Gamified learning and student motivation

What is gamification?

Gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-game situations in order to motivate and engage. In education, this means motivating students to learn by using the same techniques that might motivate them to play games. So what are those techniques?

Motivation in gamers

Motivation in gaming is well-studied, as commercial games are big business (the global video gaming market was worth 178 billion U.S. dollars in 2021, according to There are a number of different models that describe motivation in gamers. A good place to start is the one from Quantic Foundry which describes six pairs of motivations:

  • Action (Destruction, Excitement)
  • Social (Competition, Community)
  • Mastery (Challenge, Strategy)
  • Achievement (Completion, Power)
  • Immersion (Fantasy, Story)
  • Creativity (Design, Discovery)

Let’s look at how these might apply to motivating students in a learning environment.

Motivation in a learning environment


This is probably the hardest motivation to tap into when it comes to designing games for learning at a basic level. Virtual scenarios can create this, and are useful in subjects such as healthcare or policing where emergency response is something students need to learn. Low-tech role plays may also give the feeling of tension and excitement, and may be appropriate for simulating law courts or business negotiations. On a more day-to-day classroom level, some students may enjoy quiz competitions where they are working against a timer or other teams.


Social elements in games may be competitive or collaborative. Both preferences can be catered for with competitive games or quizzes where students work in teams. When using online tools, if the game does not inherently have social features (e.g. in-game chat), you can still get students to work together in real life.

Community can support learning by providing new perspectives and a safe space to explore ideas. Playing games together can help students get to know each other and promote this kind of community of learning.


The key to this type of motivation is to have the opportunity to keep playing – to practice, try again, improve. One-off games are less likely to motivate players who are interested in mastery. Therefore, digital games that provide automatic feedback can be helpful. They don’t have to be complex, however. Branching scenarios or a series of multiple-choice questions at different levels can fulfil this function. It is best if there is variation in the iterations of the game (such as by using multiple choice question pools), so that students can keep applying their learning in different ways rather than simply remembering previous answers. This is both more fun and better for learning.


For this motivator, students need to be able to see and track progress and growth. This may be advancing through levels, collecting badges or ticking off activities, particularly where doing so opens up new experiences with greater rewards.


This is where narratives, characters and settings add interest to the experience and provide motivation to complete the task – to see how the story ends. Narrative can be added to pretty much any learning experience, but of course it can be difficult and time-consuming to construct a compelling story.

From a learning point of view, this type of experience can also be used to give new perspectives. It may help students think about how they would act in a particular situation, or if they were a different person.


Creativity at its heart is about being able to make choices. These may be aesthetic or design choices, experimental choices, problem-solving, or choices in direction (exploration). The less constrained the choices, the more creativity there will be. Unfortunately, the less constrained the choices, the harder it is to automate feedback or gameplay based on those choices. One solution is to have creative tasks that are self-assessed and do not influence gameplay. These tasks may be a learning activity in themselves (e.g. reflective writing) or a game feature (e.g. uploading an avatar).


The Climate Game

The Climate Game from the Financial Times is professionally made but relatively simple in terms of gameplay. However, input from scientists, modellers and policy experts means it is based on factual information so players can learn more about the climate crisis and potential solutions. It includes the following gamification elements:

  • Social: there is a small competitive element – at the end of the game you can see how you did in comparison to other players.
  • Mastery: the game uses branching, and players experience the consequences of their choices. The game can be played multiple times, following different paths to try to find an optimum solution.
  • Achievement: the game tracks CO2 (with a goal of getting to net zero) and effort (100 points that get ‘spent’ as you make decisions). These give you an indicator of progress throughout the game. There are also trophies to collect for effective decisions in five policy areas.
  • Immersion: the narrative of the game is the real-world issue of climate change, between now and 2050.

Creative Thinking Quest

Creative Thinking Quest by Daisy Abbott from Glasgow School of Art was created using Twine (a free tool for creating online text-based branching stories or games). It is a learning tool for researchers or those undertaking a creative project. It makes use of the following:

  • Achievement: there is a goal to the game (to generate a strong project idea and plan), and you move along a path until you reach it. You can collect achievement badges along the way.
  • Immersion: There is a fantasy narrative to the story, which is framed as a quest with obstacles to overcome.
  • Creativity: The game introduces players to a number of creative thinking exercises. These are entirely self-assessed, as the point of the game is to generate ideas for an individual real-world project.

Short story writing game

You can access this game by going to, logging in as a Player and using the code G9FC3A. This game was created by the LIU using Seppo; UWE staff members can contact the LIU if they are interested in creating similar games.

As with the Creative Thinking Quest, this is a step-by-step tool for unleashing creativity. There is immersion through use of a 360-degree image to prompt a scenario, and a series of levels to ascend through with a choice of creative challenges at each step.

Making games

Gamification isn’t all about digital experiences. Game mechanics can be achieved very simply, as with traditional board games. In class, you might use quiz competitions, card games, challenges, role plays, treasure hunts or escape rooms without using digital tools at all. But these tools can offer some advantages. The feedback provided by digital games can serve as a substitute for human interaction, meaning students can play these games on their own, in their own time. They can be accessible anywhere by any number of students. They can be automated to provide variation and present new challenges each time. For the best of both worlds, you can use digital tools during face-to-face sessions, combining the practicalities of digital game mechanics with the excitement of live interaction (see the Urban Orienteering activity using Seppo).

Tools for gamification

Here are a few digital tools available to staff at UWE that could be used to gamify learning.

  • Seppo (location-based and gamified learning platform)
  • Xerte (interactive learning objects)
  • Mentimeter (includes quiz competitions)

If you are a member of UWE staff interested in gamifying some of your learning content, please get in touch.


Photo by Alexander Kovalev