Could you boost student motivation with these 11 powerful game elements?

Games are a popular form of entertainment. They have the ability to tap into our deep-rooted psychological needs. A great game can be deeply satisfying and rewarding to play. The games industry is well aware of this. They create multi-faceted experiences which combine game mechanics and dynamics to ‘push our buttons’ psychologically.

Games even have the power to elicit a biochemical response and affect us on a physical level. This can stimulate dopamine release, which makes us feel good and increases our engagement.

What is Gamification?

You might have come across the term ‘gamification’ before. When defining gamification in simple terms, we look at the way elements of game playing (*game mechanics) can be applied to non-gaming activities in an attempt to increase engagement. *game mechanics definition

Many aspects of our lives can be ‘gamified’

It is a technique often used in the corporate world to encourage people to interact with a product or service. Similarly, employers use it to try and increase the motivation and productivity of their staff. In this sense, the game mechanics/elements are being used to try and influence behavior. It can be effective for tasks we might find boring or have a natural aversion to (working out, eating healthily, studying etc).

Gamification gets used both overtly and subtly in lots of different situations. It can be an enlightening exercise to try and identify some real-world gamification examples in our own lives. 

Do you use a rewards card for your groceries? (If you’re anything like me, you have a big stack of them!) Think about how different game mechanics can apply in this context.

  • The scoring of points (which often involves spending money).
  • Badges (e.g. “priority delivery customer”)
  • Rewards (cashback / vouchers / exclusive discounts)
  • Levels (e.g. “become a platinum member!”)
  • Challenges (e.g. “try this new product” or “spend ‘x’ amount more to qualify for…” or “enter our prize draw”)

Why you need a reason to study

Should learning be fun? On a cognitive level, our brain is required to process lots of information constantly. We can therefore have a natural tendency to not remember all the information we experience. If we did, it would be completely overwhelming. Instead, our brains have to decide what information to retain. One of the ways it might determine what is important is whether or not an experience gave us an emotional response. If something hurts, we’ll usually try to avoid it in the future. If it was rewarding, we’ll probably seek more of it. Obviously this over-simplifies it, but thinking in these terms we could see how how improving lessons with gamification could have benefits.

Leveraging the amazing power of games

A child left unsupervised might choose to play on a games console for hours on end, as many parents know too well. In some cases it comes at the expense of neglecting study habits, or getting enough quality sleep. The proclivity to engage in these activities can be strong. We sometimes need to impose restrictions on access to gaming devices to keep playing habits healthy. What if we could harness some of the power of games and apply it to personal growth? Might we be able to boost motivation, and increase the enjoyment we can derive from learning?

If only students could study with the same vigor they apply to gaming!

Educators have an exciting opportunity to apply some of these game elements and mechanics to learning. We’re able to take some components of a board game or the components of a video game for example, and apply them to the learning process. Consequently, we can leverage the power of these game elements to make learning more fun and engaging. This in turn has the potential to increase study motivation in learners.

The list below explores some game elements which we might integrate into the learning process. Some of these game mechanics and dynamics might help to answer what actually makes an educational game fun. They may inspire some ideas on how you could improve your lessons with the aim of increasing study motivation.

Ideas for incorporating challenges:

  • Create ‘secret missions’ with QR codes on worksheets.
  • Language/semantics – e.g ‘Begin the task’ could become ‘Let’s embark on our quest!’.
  • Set challenges to align with desired learning outcomes.
  • Combine traditional games to language learning e.g. word bingo.

Using ‘Levels’:

  • Split activities and tasks into levels of difficulty so that students have a sense of progression.
  • New opportunities and tasks are unlocked when the student attains a certain level of competency.
  • Creative use of language for staged activities (e.g. ‘step 1’ of a task becomes ‘level 1’).
  • Rewards given for attainment of new levels.

Visual tracking of student progress:

  • Use of progress bars or wall charts.
  • Celebrate milestone achievements with rewards.
  • Maintain student motivation with the desire to reach the next level.
  • Progress bars to show how close a student is to completing a task.
  • Get a visual reminder of progression for motivation.
  • Students can actively reflect on their own learning journey and see their progress.
  • Progress markers can highlight teacher expectations in an accessible way.

Hidden items:

  • Promote deeper concentration and focus by getting students to search for specific information.
  • Find all objects before progressing to the next task / level.
  • Suited to both reading tasks and visual tasks.
  • Hidden clues and ‘easter egg content’ promote curiosity and exploration.


Reward positive learning habits with:

  • Stickers
  • Badges
  • Certificates
  • Awards or prizes for completing tasks.
  • Class recognition to give sense of achievement and incentive for participation.

Encourage competition and collaboration:

  • Promote collaboration by working in teams.
  • STEM challenges – Students  design and build solutions to problems.
  • Use friendly competition to encourage motivation.


  • Create immersive experiences with stories to underpin learning.
  • Decorate physical learning spaces for a roleplay scenario.
  • Pretend to be time travelers investigating historic events and collecting artifacts.
  • Become detectives for a classroom crime scene to solve a mystery.
  • Stories can create emotional connections with the content matter.


  • Increase focus with timed tasks and challenges.
  • Introduce a level of jeopardy.
  • Race against the clock to try and beat your personal best.
  • Sense of urgency can encourage time-management.
  • Solving problems within a set time frame can discourage procrastination.

Bonus content:

  • Fun quizzes as a reward for completing tasks.
  • Short videos as a reward for progress.
  • Offer bonus points / merits to students who exceed expectations.
  • Special class privileges given for students who exhibit high standard of effort or behavior.


  • Create alter egos for anonymous freedom to experiment (remove fear of judgement and encourage creative expression).
  • Roleplay – become explorers with VR experiences.
  • Use team avatars for group games and challenges.
  • Give a sense of ownership and personalization to student work.


  • Evaluating student performance.
  • Informed guidance and error correction.
  • Creating positive feedback loops / habit loops.
  • Tasks with immediate feedback offers the opportunity to pivot and adapt (learn from mistakes).


Applying game elements should not distract from the learning experience. They should also be appropriate for the intended audience.

Gamified learning activities should provide a compelling, enjoyable experience for students (use fun as a metric for success). We are after all trying to increase and deepen their engagement with the subject matter.

Experiment with applying some of the different game elements to your own learning activities. Observe which methods get the best results. What works for one student may not be appropriate for another. Be willing to adapt and revise. Remember, the ultimate goal is to increase student motivation and engagement… and of course have fun!