10% of students agreeing in an anonymous online survey that they had spent more than one hour on these ‘optional’ activities over the course. In a final vocabulary test (not related to passing or failing the course), only 10% of students got more than 80% of questions correct, while 20% scored less than 50%.

Burgun suggests that, before we apply game-based principles to a problem, we should begin by asking “will interactivity help me do what I want to do” and “will a game system, with its goals, its competition and its player interaction be helpful?” (2012, p.21). In this case, lack of interactivity, engagement and enjoyment seem to be the central issue, and it therefore makes sense to experiment with gamification, through the lens of gameful design.


Designing a Gameful System for Vocabulary Learning

In considering where, and how gameful principles could be applied in this context, the following observations proved extremely useful:

“Learning is a goal driven social activity determined by motivational factors. To be able to efficiently gamify learning for improved student motivation and engagement, the educators have to understand the related aspects studied in games, motivational psychology and pedagogy.” (Dichev, Dicheva, Angelova & Agre, 2014, p.81).

“Three psychological needs—for competence, relatedness, and autonomy—are considered essential for understanding the what (i.e., content) and why (i.e., process) of goal pursuits” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p.228).

Accordingly, the gameful system in this experiment was designed with a focus on motivational theory, and how it relates to game design pedagogy, keeping in mind the needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.


The Need for Competence

To satisfy a need for ‘competence’ it is important that students are aware of both what they are learning and why they are learning it (Deci & Ryan, 2000), and are equally aware of their own progress through the learning, in order to enjoy the success and fun of learning itself (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Koster agrees that a key ingredient of well-designed games is that the fun arises out of the process of learning and achieving ‘mastery’ of a skill (2011).

As a result, the game system was structured around one of the most common features of gamified environments: a points system linked to levels and a leaderboard. The points and the levels “serve as notice to the player and others that a level of competence has been achieved” (Buckley & Doyle, 2014, p2), and present a “clear path to content or skill mastery” (Kapp, 2013, p. 341). They also allow progress towards a long-term objective to be “mapped out by a sequence of intermediate goals”, thereby helping to maintain motivation (Buckley & Doyle, 2014, p2).

The game system created for Access 6 Academic English Course using gameful design principles

The game system created for Access 6 Academic English Course using gameful design principles


Competence, however, is not a single concept, with Quick and Atkinson (2015), for example, identifying six ‘gaming goal orientations’ in three sets of complementary pairs. For example, some gamers might be motivated strongly by ‘task-approach’, meaning the desire to achieve the highest scores available, while the chief motivation for others might be ‘task-avoidance’, or the need to avoid demonstrating incompetence or low scores.

Another layer of individual variation is the degree to which gamers are motivated by ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ factors (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is defined as “the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence”, whereas, its corollary extrinsic motivation derives from the separable consequences of an action (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.56). Since the need to demonstrate competence, or to avoid incompetence, derives principally from within the individual, it is considered an intrinsic motivation. However, the social factors such as embarrassment and pride which underlie these internal needs are, at least partially, dependent  on others and are therefore ‘extrinsic’. The degree to which an individual is motivated by avoiding disappointing himself, as opposed to disappointing others varies between individuals (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 2001).

As a result of these complications, the evidence for whether extrinsic or intrinsic motivation is more effective in promoting participation and lasting learning is complex and sometimes contradictory (Buckley & Doyle, 2014). Dichev et al. recommend a “combination of intrinsic with extrinsic motivation for better performance” (2014, p.81). However, for the majority of students, intrinsic factors seem to lead to more enduring learning, and greater satisfaction, and there is some evidence that extrinsic factors may lead to some negative consequences, including reduced intrinsic motivation (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 2001;Seaborn & Fels, 2015).

For gameful design, this means that extrinsic factors, although more easily controlled and delivered, need to be handled carefully so that these motivations are internalised or “closely aligned with intrinsic needs” (Buckley & Doyle, 2014, p.12). In this experiment, for example, it was decided that offering an extrinsic reward for high achievement in the game, such as adding points towards the final exams, might undermine gamefulness, or the fun and satisfaction of the learning process itself.


The Need for Autonomy

The need for ‘autonomy’ referred to by Ryan and Deci (2000), also has a complex relationship with the previous need for competence and tangible goals. The need to learn academic vocabulary, for instance, can be seen by students as issuing from an internal, self-determined need in order to pursue personal goals, or as an external, even arbitrary requirement applied by teachers. The latter perception could certainly be detrimental to motivation and participation (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 259), and this was a secondary reason for separating the game system from any connection to passing or failing the course, and also led to the majority of activities being designated as voluntary and occurring outside of class. This, it was hoped, would lead students to participate in them only from intrinsic needs for increased competence and the fun of the activity.

An example of a team set of flashcards (optional activity) created by students as part of the game system – progress can be checked and the set used for games in class. (the online platform is

An example of a team set of flashcards (optional activity) created by students as part of the game system – progress can be checked and the set used for games in class. (the online platform is


The Need for Relatedness

According to Dichev, et al., relatedness is “the universal wish to interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others” (2014, p.84), and good games should therefore “create opportunities for player competition, cooperation, and connection” (Sweetser and Wyeth 2005, p.10).

The social aspect of learning has long been understood (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), with social constructivism   and the Vygotskian concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’  underlining the importance of collaborative learning, where individuals can compare their own understanding and level of competence to that of others (Vygotsky, 1980). In game design, comparison with other players using quantitative measurements has proved highly motivating (Medler & Magerko, 2011).

Richter, Raban, and Rafaeli (2015) suggest that social motivations exist at the nexus between intrinsic and extrinsic factors, since they combine elements of both, and, like the other motivations, can be broken down into a multitude of separate components such as ‘finding and seeking support’ and ‘collaboration’ (Yee, 2006).

In the vocabulary game system, bringing a social aspect to as many elements as possible was a priority. For example, although the daily text-based questions remained, they were incorporated into the points system, and, every morning, students were given five minutes to collaborate on answers. It was hoped that, although scores were allocated individually, weaker students would be motivated to seek help, and stronger students to give it. It was possible that this would result in some students simply lifting the answers wholesale from the more motivated ones, but, in fact, it seemed that all students wished to avoid appearing too dependent on others, and keen to try to be the ones to provide support.

Further social opportunities were created by three optional activities involving small teams of students. The teams collaborated to provide ‘sets’ of materials for further practice and consolidation of the vocabulary. These involved building a set of flashcards using the online platform Quizlet, creating sets of augmented reality pictures on classroom walls using Aurasma, or sets of picture cards on an online ‘pin-board’ (Padlet), which could be used for in class games.

Teams could choose any, all or none of these activities, creating greater autonomy, and also allowing for different styles and interests with visual, text-based and video-based options.


Results and Conclusions

The success of the game system was remarkable. Over four weeks the students’ participation in daily homework tasks improved to almost 100% in every case, and the vast majority (90%) of students took the opportunity to replay quiz games until the maximum score was achieved. Participation in optional individual and team activities proved to be extremely high, and maintained well over the period.

Learning outcomes were also dramatically improved, with all students scoring over 70% in final tests of competence, and nearly 50% scoring over 90%. When surveyed, students also reported very much enjoying the experience, with 100% strongly agreeing that they thought the game system had made it more engaging and more effective than previous methodology.

Final certificate for students at the end of the 4 week game - rank achieved and awards earned.

Final certificate for students at the end of the 4 week game – rank achieved and awards earned.


In conclusion, the application of gameful design to the course has indeed proved ‘game-changing’. It is hoped that this small study proves persuasive enough to allow the expansion of gameful systems to other aspects of learning within my organisation.




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Part 2: Provocation

Part 2: Provocation

Case studies, environmental scans, situational analysis, or other activities that illustrate games-based learning in action.

In this section:

Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) developed by the
School of Information StudiesCharles Sturt University, 2016.
Charles Sturt University
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