To Gamify or Not? That is the Question.

By Elizabeth Goryunova

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Elizabeth Goryunova

Elizabeth Goryunova is an Assistant Professor at the Leadership and Organizational Studies Department, University of Southern Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in Global Leadership, MBA and M.S. in Theoretical Physics. Her research interests include Global leadership education and practice, Metacognitive strategies, and Effective Intercultural Interactions. Prior to joining the Academia, Elizabeth served as a President & CEO of the World Trade Center Utah, as a Private Sector Liaison Officer to the World Bank Group, and a founder of two 501-(c)-3s.

Gamified digital technology represents a new frontier in education, yet currently, its benefits and challenges are not fully understood. Recent research points at a capacity of a gamified instruction to increase learners’ motivation and engagement thus contributing to a positive learning experience. At the same time, a gamified instruction is not a universal remedy that ensures the effectiveness of the learning process. This article is focused on the experience of integrating gamified digital technology into a leadership education instruction. The objective is to share the lessons learned and ideas to implement.

The developmental value of games is indisputable (McFarlane, 2002; Wolfe, 1997). Games are also an active and enjoyable way to learn. They provide a safe and engaging environment that promotes creative thinking, problem-solving, and freedom to fail and start over. For instance, as a child, I learned the basics of deliberate strategy and situational analysis by playing the old-fashioned board game of chess with my father. Contemporary games based on digital technology are much more sophisticated, challenging, and visually stimulating as compared to the traditional board games. Yet technology, no matter how complex, does not change the basic premise of playing a game. It remains an engaging way to practice a skill and as such can be effectively incorporated into instruction to increase learners’ motivation, engagement, and knowledge retention.

During my sixteen years of teaching natural and social science in both traditional and online formats, I have been consistently focused on creating a student-centered learning environment. More and more students in my diverse classes are Gen Y and I-Gen (“digital natives”, Prensky, 2001). Therefore, I deliberately address their distinct learning needs and styles by utilizing digital technology elements appealing to those students, specifically: gamification.

Gamification is defined by Deterding et al. (2011) as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (p. 1). It is utilized in education as well as corporate training to create an attractive learning environment and improve student/user engagement. Within the broad term “gamification”, Karl Kapp identifies structural gamification and content gamification (Kapp et al., 2013). The former refers to the application of game elements such as points, badges, leaderboards, and mastery levels to the learning process without changing its content. The latter means designing the actual course content like a game, which can be an expensive endeavor. Scholars, in general, recognize the positive effect of gamification on student engagement, motivation, and performance (Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah et al., 2014). A recent experimental study conducted by Sailer et al. (2016) reveals that gamification elements contribute to satisfaction of basic psychological needs of players. According to that study, elements of structural gamification positively affect competence, satisfaction, and task meaningfulness, while content elements affect social relatedness of learners.

My individual experience of gamified instruction supports these findings, yet I find myself in a unique position. Instead of trying to design and insert random game-like elements, badges, and awards into a traditional Learning Management System environment, such as Blackboard, Canvas, or Brightspace, I have identified and piloted, for a leadership instruction, two successive releases (MyAltis and Virgo) of a fully developed real-time, gamified, educational platform that combines most common gamified elements with a virtual “Sim”-like gamified environment (Solar Games, France).

It appears that my task as an instructor is to “simply” populate the platform with the desired content, designate game elements existing within the platform to supplement the content and build learning paths for students to complete. Voila!

In practice, however, there is a considerable amount of background work involved. The first step is to develop the content and then arrange it in a meaningful progression of steps that together create a learning path. At the same time, once the content is loaded into the platform, the instructor can sequence its building blocks in a variety of ways to create different learning paths, to match learners’ levels and objectives.

As learners start their journey along the learning path, they design their avatars, navigate virtual space, access content through interactive objects, and complete required steps. Their progress is rewarded with gamified elements: mastery levels, award points, and game wins. Within the administrator’s interface, student progress is monitored by an instructor through test results and detailed information on time, duration, the frequency of access, and percent of path completion.

One unique feature of this platform is its social networking capacity — participants have the ability to interact in real time through their avatars. For example, I can recognize learners who are present within the platform in real time by their avatars, greet them individually through a messaging board, and offer immediate guidance while they navigate the content. Learners welcome this as an element of a “human touch” added to their traditionally "disconnected" online experience. There is also an opportunity to share individual work in a special forum located in a virtual conference room, or library, as designated by the instructor within the platform.

I have been successfully using features of this gamified platform since 2014 when I first introduced gamified tests to evaluate student knowledge of leadership concepts in traditionally-formatted Operations Management courses OIS 5670 and OIS 6670 at David Eccles School of Business (University of Utah). Tests were offered in class, as a group content review exercise and online, as individual knowledge assessment, through personal accounts set up for students within the platform.

There are four distinct-purpose game-tests available within MyAltis.

The Profiler serves as a placement test that matches learners’ final score to the predetermined categories of mastery (profile).

InSitu allows learners to apply critical thinking skills to several given scenarios, select the right one, and get real-time feedback from an avatar administering the test to learners. I found this test to be especially helpful for leadership instruction, as developing critical thinking is one of its top priorities. A typical scenario in this test includes solving situational cross-cultural challenges by exercising a global mindset.

Finally, Scoring and UpTo14 offer “pass-fail” scenarios based on achievement goals set by an instructor. They are best used for “memorize and recall” types of concepts, more typical of an undergraduate level. I also use these two games as in-class, group, content review exercises, where the questions are advanced on the screen for students to collectively come up with the right answer.

One of the benefits of a gamified environment is the player’s ability to start the game over to achieve a better result. Recognizing that learners are motivated to achieve a better grade, I intentionally set all gamified tests to unlimited attempts. I found this works equally well for both tests evaluating knowledge of concepts and tests offering critical thinking scenarios. A majority of students are highly motivated to achieve a better score and may take a single test up to nine times. As one of the students commented: “The tests were a good opportunity to test your reading and learning comprehension. The great thing about it, you get unlimited attempts. Some may believe that's memorization...so be it, you are still learning.”

Most recently, at the University of Southern Maine, I have utilized the gamified platform to develop content for Leadership LOS 350, Cultural Contexts (LS 550), Diplomacy in a Modern World (LOS 599), and Organizational Theory LOS 300. My primary objective, in the context of leadership education, is to enhance the critical thinking of students on a leadership trajectory by expanding traditional leadership instruction repertoire with advanced online gamified tools. Additionally, I aim to increase leadership students’ motivation and engagement with the learning process by generating excitement around gamified learning.

Our Summer 2018 LOS 300 class offered a unique opportunity for insight. It was offered in two formats simultaneously with identical content: in a traditional Blackboard online format and, to interested students, in a gamified format. According to the final report on account activity, time spent by students accessing content within the gamified platform thrice exceeded the time spent by those accessing content via Blackboard. While such an increase in engagement is impressive, a closer look at the overall student performance is needed to better understand the reasons behind this increase.

In the meantime, my lessons learned are as follows:

  1. A gamified environment is appealing to Gen Y and iGens. They appreciate its visual effects, freedom to design avatars and navigate the learning space, ability to interact with each other in real time, and convenience of mobile access. Their sentiments can be summed up by the following comment from one of the students: “I can see the possible advantages of this technology for future classes. It’s an awesome way to feel involved in an online class.” At the same time, gamification is not a universal guarantee of effectiveness, because the appeal of game elements differs among generationally diverse learners. Some of the representatives of earlier generations may qualify game elements as a distraction.
  2. A meaningfully designed gamified environment is effective for increased learner engagement and knowledge retention. Thus, when designing a gamified course, I intentionally focus on creating opportunities for learners to meaningfully process the content (content gamification) over opportunities to earn “bonus points” for supplementary activities (structural gamification). I believe it delivers a better value for learners.
  3. Gamified tests are universally preferred by participating students to traditional ones. There is an element of fun in a game scenario that unfolds during the test (Profiler, Scoring) while allowing unlimited “lives” (multiple attempts at learning) helps to eliminate examination anxiety. An additional advantage of a gamified environment is the immediate and frequent feedback. A facilitating avatar (InSitu) provides an instant opportunity for learners to improve understanding of studied concepts, one question at a time.
  4. The ideal gamified platform offers a set of tools that can be universally used across multiple disciplines, or as in my case, across various subjects, thus reducing its cost to the users/adopters.
  5. The gamified environment requires sophisticated and dedicated IT support.

In conclusion, the more I learn about gamification, the more I appreciate the effort that is necessary for providing sophisticated users of digital technology with a seamless and engaging experience that results in effective learning and long-term knowledge retention.

To me, the game is definitely worth the effort.


Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nacke, L. E., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification: Toward a Definition. In Proceedings of CHI 2011 Gamification Workshop, 1-4. Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah, Qing Zeng, Venkata Rajasekhar Telaprolu, Abhishek Padmanabhuni Ayyappa, and Brenda Eschenbrenner. (2014). Gamification of Education: A Review of Literature. HCIB/HCII, LNCS 8527, 401–409, Springer International Publishing Switzerland

Kapp, K. M., Blair, L., &Mesch, R. (2013). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Theory Into Practice. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

McFarlane, A., Sparrowhawk, A., Heald, Y., et al. (2002). Report on the Educational Use of Games. Cambridge, UK: TEEM - Department of Education and Skills. Retrieved from  http://questgarden.com/84/74/3/091102061307/files/teem_gamesined_full.pdf 

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. MCB University Press, 9(6). Retrieved from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky - Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants - Part1.pdf

Sailer, M., Hense, J.U., Mayr S.K. and Mandl, H. (2016). How Gamification Motivates: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Specific Game Design Elements on Psychological Need Satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier.

Wolfe, J. (1997). The Effectiveness of Business Games in Strategic Management Coursework. Simulation & Gaming, 38, 360-376. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing.



Image 1: MyAltis “reception area” with 3 avatars present in real-time (learner’ avatar is marked by a yellow arrow; interactive objects are highlighted in green).


Image 2: Virgo learning space (learner’ avatar is marked by a yellow arrow; interactive objects are clearly identified by their functions).



Image 3: Learning path



Image 4: Tools for monitoring learners’ performance.


Image 5: Profiler game interface (while taking the test learners ride through the desert mine)


Image 6: Profiler game categories (as designated by an instructor)


Image 7: InSitu game interface.



Image 8: List of Games available in MyAltis


About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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