Gamification, It’s Not Just for Learning the ABCs & 123s

Gamification, It’s Not Just for Learning the ABCs & 123s

Sam Rauschenfels

Graduate Assistant, University of Texas at Austin

Think about the last game you played—what was it? Was it physical, like a board game or card game with friends? Maybe it was digital on your mobile device. Or perhaps it was a combination—a game on your smartphone played with team members across the internet?

All of us have played a game at some point in our lives; while we most often associate gaming with downtime, a tool to relax and entertain us at family gatherings or on long transit rides, games have the possibility to do that and more.

As educators at all levels look to innovate and push both their curriculums and their students forward, many are experimenting with gamification: incorporating elements of games into traditionally non-game contexts. Given its gaining popularity, it’s important to define gamification and explore some of the ways and reasons those in higher education are utilizing it in their work.

Gamification is more than just incorporating game elements into non-game settings: it is doing so with the purpose of enhancing that which the game elements are applied to, typically with the goal of increasing engagement and/or enhancing learning.

Take, for example, The Fun Theory’s Piano Staircase where the organization installed “piano stairs” next to an escalator that played music as you walked up and down the staircase. The organization designed the installation to gamify taking the stairs, with the goal of encouraging more people to do so. This viral video of the installation has received over 22 million views.

The piano staircase is a simple example of the power of gamification: encouraging people to do things they would otherwise avoid, as Langendahl et al. (2016) describe in their detailed working paper on gamification.

As Langendahl et al. discuss, gamification has the potential to help students break out of their comfort zones, shift the focus of learning from the instructor to the student (helping students assume responsibility for their own learning), and give students continuous feedback about their own progress and comprehension (p. 25).

But what does gamification in education actually look like?

A quick internet search for “gamification in education” turns up a myriad of links: news stories from stalwarts like The Chronicle of Higher Education to U.S. News & World Report, various blogs and websites with tips and tricks to introduce gamification into the classroom, and even scholarly articles chronicling the integration of gamification into higher education.

Gamification might seem like something best reserved for primary education. You know, simple games to learn the alphabet or your multiplication tables. But gamification can go farther than that, and even play an important role in higher education. To better understand what gamification might look like in postsecondary education, I’d like to share two different examples of how I have experienced gamification in my own educational journey.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, I had the opportunity to take “Technology and Innovation in Higher Education,” an excellent course taught by Dr. Julie Schell, an expert in the field. This course covered a few technology-related topics in depth, and for a final group project, Dr. Schell asked us to gamify our own educational experiences by designing a game to solve a chosen problem in higher education.

My group chose to attack the issue of college completion. We designed a “race to the finish” board game, wherein players rolled a dice and either moved forward or had to draw a certain type of card based on what number they rolled. The cards gave players scenarios they might realistically encounter in their college experience, and moved them forward or backward on the game board accordingly. Our mission was to teach players how different scenarios affected their path to graduation, and helping them to understand what to do (or what not to do) when faced with different decisions in college. We envisioned our game being played by incoming students during orientation, as this would give them a chance to socialize with their new classmates while also learning about some of the scenarios they and their peers might soon face on their path to degree completion.

Our game was but one example from our course; other games included one that gamified the training of new resident assistants, and another modeled the card game “Go Fish”—teaching players various University resources that could aid them throughout their college journey. These are just a few examples of the different ways gamification can be applied in higher education. For some more examples of games that can be applied both within and outside of higher education, I turn to my experiences as an undergraduate.

In my senior year at Dartmouth College, I had the opportunity to take a course with Dr. Mary Flanagan, the director of Tiltfactor. Dr. Flanagan and the Tiltfactor team design games for social change. They identify pertinent social issues and create a game experience designed to educate players. Tiltfactor has a number of great games, including In The Village, which teaches players about malaria prevention, and Beanstock, which gamifies the process of transcribing library collections.

For a good “meta” example, consider Grow-a-Game. This physical card game asks players to combine various cards drawn to create a new game. In the version I’ve played, players draw “word” cards and “game-type” cards (i.e., “race to the finish game” or “adventure/quest game”) and must think about how they can take the word cards they’ve drawn and incorporate them into a game based on the game-type card they’ve drawn. To make things even more challenging, players can draw “challenge” cards that add a special difficulty or twist that they must incorporate into their game design.

Two great things about this game: it gives players a great introduction to the game design process, and the carefully-designed cards ask players to consider how they might design games with meaning (a la Tiltfactor’s social change mission). We actually played this game in my aforementioned graduate course, and it was an instrumental part of introducing our class to game design and games focused on addressing pertinent issues.

Gamification isn’t just for learning the ABCs or 123s, it can be a powerful tool for inspiring learning and change, both within higher education and society more broadly. Available research supports this view of gamification, showing that it can help engage students in their own learning and give them feedback about their progress. While gamification can take many forms, I hope the above examples give you an idea of ways that educators are using gamification, and the potential that gamification holds for those working in higher education today.


Langendahl, P. A., Cook, M., & Mark-Herbert, C. (2016). Gamification in higher education. Uppsala: Working Paper series/Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Economics. 2016.6. Retrieved from

About the author: Sam Rauschenfels is a second-year Masters student and Graduate Assistant at the University of Texas at Austin, studying College & University Student Personnel Administration. Prior to UT, this Minnesota native completed his bachelors in Environmental Earth Sciences at Dartmouth College. While at Dartmouth, Sam worked extensively with the student involvement office, a position that inspired his interest in further studying higher education.

Sam Rauschenfels

Graduate Assistant, University of Texas at Austin