It’s Not “Just a Game” - The Theory of Gamified Learning

The theory of gamified learning


Picture this.

It's the classic hero's journey. You start as a novice, perhaps an underdog, in a world filled with opportunities to learn and grow. You face challenges that test your wit and grit, and with each victory, you gain 'experience points,' moving closer to mastering a new skill or a concept. But wait, there's a twist! This isn't just any story—it's the story of you learning in a gamified environment.

Gamified learning is like inviting your brain to a party. It's the marriage of the thrill of games with the pursuit of knowledge. It's not about turning education into one giant game but strategically integrating gaming mechanics into learning to make it more engaging, motivating, and interactive.

Achievement badges, leaderboards, progress bars, and virtual currencies are your new textbooks and pop quizzes. But these aren't arbitrary rewards. They serve a purpose—guiding, incentivising, and measuring your learning process. They're your power-ups in this learning game, your markers of growth and accomplishment.

Just like in games, you learn by doing, making mistakes, and strategising. There's instant feedback, just like when your character loses a life or completes a level, you know right away what worked and what didn't. This hands-on, immersive approach creates an emotionally engaging experience, making the learning more memorable.

The crux of the gamified learning theory is the recognition of the inherent human love for games—our love for challenges, our competitive spirit, our craving for rewards, and the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles. It's about using these drivers to fan the flame of curiosity and knowledge-seeking.

Remember, though, it's not "just a game." The theory of gamified learning calls for a careful, thoughtful blend of educational content and game dynamics. The goal is to create a learning environment that's not only fun and engaging but also effective in fostering deep, meaningful learning. It's about hitting the sweet spot where 'Level Up' means not just higher scores but higher understanding and mastery.

So, let's roll the dice, conquer the leaderboard of knowledge, and embrace the exciting quest of gamified learning! 

But first, let's unjumble the complex definition of "game".

Game or Gamified Learning?

Defining what constitutes a "game" can indeed be a tricky process, and variations in definitions can lead to different interpretations and research results in the field of gamified learning. This means that what one learning or gaming expert calls a "challenge", another might call "fun." What one researcher calls "fun", another might say, "contributes to the creation of flow experiences"(1). Here's why:

  1. Diverse Game Elements: Games encompass a wide variety of elements such as rules, goals, challenges, interactivity, and rewards. Different researchers may prioritise or focus on different elements in their definitions, leading to varied research scopes and outcomes.
  2. Subjectivity of Game Experiences: The experience of playing games is highly subjective, dependent on the player's engagement, motivations, and responses to the game mechanics. Therefore, different definitions of games may capture or emphasise different aspects of these experiences, leading to diverse research results.
  3. Interplay of Fun and Learning: The balance and interaction between the fun (game) aspect and the educational (learning) aspect can vary widely across different game-based learning experiences. Definitions that lean more towards the "fun" aspect might yield different research outcomes compared to those that emphasise the "learning" aspect.
  4. Differences in Methodologies: The definition of a game can influence the research methodology, such as the selection of study environments, measurement tools, and analysis techniques. This can, in turn, lead to different research findings.
  5. Influence of Game Genres: Games come in many genres, each with its own set of conventions and mechanics. A definition that is broad enough to encompass multiple genres might lead to different results compared to a definition that is more specific to a certain genre.

As such, it's important to recognise the implications of how we define "games" in gamified learning research. Being clear and explicit about the definition used can help improve the comparability and interpretation of research findings in this field.

Lucky for learning and gaming experts, Bedwell and colleagues (2) tried to solve this definition issue by conducting an empirical study of game attributes. They gathered 65 game experts (50 players and 15 developers) and developed a 9-category system.

CategoryDefinitionExample of gamification
Action languageThe method and interface by which communication occurs between a player and the game itselfTo participate in an online learning activity, students are now required to use game console controllers (e.g., a PlayStation controller)
AssessmentThe method by which accomplishment and game progress are trackedIn a learning activity, points are used to track the number of correct answers obtained by each learner as each learner completes the activity
Conflict/challengeThe problems faced by players, including both the nature and difficulty of those problemsA small group discussion activity is augmented such that each small group competes for the “best” answer
ControlThe degree to which players are able to alter the game, and the degree to which the game alters itself in responseA small group discussion activity is restructured such that each decision made by each small group influences the next topic that group will discuss
EnvironmentThe representation of the physical surroundings of the playerA class meeting is moved from a physical classroom to a 3D virtual world
Game fictionThe fictional game world and storyLectures, tests, and discussions are renamed adventures, monsters, and councils, respectively
Human interactionThe degree to which players interact with other players in both space and timeLearners participate in an online system that reports on their assignment progress to other students as they work
ImmersionThe affective and perceptual experience of a gameWhen learning about oceanography, the walls of the classroom are replaced with monitors displaying real-time images captured from the sea floor
Rules/goalsClearly defined rules, goals, and information on progress toward those goals, provided to the playerWhen completing worksheet assignments on tablet computers, a progress bar is displayed to indicate how much of the assignment has been completed (but not necessarily the number of correct answers, which would fall under “Assessment”)

This  taxonomy of game attributes has been used to understand how different elements of games can contribute to learning outcomes, making it highly relevant to gamified learning.

This leads us to the second term - gamification.

Simply put, gamification is the process of adding game design elements to non-game contexts (3). In our case, learning is considered a non-game context. As Landers and colleagues nicely explain (4, 5) a user can learn directly from a game but not from gamification. Instead, gamification is used to improve learning that is already occurring in another learning system. It can also contribute to overcoming some psychological roadblock that is preventing learning in "traditional" learning designs.

What Makes Good Gamified Learning?

Like with any other learning solution, start with your audience.

  • Who are your learners?
  • What are their goals?
  • Do they have experience with gamified learning?
  • How old are they?

Answers to these questions can help you design and modify learning journeys. And don't forget the attitudes towards games and gamification!

Gamification leads to improved learning outcomes for learners with high game experience and positive game attitudes. On the other hand, for learners with little game experience and more negative game attitudes, gamification led to diminished outcomes (6). 

In addition to attitudes, gender and age also play a role in designing gamified learning. Older adults often find gamified environments harder to use (7) and prefer non-gamified "traditional" learning instruction. Another variable, gender, tends to affect gaming preferences in that males, on average, are more motivated by achievement game elements, and females, on average, are more motivated by social game elements (8).

Once you've identified learners' preferences and attitudes, you might consider some of the following elements to include in your design:

  1. Game Mechanics: These are the rules and procedures that guide the game and determine how it is played and won. In a learning context, they're blended with educational content to promote learning. Think of points, levels, badges, rewards, leaderboards, or even time restrictions.
  2. Narrative: Just like a captivating game story, a learning narrative hooks the learners and fuels their imagination and curiosity. The storyline often includes challenges and goals to overcome, which are directly related to the learning outcomes.
  3. Goals: Clear and specific objectives keep learners focused and engaged. These goals can range from mastering a skill to completing a task or earning a certain number of points.
  4. Instant Feedback: Feedback is integral to learning, and in a gamified learning context, it is immediate. Whether a learner loses a life, earns a badge, or levels up, these mechanisms provide quick feedback on their actions, helping them to understand what they did right or wrong and adjust their strategies accordingly.
  5. Progression: Progression systems like levels, stages, or belts help learners to see their learning journey. It provides a sense of achievement and satisfaction as they "level up" their knowledge and skills.
  6. Challenge: Just as games have obstacles and enemies, gamified learning also involves challenges that test learners' understanding and problem-solving skills. These challenges should be balanced – not too easy to bore, but not too hard to frustrate.
  7. Social Interaction: Features like leaderboards, team quests, and collaborative challenges enhance interaction among learners, fostering peer learning, competition, and cooperation.
  8. Player Control: Gamified learning experiences often allow learners to make decisions, exercise autonomy, and impact the outcome, which significantly increases engagement.
  9. Balancing Fun and Learning: Perhaps the most crucial element of all is the careful balance of fun and learning. The gaming aspect should motivate and engage learners without overshadowing the actual learning objectives.

Some researchers (9) identified specific game elements that are most likely to increase motivation in gamified learning: points, badges, leaderboards, progress bars, quests, meaningful stories, and avatars. For example, they suggested that badges increase motivation by fulfilling a player's need for success, acting as a status symbol, having a goal-setting function, and fostering a player's feeling of competence.

Incorporating these elements into your learning design process can create a dynamic and compelling gamified learning environment where learning is not a chore but an engaging, enjoyable activity. Like any powerful tool, gamified learning must be used thoughtfully and purposefully to achieve its maximum impact.


In this article, we delved into the world of gamified learning, highlighting its unique potential to make learning designs more engaging and effective. We explored the fundamental elements of gamified learning, which include game mechanics, narratives, goals, feedback, progression, challenges, social interaction, player control, and the careful balance of fun and learning. We also showed that different variables such as attitudes towards gamification, gender and age could influence the design of gamified learning solutions. Finally, we touched upon Bedwell's taxonomy of game attributes and how it plays a significant role in shaping successful gamified learning experiences.

Key Takeaways

  1. Gamified learning involves applying gaming mechanics and aesthetics to educational contexts, promoting engagement and enhancing learning outcomes.
  2. Successful gamified learning design requires carefully balancing various elements, from game mechanics to feedback and progression.
  3. Bedwell's taxonomy, encompassing attributes like action language, assessment, game fiction, immersion, social interaction, and others, offers a guide to understanding and leveraging game elements in learning.
  4. The definitions and interpretations of "games" can significantly influence research outcomes in gamified learning, underlining the need for clear and explicit definitions in this field.

Suggested reading on the topic:

(1) Landers, R.N. (No date). Games Defined: A New Taxonomy of Game Elements.

(2) Bedwell, W., Pavlas, D., Heyne, K., Lazzara, E., & Salas, E. (2012). Toward a taxonomy linking game attributes to learning: An empirical study Simulation & Gaming, 43 (6), 729-760 DOI: 10.1177/1046878112439444 

(3) Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Khaled, R., Nacke, L., O'Hara, K. E., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification: Toward a definition. Proceedings of the from CHI 2011 Gamification Workshop, Vancouver, BC,.   

(4) Landers, R. N. (2015). Developing a theory of gamified learning: Linking serious games and gamification of learning. Simulation & Gaming, 45, 752-768.

doi: 10.1177/1046878114563660(6) 

(5) Landers, R. N., Auer, E. M., Helms, A. B., Marin, S., & Armstrong, M. B. (2019). Gamification of adult learning: Gamifying employee training and development. In R. N. Landers (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of Technology and Employee Behavior (pp. 271-295). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

(6) Landers, R. N., & Armstrong, M. B. (2015). Enhancing instructional outcomes with gamification: An empirical test of the Technology-Enhanced Training Effectiveness Model. Computers in Human Behavior, 71, 499-507.

(7) Koivisto, J., & Hamari, J. (2014). Demographic differences in perceived benefits from gamification. Computers in Human Behavior, 35, 179-188.

doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.03.007

(8) Greenberg, B. S., Sherry, J., Lachlan, K., Lucas, K., & Holmstrom, A. (2010). Orientations to video games among gender and age groups. Simulation & Gaming, 41, 238-259.

doi: 10.1177/1046878108319930

(9) Sailer, M., Hense, J. U., Mayr, S. K., Mandl, H. (2017). How gamification motivates: An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 371-380.

doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.033