ArticlesMarch 2024

Sprinkling Enchanting Pixie Dust on Teaching and Learning with Gamification

By Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni, Center for Teaching and Learning, Western Oregon University

Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni

All it takes is faith and trust… Oh! And something I forgot: Dust. Just a little bit of pixie dust.

~ Peter Pan

School is a Game

Consider Tekinbas and Zimmerman’s (2003) definition of a game:

A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. 

Similarly, we can argue that school is a game – a system (of interconnected components such as curriculum, assessment, teachers, and administrators) in which learners engage in an artificial conflict (e.g., learner vs. the content, teachers vs. students, learners vs. learners), defined by rules (e.g., dates and deadlines), that results in a quantifiable outcome (e.g., competency/mastery). However, if school is a game, research shows that it may not always be a good game, that can lead to unproductive learner behaviors (Reich, 2017). While games are usually thought of as being “fun,” schools have been, at times, described as “pervasive boredom” (Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009, p. 131), with student disengagement being a widespread challenge in education (Bundick et al., 2014). It is time to bring back “fun” to the game of teaching and learning, and this article tries to help by introducing two gamification frameworks and some tools.

Gamification v. Game-Based Learning

Before we start our journey, let us make a distinction between two similar yet different terms: Gamification v. Game-Based Learning (GBL). Gamification is the practice of infusing game elements (e.g., avatars, quests, badges) into non-game settings, such as schools, to engage and motivate action (Alsawaier, 2018); it is like sprinkling enchanting pixie dust on ordinary activities, turning them into thrilling adventures. Game-Based Learning (GBL) is instead about using games for learning. For example, Simon Says and educational escape rooms could be fun games to play in language classrooms to support the development of language skills (Grand-de-Prado et al, 2020; Egbert & Shahrokni, 2018; Huang, 2003). Both gamification and GBL are tools in an educator’s tool box to support students’ learning and engagement, and there is an increasing interest in how games and game elements may support learning (e.g., Kebritchi et al., 2008; Wu et al., 2012), with a number of literature reviews exploring GBL (e.g., Boyle et al., 2014, 2016; Connolly et al., 2012, Vogel et al., 2006; Wu et al., 2012) and gamification (Toda et al., 2018; Zainuddin et al., 2020). Research indicates, for the most part, that gamification can support student motivation, learning, and 21st century skills (Qian & Karen, 2016; Zainuddin et al., 2020). This article focuses on gamification in teaching and learning.

Gamification Terms

To begin with, let us explore the three elements of gamification according to Werbach et al. (2012), namely, dynamics, mechanics, and components:

The dynamics (the “why”) are similar to learning goals – they define the overall design of a gaming experience – a holistic view of how all the individual pieces (e.g., narrative, connections, emotions) tie together. The mechanics (the “what”), like learning activities/tasks, are the actions and/or processes (e.g., challenges, competitions, chances, collaborations) that move the game forward and create player engagement. Finally, the game components (the “how”) are concrete forms of mechanics and dynamics (e.g., levels, badges, leaderboards, points, avatars) that personalize the gaming experience and help track and motivate the players’ progress. In other words, adapting Tekinbas and Zimmerman’s (2003) definition, a game is a system of dynamics, mechanics, and components in which players engage in an artificial challenge, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. 

Picture 1 - Gamifications Elements (Adapted from Hunter & Dixon, 2012) - top triangle: Dynamics - emotions, narrative, progression, connections, limitations; next layer: Mechanics - challenges/skills, collaboration/competition, feedback/scaffolds, chance/luck/life, win/lose; bottom layer: Components - badges, points, teams, leaderboards, levels, rules, achievements, quests, gifts, awards, bosses, avatars, skins, shops
Picture 1 – Gamifications Elements (Adapted from Werbach, et al., 2012)

Problem-based Learning (PBL)

Educators can flexibly gamify an entire instructional unit or seamlessly introduce small gamified activities into their lessons. Regardless of the approach, however, it remains essential to consistently assess and align gamification strategies with the educational goals and objectives of the learning experience, and problem-based learning (PBL) could serve this purpose.

PBL, a framework focused on students’ development of problem-solving skills to address real-world challenges, can lend itself well to the gamification process, as it focuses on a problem, provides a learner-centered approach to teaching, and also enriches the learning experience through feedback and scaffolds to support learners along the way. There are five steps involved in this process (Watson & Fang, 2012, see Picture 2): Problem, Activation, Exploration, Reflection, and Facilitation

1. Problem: Presenting a real-world problem/scenario to the students as the driving force behind the project. In the classroom, the problem is tied to a learning objective that revolves around developing learning competencies. For example, suppose your objective is to support your intermediate-proficiency students’ public speaking in the foreign language. Further, let’s say you have determined that your students are interested in the topic of climate change. Based on your objective and your students’ interest, you pose the problem: The urgent need for students to raise awareness about climate change and advocate for sustainable practices within the school community, for which you challenge your students to prepare and deliver persuasive speeches on climate change topics, making sure their speeches are grammatically, lexically, and contextually correct and appropriate. 

Remember, the framework serves as a foundation for understanding, planning, and implementing the gamified task, so you can still build your gamification strategies into it by incorporating different dynamics, mechanics, and components. For example, you can gamify the problem through a narrative as the prompt and a game dynamic:

Greetings, Eco-Champions! Are you ready to embark on an exciting challenge– a quest where you can transform into a Guardian of Sustainability within our school? If you choose to accept this challenge, your mission would be to illuminate the critical issues of climate change and advocate for sustainable practices among your peers. You have the power to inspire positive change. The adventure awaits! 

2. Activation: Piquing students’ interest and getting them ready to explore the problem further. In this phase of the PBL process, you will introduce a scenario. For example, the students will be participating in a school-wide competition dedicated to climate change concerns. Raising the bar this high, you can potentially increase the level of excitement among your students. To further pique students’ interest, you will need to facilitate a conversation in your class, discussing the global impact of climate change, the importance of individual and collective action, and the opportunity to inspire change within the school community. This scenario could spark your students’ enthusiasm and motivate them to delve deeper into exploring the problem. Besides, you can gamify this (and other steps) by creating several quests focused on the various competencies that you aim for your students to develop, and reward them through a host of components (e.g., points, badges, leaderboards). For instance, consider the Interactive Oratory Quest: 

  • Interactive Oratory Quest: Dive into a captivating oratory adventure designed to enhance your public speaking skills. Your mission is to explore a virtual landscape filled with exciting speech elements. Each engaging discovery brings you one step closer to unlocking the full potential of your oratory abilities. 

This quest (in addition to potentially many others) could transform the public speaking task into a dynamic and engaging learning experience, which could inspire the participants to actively engage with the content focused on various aspects of oratory. 

3. Exploration: Student’s independent and/or collaborative exploration of the problem by conducting research and examining possible solutions/approaches to solving the problem. In this phase, your students, working individually or in groups, select specific aspects of climate change that they are passionate about (e.g., deforestation, renewable energy, or waste reduction), and explore it by researching statistics, collecting data, and identifying key arguments to persuade their peers to take action. They also explore persuasive techniques (e.g., Pathos, Logos, or Ethos) that effectively communicate the urgency of addressing climate change. During this process, you provide feedback, pose stimulating questions, facilitate group work, help with language skills and technology use, and, in general, scaffold the learning process. This process could be gamified through the use of relevant quests as well. For instance, 

  • Metaphor Maze Mastery: Conquer the Metaphor Maze by crafting powerful metaphors for your speeches. Earn a badge and unlock the next level for completing the quest successfully.

4. Reflection: Taking the time to reflect on experiences going through the task process and internalizing learning. Throughout the project, the class will arrange dedicated reflection sessions to think back (individually and collaboratively) on the effectiveness of their persuasive messages, discuss the challenges and opportunities in completing the task, and share new learnings, including language skills. 

5. Facilitation: Educator/facilitators’ guidance and support along the way. Facilitating the task is key and could involve providing various types of support, from content/language-related support to group dynamics and collaborations. Keeping students on task would require guiding them in, for instance, speech preparation, researching, analyzing, and synthesizing information, providing resources, organizing practice sessions, helping with persuasive communication, and, ultimately, designating a forum and forming a panel to submit and review students’ work. 

As can be seen from the example provided, in this scenario, students can not only enhance their public speaking skills in the foreign language, but also contribute to a meaningful cause, that is, raising awareness about climate change and promoting sustainable practices within their school community. This PBL-informed design supports student engagement, critical thinking, and reflection, which align with the principles of student-centered and inquiry-driven learning (see Pedaste et al. (2015) for a synthesis of inquiry-based learning practices).

Picture 2 - PBL and Gamification (Watson & Fang, 2012) - a triangle with "Problem" in the middle; top of the triangle: Activation: what: prior knowledge and experience / how: recall, describe, share, demonstrate / why: cognitive structure, relevance; left bottom corner of triangle: Reflection: what: process, procedure, knowledge / how: discuss, share, critique / why: knowledge justification, metacognition map; bottom right side of triangle: Exploration: what: content knowledge, skills, potential solutions / how: inquiry, trial and error / why: cognitive restructure, fun; connecting Activation and Exploration is Facilitation: what: interaction, process / how: ask questions, demonstrate / why: support, encouragement
Picture 2 – PBL and Gamification (Watson & Fang, 2012)


Another closely similar framework is Vinogradov’s (2017) QUESTT, which is a lesson/gamification plan to turn each learning activity into a quest, where students embark on a journey, collect resources, learn new skills, rise through the ranks, and finally accomplish the task. Each QUESTT has six components:

  1. Question: Posing the problem that the quest addresses (aligning to the Problem phase of PBL).
  2. Understandings: Addressing two types of understanding (aligning to the Activation phase of PBL): 
    • Learning about students’ backgrounds and activating their prior knowledge, and 
    • Stating the learning objectives for the quest. 
  3. Explore/ Experiment: Drafting a host of challenges for the players to solve and, through which, develop the knowledge and skills to address the problem (aligning to the Exploration phase of PBL).
  4. Synthesize: Finalizing the task and putting it all together (aligning to the Exploration phase of PBL).
  5. Take the Challenge: Planning delivery formats and assessment measures (aligning to the Exploration phase of PBL). 
  6. Take a Pause: Reflecting on the teaching/learning process (aligning to the Reflection phases of PBL). 

Following these steps, educators can plan, design, implement, and evaluate their gamification strategies across a range of domains (see QUESTT’s planning template by Boucher (2020) to as a guide to develop your gamified units). 


Here are some tools and ideas that you can use in gamifying your classroom activities: 

  • Learning Management System (LMS): LMSes allow users to set requirements and prerequisites on their organizing units (e.g., modules), which make it similar to the game component of leveling- or powering-up. Using these features, you can create multi-level content that space out over time, scaffolding the learning process (Bock, 2017; See Dchilders’ (2017) my gamified class for a gamification guide in Canvas LMS).
  • Digital Badges: Digital badges (e.g., via, a game component, could be awarded to students after meeting learning objectives and completing quests. Digital badges could motivate action and indicate achievement and progress. 
  • LearningApps ( A platform to develop gamified formative assessment applications such as matching pairs, number line, Cloze Text, and Word Grid. These apps could be used to monitor and support student learning through constructive feedback.
  • Flippity ( Ready-made Google spreadsheet templates used to create interactive digital activities (e.g., virtual breakout, Random Name Picker, Board Game, Badge Tracker). Flippity offers a variety of customizable templates that can be used for creating games, quizzes, flashcards, and other interactive resources that could be used in a gamified unit.
  • Wheel Decides ( A wheel-of-fortune to randomly pick an item, supporting the game component of chance. This tool can add an element of surprise and excitement to various activities. For example, the wheel can be used to determine the next task or challenge participants need to complete. 
  • Mozilla Hubs ( A virtual reality platform to create immersive spaces. This tool can support gamification in a number of ways, including through developing immersive virtual scavenger hunts, escape room scenarios, customizable avatars and badges, and team-building challenges.
  • Green Screen. Chroma key effect to create unreal scenes. For example, students can transport to outer space adventure scenes to support a narrative, obtain customizable backgrounds as rewards, and create virtual game boards with real-time movements. Video conferencing tools (e.g., Zoom) could make it possible to conveniently integrate green screen effects during presentations.
  • Google Slides Escape Rooms. Google productivity tools (e.g., Docs, Slides, Sites, Forms) used to develop digital escape challenges. Educational escape rooms could be engaging tools to support students’ learning through a game-based design (See Huang, 2023, for an overview of digital educational escape rooms in language classrooms, and also Clarke et al., 2017, for a framework to design effective EERs), and Google productivity tools can be used to design those (see Shahrokni & Stagnoli’s, 2023, video presentation to learn how to design a digital escape room using Google productivity tools or Al Ani’s (2022) webinar on the topic of escape rooms). Room Escape Maker is also another platform for creating digital escape rooms.
  • Kahoot ( Gamified assessment and presentation tool. Various game elements (e.g., interactive quizzes, leaderboards and point systems, music and sound effects, time constraints, teams) inform the design of Kahoot’s gamified activities.
  • DoppelMe ( A tool to create avatars. This free tool can be used in gamification scenarios, virtual classrooms, or online communities, allowing the students to create their unique avatars to use within these environments, adding a personalized touch to their online presence. 
  • Pixton ( A comic-development tool to create a class photo with all students as avatars in it. Using this tool, educators can create a group photo of all students in their class. Students will be assigned a username that enables them to create their personalized avatars. The educator, then, can create a group photo of all student avatars in a themed setting (e.g., Mars, Safari, Science, Space) and post it to their online course home page.


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