James Paul Gee & Gamification in My Classroom

All, Reflections

“Gamification, the use of game-design elements for a non-game purpose, interests me because I do not want my classes to be about the grade. I want my students to stop obsessing over what will please me enough to give them an A and instead focus on exploring and experimenting. Every semester and every class I find myself adding more elements of gamification to my classes because I believe gamification supports learning by motivating and engaging students and it supports writing development. And there is something about gamification that encourages community and collaboration that a traditional grading structure does not.”

I wrote those words about “Why Gamification” in May 2014 and I continue to be struck by how true they continue to be for me. Gamification has revolutionized the way I teach and I strongly urge other teachers to consider the ways they can gamify their classes. James Paul Gee is an expert on the connections between gaming and learning. He notes: “A [game] genre teaches players what to expect and how to play when confronted with a similar game.” Isn’t this the transfer problem that we struggle with as teachers at every level of education? Perhaps the problem is not with the teacher or the student but the genre or pedagogy? Could gamification solve our transfer problem?

Gee argues: “Humans learn best from well-mentored, guided experience centered on interesting problems to solve, clear goals, copious feedback, and a relatively low cost for failure. This is what good games supply.” Shouldn’t good learning experiences do the same? This is how I strive to build my classes — as guided experiences (light on the lecture and heavy on the making) and give my students room to choose their own projects (if they are not interesting whose fault it that) that fit within my parameters and goals. The mechanics of my classes are heavy on feedback and interaction with both reward signals and deep rewards embedded in our assignments. This means that by the time my students arrive at the high-stakes assignments, if they have successfully navigated the mechanics, they cannot fail – even if their project did not deliver as expected – because they have learned from the process and even a failed deliverable can demonstrate successful learning. What if we designed our learning experiences like good games?

I am particularly struck by Gee’s description of the perfect video game: “A good video game demands a coherent, meaningful, and engaging fit between its game mechanics and its content.” Think about applying that description to your class design. The mechanics of your class are the types of interactions your students have with the system – the tools or structure of your class. We need to spend time thinking about the mechanics. Are they cumbersome, difficult to navigate, soul sucking? But, as Gee would point out, the most important thing is how they serve the content of our classes.

Too often teachers confuse the mechanics of their class with their content – or simply let the two elements get out of balance (guilty!). I love how Gee describes the three ways of thinking about content, perhaps because I am a bit of content heretic. First there is the short answer to the question what is the class about. For me, most of my classes are about creating/supporting writers and their growth, for example. Then Gee asks us to consider the genre. This is a very interesting question and one that I think teachers should consider more. I know thinking about my teaching genre is challenging on many levels. I still have trouble pinning down my exact genre as there is a lot of overlap, but it certainly falls into the project-based/connected learning pedagogical neighborhood. Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of content to consider, is the effect you intended your content to have on the student. What is the ultimate change you would like to have wrought in the way they think about or do something? What is your bottom line? Mine is to foster reflective and self-regulating writers and thinkers. When was the last time you thought about your mechanics and content as a cohesive whole? When was the last time you thought about the various aspects of your content?

Do you agree with Gee’s assessment that humans learn best from interactive experiences? How can gaming theory inform your pedagogy? Do you agree that gamification may be the solution to our transfer problem?


  • Hello,

    Do you have any resources/lessons/project sheets you’ve used before that you would be willing to share on this topic? I’d love to start using it in my classroom here in CA.

    • This falls under the heading of something I’ve meant to do for a long time, compile an user-friendly resource. I have put things on my blog in bits and pieces. What were some of your specific questions? I can point you in the right direction – or write a new post addressing that issue.

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