Bringing Gamification to Your Classroom

Gamification has changed how I teach.  It’s a game-changer so to speak. There are many ways to bring gamification to your classroom.  Deciding to start small is often a good choice but don’t be afraid to throw yourself into a game whole heartedly.

After presenting to a group of teachers recently, the overwhelming feeling involved a sense of reluctancy.  “I’m not a gamer.  There’s no way I can bring games to my classroom.” Being a professional gamer is not a prerequisite to bringing gamification to your classroom. I had played a few video games in my time.  I’m not sure however, that my high score on Galaga in the late 80s would be helpful in this situation. Regardless, the idea is to create a meaningful learning experience for your students.  Classroom learning need not always be text book/worksheet driven.  Personally, if my room never sees a worksheet again it will be too soon. Gamification allows for creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and most importantly, if done right, powerful situations that will allow the students to acquire the content and have it stick with them.

When my journey began a few things needed to change about my classroom.  I needed to give some of the control over to the students, and why not?  This is their education.  They needed to be in the driver seat, making choices and interacting with the game.  Once I let this go, my students became fully engaged. An engaged classroom is messy and loud.  It is full of collaboration and discovery.  It is a powerful environment to experience.  The clock moves swiftly and the days pass quickly.

How to begin?  Start small with a well known game.  I started with a garden sized Jenga game. Be forewarned, it is quite large and makes quite a sound when it comes crashing down.  The sound the kids will make however, is much louder.  Taking time to color the end of the pieces makes the game much more versatile.  We were working on a unit review.  Using a set of twenty multiple choice questions the students pulled pieces.  The color on the end of the piece was matched with a set of questions.  The students then decided which question they wanted to complete.  If we completed the entire question set without the tower tumbling, the entire class received extra credit on the unit test. The reaction of the students was nothing short of amazing.  Their level of engagement was incredible.  It was all I needed to start adding more.

As a teacher of ancient history, it is often difficult for students to understand the concepts related to the ancient world. Sid Meier’s Civilization immediately came to mind.  After purchasing the game on a rainy weekend and essentially playing for hours on end, I knew there was something to pulling my students into a simulation.  Monday morning I put the students into pre-history hunting and gathering groups and asked them to choose where they would settle on an oversized game board I created.  The discussions in their groups were phenomenal.  The geography skills they had just learned were resurfacing in their engaging conversations.  The class period flew by and the energy was contagious.

This began the process of my first game.  Each week I would outline the ideas I wanted my students to master by the end of the week.  After this, I would look at the game mechanics that would allow them to acquire that information.  Students need to move and interact with the curriculum.  They need to experience it instead of observe it from afar.  Week by week I added more to the game.  The students are an essential and incredibly valuable resource.  They feel very powerful when they add to the game.  They were often called my beta testers and carried this title with pride.

Bringing gamification to my classroom is a no-brainer.  Is it easy?  No.  Is it worth it? Yes. Kids deserve the best we can give them.  Their engagement is the payoff.  There is nothing like it.



The Oregon Trail

As a grand finale for my Westward HO! game, my students ventured out on the Oregon Trail! I created a simulated trail that was a mash-up between the epic 1990 Oregon Trail computer game and a riddle-based scavenger hunt. Students had been working all unit to master content in order to gain the materials (wagon wheels, cash, extra clothing, oxen, etc.) to be able to venture out as a pioneer. Today, their hard work and preparation would be put to the ultimate pioneer test: The Oregon Trail! Students would visit stops on the trail where they would draw cards that determined the fate of their journey. Hopefully each family packed enough supplies or had enough money to help them survive until they reached Oregon!

westward expansion bulletin board-2Families were able to fully understand what pioneers on the western trails endured through this simulation. I LOVE creating simulation-based games for my students. I truly feel it is the best way for my students to experience the history in a way they can understand. Some families lost their shoes, wagons, life-savings or even a family member on the trail (dang dysentery… every time). Families also had to complete a combination of educational and “just-for-fun” challenges at each stop on the trail as well. Students had to practice their lasso skills, create a song about their travels and even take an old-time family photo (my personal favorite)!

On our simulated trail, students also practiced their map skills and overall knowledge of US Westward Expansion while completing review activities.  As students finished this experience today, we had powerful conversations about the struggles of the real families of the Oregon Trail–it was priceless. Students were engaged, excited about the learning, and able to thoughtfully reflect on the topic. This is an example of the power of gamified classrooms. My students had a blast, and learned a ton. Isn’t that what we all want?!

Tomorrow, I break out the card game version of the Oregon Trail (available at Target stores) for students to play. Remember teacher-friends: IT’S OKAY TO PLAY!

oregon trail game

Here’s some bonus pics of my classroom during this game:

Thanks for reading,



PS: They ended up having a BLAST playing the Oregon Trail Card Game! They were jumping up and down in their chairs!


Westward HO!

Westward HO! was the very first game I ever made, and it’s still my favorite game to play with my 8th grade American History students!  I would love to share with you the overall concept of the game as well as some of the specific game elements that I chose to use in this game about American westward expansion.

The overall concept for this game (which is always where you should start when you are gamifying your units… the STORY!) was for students to work in family units that were prepping their covered wagons to gear up for travel on the Oregon Trail! Students were able to play the parts of Ma, Pa or a kid within these family units. I have learned that my students love to pretend to be someone different than they are in real life… and I don’t blame them, I remember how awful it was to be 14! After family members chose their family surname and chose Ol’ West inspired names such as Obadiah, Jed, Rose and Nelly, they were ready to start working hard together to earn badges and money for their family.

This is the next step you should take in gamifying your unit: Choose what game mechanics you will utilize (XP, badges, currency, bonuses, levels, leader-boards, etc.). Students worked to earn badges for their family by mastering the learning targets that I had set for them. Students would have to earn all 9 badges to be able to bring all of the items they “packed” in their wagon. (Side note: Students chose items such as blankets, extra wagon wheels and food to pack during the first day of this game). If students didn’t earn all of their badges by the time they were due to set out on the trail, they wouldn’t be able to take all of their items!

Students also earned money for their family by completing homework. Families would need money to purchase extra supplies before the journey or while on the trail.  On my grade sheet, mastering a learning target might look like 10/10 points. However, instead of a grade on an assignment, (which most 8th graders could care less about) students would earn a badge or money for their family. Students have been very motivated by this system compared to simply earning points for compliance. Plus, if students didn’t earn their badge or money with the first attempt, they kept trying–again and again until they “got it” (which mean they would try again and again until they were mastering the learning target… WHICH IS AWESOME!).

Here’s how my classroom looked when the students came in on the first day of the game:

WestwardHO-1Students loved feeling like they were in a real covered wagon. Nothing is too cheesy for students–or at least I haven’t found anything yet!

Students would show mastery on assignments that I had created or adapted from other educators. I use anything from sketch-notes to map challenges, projects to quizzes. I also love throwing in random challenges to my game to keep the motivation and engagement levels high! As students were learning about territorial acquisition, I would add in family challenges like these:

WestwardHO-2(Covered wagon races as students finished activities)

WestwardHO-3(Building log cabins out of peanut butter and pretzel sticks)

WestwardHO-4(Panning for gold)

Little fun challenges like this would keep them on their toes, educate them about the time period and give us all an excuse to laugh, play and have fun! HAVING FUN IS OKAY TO DO IN A CLASSROOM! (I am shouting at you, sorry.) I also had students lasso ‘bulls,’ ride ‘ponies,’ reenact the Alamo, and contract diseases like dysentery and cholera! So fun, right! Even super-cool adolescent teens can play pretend–and they learn that way!

I love using the power of simulation in my games. This past week, I had students go out on the “Trail of Tears” in order to learn about President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. Students went hiking on the property by our school. Every so often, students would stop and read a quote by a Cherokee Indian that had experienced injustice, or students would complete a task/challenge to help them learn the content. Here are some of my favorite pics from that day:

Next week, my little families will all head out on the Oregon Trail. They have been equipt with the knowledge, supplies and curiosity that they will need on this grand venture! I will let you all know how it goes!