Games and Game Elements & Mechanics in the Classroom: A Simple Taxonomy

When I began teaching in the Spring of 2008, I was teaching adults in a college setting, and I acted under the assumption that students were just like me – they’d like what I liked, learn how I learned, and understand what I understood. Let’s not get into the absolutely mind-blowing amount of confusion that underlaid those assumptions, for now.

This is going somewhere – I promise.

In 2013, when I began teaching kids – starting with second graders in a summer academic term and following up with fifth graders for the next four academic years – I came to understand a lot about learners. One of the many, many lessons I learned during that time was that games were a great way to engage kids who had no natural inclination toward loving the content we were learning at a given time. I’d have kids compete in teams, work individually to defeat one another in single mathematical combat, or spell out our spelling words – one letter per kid going `round the room, sit down to practice independently if you get a letter wrong – or good old fashioned Jeopardy(!). I picked up games online or from other teachers at the lunch table. The games worked as an engagement device. In my school, things were old fashioned, so these types of games were all I was encouraged to develop. We had no computers apart from bi-weekly scheduled computer times or specially scheduled typing sessions int he computer lab. As a result, these games were all I knew of what games might have to do with the classroom.

Of course, these games – and the occasional dip into Oregon Trail or Math Blaster – were all I knew of games in the classroom dating back to my own elementary school days in the 80s and 90s. Some of these are better tools than others for learning (a topic for another post). But they aren’t all there is.

When I joined the Middle School faculty at my current institution in the fall of 2017, I was freed to explore new pathways to and for learning. “Engage the students, and do it however seems best” was an implicit dictate. It took a full year for me to find my sea legs, but I did develop some homespun simulations and classroom contests, one of which I presented to colleagues at NCSS 2018. This year, though – in 2018-2019 – I really got found footing and hit the ground ready to innovate.

I found gamification was a tool I was looking for. I read about it wherever I could, and I was disappointed that a lot of what was being thrown around in the twitterverse was/is similar in many ways to what disappoints me in other places in elementary and secondary education – it doesn’t seem to be based in research but instead is based in particular people’s experiences. That’s not to say that it’s useless. Much of it finds application rather easily. But I always want to know what’s behind what works in one case so that I can figure out how to apply it in a broader context – or in other particular contexts. And as we probably all know, what works in one classroom doesn’t always work in another. There are so, so many variables at play that even a system that’s worked out seemingly to perfection in one context may, when applied elsewhere, crash and burn. So I joined an online course (a Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC) through edX to help me learn about gamification. I collected (and continue to collect) resources and articles from academic journals about gamification and the ways that games and related concepts help students to learn (however that happens).

One of the things I’ve come to understand falls into the category of learning progression that I always hit at some point after I begin researching a new topic: my blunt-edge understanding of boundaries and names for things related to games in the classroom were good for a novice, but they aren’t helpfully precise once we get more precise in figuring out what works and why it works.

That’s what this post is about. I want to lay out the distinctions for the novice gamifier (or whatever the case may be, as we’ll see – it’s not always gamification that I’m interested in, as it turns out).

The three general categories I seem to be stumbling into are defined elsewhere, but usually the adherents to one of these are really only interested in one way of using game elements – but not all three. Often, as well, the folks discussing games in the classroom are only talking about one without acknowledging the other two. So here we go.

Gamification introduces game mechanics into an otherwise non-game-related experience. There are good versions of this and bad versions of this, of course. Sometimes, gamification is a matter of having call center employees compete in terms of their numbers of successes per hour. In the classroom, what I’d call “thin” gamification (though not necessarily bad gamification) occurs when a teacher has kids compete for most spelling words right on a challenge test of 100 words. The competition element there is a game element. Hence, gamification. Gamification goes deeper, of course, on the other end of the spectrum: in Michael Matera’s classroom (and in mine), much of the classroom learning activities and outside-the-required-material activities are tied to a meta-game that provides a fun and engaging context to everything the students do while participating in something that might reasonably called a related activity. Gamification asks, “What game mechanics or game elements can I add to the context of my classroom experience?”

Game-Based Learning (GBL) is what most people think of it you talk about games in the classroom. This is a pedagogical method that takes pre-existing games or invents new ones to teach specific skills through the playing of the game. I believe there’s a strong case for game-based learning, but I haven’t used it much in my in-class context. (I’d love to use Minecraft or Civilization – or, even better, Banished.) Kids do gather after school in my classroom and play games like Settlers of CatanDiplomacy, and Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition, for those who care). There’s a lot to be gained from game-based learning, and a lot of wasted time as well. When a game cannot promise a high rate-of-return for effort expended, I don’t think games are appropriate delivery mechanisms for our skills and content that we hope to deliver in the classroom. GBL asks, “How can I use a game to enhance the learning experience?” or “How can I use a game to teach a skill?”

Last (so far anyhow) is Gameful Learning. This concept takes what is great about games – that they engage, they motivate, and they seem to demand our attention (these are my interpretations) – and they make use of the things that drive people to play games to engage students in the learning process. This is not simply playing games or even gamifying a classroom, but instead it means taking what is motivating about great games and put those elements to good use in the classroom. “Gameful learning” is, as best I can tell, a U. Michigan term (they even have a conference on the topic that I wish I had the time and money to attend this year). In this context, explanatory theories like Self-Determination Theory are what drive our understanding of what motivates and engages learners, so we should use what we learn there to shape experiences that will engage our students. This is, quite honestly, tougher for me to understand right off the bat than are the other two game-related teaching and learning pedagogies. Understanding how to implement Gameful Learning requires understanding a bit of cognitive psychology and a bit of educational / learning theories in systematic ways that are more demanding than trying out games or game elements and mechanics in the classroom.


Are you putting any of these three to use in the classroom? Have you noticed that there are other relevant pedagogical strategies that I should add to my list?


I’ll be presenting on gamification strategies at AMLE 19 this fall, and I hope to see you there!

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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3 Responses to Games and Game Elements & Mechanics in the Classroom: A Simple Taxonomy

  1. Maybe I’ll try to adopt some of these ideas to the group therapy setting.

    • Steve Capone says:

      Let me know if you want to think through this more with me. I think that’s a great idea, but the constraints are different and the risks are more inherently and immediately risky.

  2. Pingback: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love D&D (or, How I Unintentionally Brought Dungeons & Dragons to my Middle School) | The Traveling Philosopher

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