Work hard, play hard: One teacher’s journey implementing gamification all YEAR long

Gamification

Gamification | Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Work hard, play hard: One teacher’s journey implementing gamification all YEAR long

This post is written by Matt Armstrong, a 7th & 8th Grade Social Studies Teacher in Erie, IL. Matt strives to make history relevant and engaging for his students, and gamification is just one of the ways he tries to do so. You can reach out to him by email at marmstrong@ecusd.info or follow him on Twitter at @mr_armstrong12.

Picture this - kids hunting your classroom for clues, working strategically with each other, dramatic music playing, and a sense of anticipation filling the air. 

What if I told you that this isn’t just a fun, one-time activity, but a regular, intentional experience designed to increase engagement, and as a result, increase learning at the same time? This is just one tiny peak into a day in a gamified classroom, where learning remains the focus, but with creative twists, using techniques that make games so enjoyable. 

(Granted, every day and every activity doesn’t look just like this, but as with anything in teaching, variety and focusing on what’s best for each individual lesson are key.)

Gamification: Explained

Many of us have played the classic “Oregon Trail” computer game growing up, fording rivers, keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, and of course, taking some time to hunt for food.  “Oregon Trail,” is a fun game, that also teaches you about America’s most famous trail.

However, playing games like that in class that are both fun and educational are not necessarily what gamification is all about. Instead, gamification is about turning something that is not currently set up like a game, into one.

There are plenty of great ways to incorporate games, and game-based learning into the curriculum to increase learning and engagement, but gamification goes a bit further. Gamification brings in as many elements of games as you’d like, (points, currency, teams, etc.), while also having a common theme and storyline that ties everything together. 

The overall hope is to make learning more engaging and effective, encourage valuable real-world skills, like collaboration and critical thinking, and also to challenge students to do more than the basics required in class.

My Gamification Journey

I began exploring gamification in 2015, inspired by Michael Matera's insights. Since then, I've continued learning more about gamification through graduate courses, extensive reading, and practical application in my teaching. Each year, I refine the process, adding and tweaking the games. My students and I have had tons of fun with it, and I’ve seen some incredible results!


A highlight was when a 7th grader initiated an Autism Awareness Week, a project born from a gamified class challenge. With peer collaboration and staff support, it turned into an unforgettable week with hands-on activities and lessons, culminating with everyone watching the film, “Life Animated,” in our theater to end the week.

My Games

I currently have a year-long game that I developed to match my 7th grade World History curriculum, called Legacy, a game that I created to match my 8th grade American History, called Become the President, (it runs ¾ of the year), and a game that the students help design that they play during  the 4th Quarter in 8th grade. You could set your game up for any length, and adjust as you see fit depending on how things go the first time. Click on the images below to see the game introductions.

My games have in-class activities throughout the year, as well as optional enrichment-type activities that can be done, too. Students can earn points and money, and ultimately the points determine the winner and winning team at the end of the game. There is a store where kids can get in-class rewards, small items like candy, and mostly, items that will help them somehow in the game.


Participation in the game is voluntary and doesn’t impact grades. Classroom activities are integrated with the game to enhance learning without being disruptive. The aim is to overlay the game onto regular teaching, making it more engaging and encouraging independent exploration.

The game culminates in a “reveal” party, where we recap events, acknowledge standout students, and announce winners. Prizes are awarded, but the primary incentives are the prestige of winning and bragging rights.

Creating the games: Themes

Designing a game is thrilling, especially when coming up with a name, theme, “logo,” and story-line. "Legacy" emerged from the diverse topics of my 7th grade history class, encompassing geography, world religions, historical periods like the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and culminating in a project on 20th-century conflicts. The concept of legacy—both inherited and left behind—became the unifying theme.

I created engaging chapter titles and introductions to weave our game's story as we explore different subjects throughout the year. These chapters act as game levels, with students earning badges on our leaderboard as they progress.

In 8th grade, the focus shifts to U.S. history, from its inception to the Civil War. Central to this is understanding the Constitution and governance. To inspire civic responsibility and leadership, I developed "Become the President," a game where students advance through levels at their own pace, each one building towards the potential of becoming a great leader.

The game's narrative is enriched with "Side Missions" and activities, such as safeguarding the Constitution from hypothetical hackers during our Constitution Test.

**TIP **When coming up with your own name, theme and story-line, don’t be too overwhelmed or pressured to constantly tie it in. Keep it basic to start, and reflect on how you can develop it and tie it in more as you go.

Creating the games: Levels

In my “Become the President” game, “Levels” are the other option for anyone wanting to do something outside of class to earn points or money, and they are completely optional, as well. Each level has a short list of “tasks” to complete, and as I check them over, and unlock the next level in their Google Classroom. 

When students unlock the next level, they get a bonus each time, and an upgraded “badge” on my leaderboard, such as “Mayor,” or “Governor.” Students can become a “Presidential Candidate,” or finalist to win it all, by either completing all of the levels, or being the first in their “Party” (small group) to reach 1 million followers (points). 

Rewards

When kids stand out in class, win in-class challenges or games, or do optional extras (Side Missions, etc.), they can earn points and/or money. Both points and money are kept track of on a leaderboard, made using Google Sheets, shared Google Classrooms. That way they always have access to see how they’re doing, how much money they have, etc. (Since their grades do not tie into the game directly, there is no issue with this being displayed for all their classmates to see.)

The Store

There is a store where kids can get in-class rewards, small items like candy, and mostly, items that will help them somehow in the game. Some items in the store are physical items they can purchase, like candy or stickers, some are in-class rewards, like a Homework Pass or a “Twinning” item, where they can work with a partner on an individual assignment. 

Most of the items, however, and typically the most popular, are the ones that can get them more points or money in the game. These include some dice-rolling options, where they can test their luck and see if they can get a lucky roll to get a boost, which some kids really have fun with.

I’ve also added several “weekly boost” items, like a Campaign Bus for “Become the President,” which helps them “get the word out about their campaign” and get a weekly boost in followers each week. I typically take some time each Friday to calculate what percentage boost each student gets for points and money, and students can see how valuable these big investments can be over time. 

This ends up being a great way for them to really see the value of compound interest, and investing early, which is something I teach them about in my Consumer Education class. 

You can check out examples of what is sometimes available in my “stores” by clicking on the images below. 

I try to add a few items to each store once a month, and I announce these updates during class. Kids can shop by either emailing me what they’d like to purchase, or seeing me during the last 20 minutes of our study hall at the end of the day.

Side Missions

Outside of class, students in all of my games have several enrichment activities they can complete if they want to, which does nothing to affect their grade, whether they complete them or not. I call most of these “Side Missions,” and you can check out most of my Side Missions for my games in these two Docs. Legacy Side Missions / Become the President Side Missions

Some kids end up doing a lot of them throughout the game, and a few don’t end up doing many, or possibly any at all, which is perfectly fine!

Tips for getting started with a gamified curriculum

I could go on and and, and share more of what I have created over the years, but in all honesty, the best way to make gamification work well for you, and for you to enjoy it, is to make it your own.  

The following are some of my final tips for you, in how to take the next step if you are interested in trying it out. 

Tip #1 - Learn from others

  • Read “Explore Like A Pirate,” by Michael Matera- This was my go-to for learning all about gamification, slowly trying it out, and eventually designing my year-long games.

  • Read “Fully Engaged,” by Michael Matera & John Meehan- This one doesn’t just look at gamification, but is a great resource to better engage students in a variety of ways.
  • Check out the EMC2 Learning website! 
    • There are different types of subscriptions, but this is the home-base for everything gamification in education 
    • There are all kinds of editable resources, PD, and more to be a one-stub hub for those interested in gamification. It is well worth the money if you choose to join
  • Collaborate with your coworkers and see if they want to either help bounce ideas around, or possibly even team up and make a game together! I work closely with the other 7th grade history teacher at my school who also uses “Legacy” in her two classes, and we talk throughout the year to either add to the game, or make changes. 
  • Connect on Twitter! Look for these hashtags: 
    • #xplap 
    • #gamemyclass
    • #games4ed

Tip #2 - Start SMALL

  • Start with a gamified activity, lesson, or unit to test gamification out! 
  • If that goes well, and you want to plan something larger-scale, start small in the first year, and build as you go! (My first couple years I didn’t have currency or a store, but I’ve loved adding to the games each year.)

Tip #3 - Have a “Home Base”

  • I originally used a website for students to access everything they would need or want for the game, but I’ve found since then, that Google Classroom is the perfect place to have everything they need!
  • Here, students will have access to: Side Missions, Levels, The Leaderboard, The Store, and any other things relevant to the game. 
  • It helps keep things organized between class-work, and enrichment-type work, too, and just for everyone to easily find what they need.

Tip #4 - Play around with it!

  • Part of the fun in teaching is putting your own twist on things to get you and the students into whatever it is you’re learning about. The same goes with gamification. Try things, see how they work, and if they don’t work great, just tweak it for the next time. Being vulnerable to trying new things with gamification and in teaching sets a great example for your students even if things don’t go quite as you’d hoped.
  • Playing board games, video games, and any games, really, will also help give you ideas of what you could add into your game, and really get kids hooked, too. A lot of the most popular games really aren’t too complicated, so just think about what it is you or others like so much about those games, and try to bring those aspects into your classroom.
  • Students often have some of the best ideas, too, so be sure to ask them for feedback and ideas. This has given me so many great ideas over the years, and it also gets a whole lot more student buy-in, whether it’s their idea, or one of their classmates’.

Tip #5 - “Play” responsibly

  • With sensitive topics, especially in history classes, we have to be careful to not make light of past or current events, and this should always be in the back of your head when adding any kind of gamified element to your lessons. Some lessons and topics won’t be “fun,” but they can still be engaging and impactful, so just use your best judgment in when and how to employ gamification.
  • We also have to keep learning as the ultimate goal, and not let games, or game-elements distract us from what the purpose of us being there is. Gamification is intended to add a creative, fun layer on top of whatever we are already teaching, not take away from teaching. 

If you implement gamification at all and would like to connect at all, or if you’re interested and have questions, feel free to reach out.

Email - marmstrong@ecusd.info

Twitter - @mr_armstrong12

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