It’s In The Game: Gamification and Language Learning Pt. 2


Following on from our part 1 post I’m taking up the question that was left hanging in the air: what does gamification really mean for language learning?

The answer, as unsatisfactory and contradictory as it may sound, is: it means what it’s always meant. ‘Good’ language teachers will always instinctively apply such concepts to engage and help their learners. The technology utilised in this approach could range from a piece of paper to a room full of iPads. The tech is the vehicle for delivering the solution, not the solution itself.

The real question is ‘What does language learning mean for gamification?’. In its native environment of business gamification techniques are being increasingly applied in order to change or promote certain behaviours and to increase engagement. It can be safely assumed that the behaviours that are being held up as exemplary within the corporate arena are behaviours that contribute to the efficiency, productivity (i.e profit) of the business.

Applying this same approach to language learning presents a conundrum: when there are as many motivations, ambitions, preferences, experiences and (I’ll use the word for want of a better one) intelligences as learners within any given learning environment how are the tools that gamification offers going to effectively ‘produce’ a singular desired outcome? What does a ‘successful’ or ‘motivated’ learner look like and how would a teacher be able to spot one? Profit is to business as insert answer here is to language learning. Completing that statement with ‘grades’ or something similar would be doing a huge disservice to the learners in the real learning environments. Surely the most sought for ‘profit’ for language learners is an understanding of how they learn best and how they go about identifying what it is they want to/need to learn before approaching it independently.

My suggestion here is that gamification needs to learn from language learning, not the other way around (well, not entirely anyway). What concepts do gamifiers need to be aware of from the realm of language learning when designing and developing materials or tools? Ideally, the fact that learners are not employees united by a common business strategy, but they represent a range and depth of individual needs and expectations who each require a unique approach. Rather than applying game mechanics and concepts to promote behaviours or engender desired outcomes, the key may well lie in the innovative crafting of user experiences.

Imagine the video game behemoth of GTA; the ultimate objective of the game is the same for all players, but how you get there is entirely dependant on what interests you, your priorities, time constraints etc. Do you prefer to drive around the sprawling cityscape aimlessly ramming police cars ‘because you can’, or or do you knuckle down and get straight to the missions that yield the most plot progression? Answers on a postcard …

Title Photo Credit: wwarby via Compfight cc

7 thoughts on “It’s In The Game: Gamification and Language Learning Pt. 2”

  1. Hi Tim!

    I enjoyed reading your post, because I’m also interested in the exploring the idea of gamification for language learning. (And also because you used the phrase “there I said it”.)

    As you say, gamification does not just mean using technology. I read an article (link escapes me) that pointed out that a simple reward chart used with kids is gamification – good behaviour earns stickers that earns a treat. I have also read about teachers in schools using gamification to motivate and encourage participation (for example ).

    However, these examples are with children. Can the same kind of ideas work with adults?

    You mentioned the use of gamification within business – giving the example of Connections. I think that is an interesting example. I’m fairly sure that what will happen is a certain number of individuals will use it a lot and earn all sorts of badges – and then a large number of other people won’t and they’ll resent the people that do, because they aren’t doing “real work”.

    Perhaps one reason that people don’t take part is that there is no “treat” for earning all these badges or higher ranks. Perhaps for these people what’s missing is having a point to it all?

    Look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Hi Graham,

      Thanks so much for the comment and I’m glad you liked the post. Using Connections as an example of gamification being used for engaging and promoting advantageous behaviours in adults was just one of several that I could’ve drawn on. This informationweek site provides further examples of gamification in the workplace, and there are several more instances quoted online (more meaningful and timely feedback loops, framing work projects as ‘quests’ for which the right team needs to be created etc.). You’re question is still a valid one: What’s in it for the individuals themselves? In an attempt to put a response forward I’d like go straight for Dan Pink’s terrific description of what really motivates people in a work environment: autonomy, mastery and purpose. There is a great animation online that explains the reasoning behind this theory, it’s well worth a watch.
      For me, it frames the requirement for both workplace and language learning applications of gamification to have clearly identified objectives that ‘speak to’ these drivers. What do you think?

  2. Loved that animation thing! Great way to show a presentation. And I think it makes some great points about motivation – although it forgets to mention the motivating power of cake.

    However, is there a way that gamification can respond to what is said there about motivation to help workers or language learners? Would a badge system, for example, actually help increase a worker’s sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose?

    I think one way that gamification could work with language learners is to take the place of the typical dull bar graph type progress reports in online courses that say “you have completed 67% of Unit 3” and “you have an average score of 72%”. I think we could do something much more interesting (and more visual) here. For example, students could earn a badge at the end of each lesson that shows what they can do (e.g. “I can offer to help someone”) and these could build up in the user’s profile to show their progress up to the next level (big badge for reaching A2?). It might be fun for some students to have their completion of a lesson acknowledged in this way – and it would form a nice visual picture of their progress for them and others to look at.

    Perhaps this kind of use would relate to “mastery”. Can gamification empower language learners to think for themselves? We might be able to encourage them to try different things out to earn badges. Can gamification help learners feel they are doing something worthwhile? Perhaps the badges could help remind learners of all the good stuff they have learned.

    • Hi Graham,
      As you quite rightly said, never underestimate the power of cake.
      Glad you liked the Dan Pink animation. I just wish more information was presented in that way; I’d feel a lot more inclined to perk up and pay attention.

      Regarding your ideas for gamification and language learning, I’d suggest we cast our gamification net wider than badges, as there is a spectrum of devices that could be applied to engage the learner. Badges/rewards are great for marking achievement, but I can see how they’d become little more than a way of ‘ticking off’ the content that the learner has completed rather than appealing to their (theoretically) innate yearning for mastery, autonomy and purpose in what they are engaged in.

      Gabe Zichermann, the founder of Gamification Co, talks about the motivating power of SAPS: Status, Access, Power and Stuff. Status, refers to the idea that a learner/user is given recognition for their activity within their gamified environment (Master User on some online tech threads, Great Seller on ebay, or Connections Angel(!), for example). More effort/input provides the learner/user with recognition and elevated status.

      Access refers to the idea that certain activity can ‘unlock’ otherwise restricted content/experiences for the learner/user. If a learner completes the activities within a certain time frame or within a certain degree of accuracy, perhaps they unlock a mini game that can earn them more points to put towards clues/hints etc within the learning platform.

      Power refers to the potential for the learner/user to have an impact within their gamified environment. Think about the guild leaders in WoW who oversee (and are responsible for) the actions and strategies of its members on any given quest. For learners, this may be applied by enabling them to create their own learning activities that they can share with others. The more users interact with their content, the more they are able to create/change/modify their own learning experience. I’m literally just brainstorming now.

      As for stuff, well… that’s the concept of actually rewarding activity/performance with real things (cake, money, a free pen). What’s interesting in Zichermann’s theory is that the SAPS factors are in order of importance.

      Your question about gamification encouraging learners to think for themselves is a good one, and has me thinking. I would say that traditional, linear language courses would always struggle with promoting that level of learner engagement as there no need for them to think autonomously. However, if the content was structured in a non-linear way (that maybe even changed depending on how the learners accessed the content and in what order) I can see how they might feel that they were creating a learning solution that works for them, rather than inheriting a publisher’s idealised view of a learning journey. Imagine if the learner was given a task rather than a set of activities, e.g. “You have left your passport at your hotel and you need to go back to collect it. Your plane leaves in an hour so you need to hurry”. Time’s a-ticking. If I was a learner given that scenario I would make sure I knew how to speak to the cabbie and would look for the content areas that would help me practice that sort of language. If there are two or more ways for me to do that, then I can pick and choose how and in what order I equip myself with what I need.

      Once again… brainstorming.

  3. Interesting thread, gentlemen. One thought it provoked in me, though: one of the main reasons gamification has only tentatively been introduced into ELT courses is this:

    Games have winners. Therefore, games have losers.

    So much of what educators try to promote goes against this principle. If we give out badges or extra points, it’s meaningless, as discussed above. If we award extra bonus features – material, content basically – then what about the poor loves not making the grade? Should they be penalised? Haven’t they paid for their access codes too… (if they have, but that’s another issue!).

    How do we reward the highest achievers in such a goody-goody world as ELT without the ability to enforce that teeth-grinding, I’ll-show-you-all sense of drive that only a true game can instill?

    • Hi Gretts,

      Cheers for the comment and you make a good point. I think a lot depends on the tyranny of the ‘the grade’ in language learning. As you say, there will always be learners who (according to the weights and measures of language learning as it’s currently operating) will ‘fail’.
      I’d hope that an innovative use of game dynamics could shift the emphasis from exams/tests/accreditation systems towards what the learners actually want/need/prefer to do. By demonstrating that they are able to influence their own learning outcomes (rather than inheriting a publisher’s) they will no longer see themselves in these binary terms.
      When it comes to games, when one fails to complete a level or task what are the striving factors that get you going back for another try? Perhaps it’s the fact that you know where you went wrong, you actually think you can do it and you see the value in going back for another stab at it.

  4. Interesting post, Tim. I’ve been trying out gamification over the last couple of years or so in various classes (see

    Responding to Martyn, I think the important thing here is not to have just one way of winning the game. If you look at a lot of digital games, there are several different ways of ‘winning’ – i.e. the game gives you a variety of feedback on progress you are making. A great example of this is the popular iPad game, “Clash of Clans”, which I think is a great model of a game that measures a variety of player activities. This relates to the various types of gamers (see the Bartle test, etc. for this).

    How do you do this with gamification in the ELT classroom? One way is that you have points, levels and badges for more than one aspect of language learning. For me, though, what really works is the idea of ‘achievements’ (see .

    I have noticed this drop in motivation in practice (with a group of 12 year olds doing speed writing that I gamified), but after responding with achievement badges for things such as ‘Most creative’, ‘Best introduction’, ‘Fewest mistakes’ etc., their motivation picked up again. What is important in this is that you are fair and the students are being rewarded for something that they are good at (i.e you are not just giving them badges because you want everyone to have a badge).


Leave a comment