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Gamifying the EFL Classroom to Motivate the Learners

Paweł Kazimierski

University of Warsaw



Searching for motivation is a common issue nowadays. However there are things which, in order to be cultivated, do not need to be supplemented by additional motivators. One of these activities is playing games. This is because games already use various motivational mechanisms to attract people. Applying the mechanisms into non-game contexts is called gamification. Gamification mechanics are examined in the view of using them in language teaching to increase the students’ motivation. We discuss the mechanics that teachers already partly use, the ones that they could include in their teaching and the mechanics in relation to task and project based learning. Testing the ideas presented is encouraged, but one has to be aware of the fact that they are not empirically well researched yet and should not be incorporated blindly.



Why do people do what they do? The first, obvious factor that shall come to mind could be money. It seems to be a good motivator, but it actually is only a means to acquiring something else, thus perhaps in more general terms – it is acquiring goods – that motivates us, getting the things we want. Furthermore, we may be motivated by praise, or proving our value to the society or to the people in our surroundings. But these are all positive mechanisms and there are also the negative ones. Avoiding direct punishment is one of them, but there is also avoiding indirect punishments like failing to satisfy others, to meet some expectations, being a disappointment, etc.  All in all, there are definitely many factors that motivate people, some pleasant, some not.


There is a general distinction derived from Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) between “intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome” (Deci & Ryan, 2000).


The next assumption which underlies the main idea of this article is the fact that people like playing games. We usually associate games with children or teenagers, but according to Big Fish Video Game Stats Database over 59% of Americans play games and the average age of a gamer is 31 (Lofgren, 2015). People do not need to motivate themselves to play games; however, it is possible to analyse their motivations in this matter. Intrinsic motivation is the first choice here because playing is pleasurable, but some extrinsic motivations can be taken into account: like attaining in-game achievements or friends’ approval, for instance.


Having established that games tend to attract players with a certain ease and that in some way the game producers must have figured out how to sustain players’ motivation to play, it seems reasonable to search for the mechanisms in games that make them so attractive, and make further use of them. From such an inquiry originated the notion of gamification. Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques into non-game contexts in order to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals (Burke, 2014).


One famous example of gamification applied in the real life should serve as clarification of the concept. In January 2010, Kevin Richardson won a contest organised by Volkswagen called The Fun Theory. They were looking for ideas to make obeying speed-limits fun. Less than a year later, in November 2010, his project, the Speed Camera Lottery,  was already in use in Stockholm, Sweden. The idea was that the Speed Camera Lottery radar, like the regular ones, naturally fined the people driving above the speed limit, but what is more, when one did obey the limit, one entered the lottery and could win some money from the people fined before (Sorrel, 2010). The speed of each passing car was displayed along with either a green thumb up or a red thumb down, depending on whether somebody was driving too fast or not.


In terms of the gamification mechanics the green thumb up reflects an achievement, a trophy. When a lottery is applied it always strengthens the feeling of unpredictability and curiosity – if you will win or not – that also is a trick which games use to attract people. A possibility of earning money can be classified as “possession” or “ownership” mechanic. The mechanism of “social pressure” is present here as well, as the radar is set on a busy street, hence the drivers feel that they are being watched, and that their bad score will be displayed so they do not want to be judged (Chou, 2013). The effectiveness of the Speed Camera Lottery can be proved by the fact that “the average speed of cars passing the camera dropped from 32km/h before the experiment to 25km/h after” (Sorrel, 2010).


With help of the SCVNGR’s Secret Game Mechanics Playdeck (Schonfeld, 2010), Gamification Wiki formed a list of gamification mechanics that consists of  24 elements listed hereunder.

  • Achievements
  • Appointments
  • Behavioral Momentum
  • Blissful Productivity
  • Bonuses
  • Cascading Information Theory
  • Combos
  • Community Collaboration
  • Countdown
  • Discovery
  • Epic Meaning
  • Free Lunch
  • Infinite Gameplay
  • Levels
  • Loss aversion
  • Lottery
  • Ownership
  • Progression
  • Points
  • Quests
  • Reward Schedules
  • Status
  • Urgent Optimism
  • Virality


(Game mechanics, n.d.)


In this paper we are going to focus only on the specific gamification mechanics that are in relation to English language learning, basing on Gamification for EL Teachers by Deborah Healey. Some of them are already being used by teachers to some extent and that is the first group of the mechanics to be presented in this article.


The “Achievements” mechanics works when learners have accomplished some goal, and they recognise it. These may be made visible in a variety of ways, special badges for achieving something could be an example. Teachers do something similar when giving stamps or pluses to their pupils (Healey, 2013). However, in order to make it more effective, a really vivid differentiation of various achievements could be applied and it is important that the visual image corresponds to the content of the particular achievement. Badges provide instant recognition of the student’s successful input, hence they are a source of immediate feedback which triggers positive emotions in learners. It is also considered that the badges should reflect in what way and with what level of mastery they have been acquired. Furthermore, it is crucial that there exists a “public system” where students can reassess the achievements awarded and see those which are possible to get (Hjert, 2014).


“Behavioral Momentum”, according to Healey (2013), is “the tendency of people who are doing something to keep doing it. According to the rule ‘Fun Once, Fun Always’ activities remain enjoyable, even with repetition. Classroom routines would fall into this category”. It might be combined with “Points” –  numerical value indicators used to award actions. These are grades at school. Teachers rather do not give points to a group or for routines, but it is also an option worth considering. Another idea is to award achievements for a bigger amount of specific routines done.


“Community Collaboration” is about working together to solve a riddle, challenge, to do a task. In the world of teaching it is called group work. Certain tasks accomplished by a group could also unlock achievements on the class level i.e. badges that the whole class can get for collaborative actions. These achievements are actually easier to track than individual ones, hence they are probably best to start with when trying to gamify the classroom and familiarize the students with the idea. Dave Dodgson, an EFL teacher from Bahrain, describes how he used class level achievements, like “‘Ready to roll’ – earned when everybody is ready to start the lesson when the bell rings” – to reinforce the previously established classroom rules and good behaviour. Every time a group effort was fulfilled the class gained a ‘level up’ in the specific achievement. On level 5 the students won a reward, which they were then choosing by revealing one of the boxes with numbers on them, that Dodgson prepared in a Power Point presentation (Dodgson, 2012). This added to the sense of unpredictability which games often exploit.


“Loss Aversion” is about avoiding punishment. Psychologists report that losing something causes twice as strong emotional response as gaining something (Kahneman, 1979). Giving a bad grade for not doing homework or deducting points for wrong answers or mistakes might be examples of how it is used in class. It might not be particularly pleasant for the students, but it should definitely motivate at least a part of them. We should use that mechanic with caution, because loss aversion at one level may cause damage at another – e.g. deducting points for wrong answers may discourage students from taking risks and hypothesising. There are situations, though, when such discouragement is needed, e.g. in the case of student doctors, in whose case it is a lot safer to admit to not knowing (and take action to learn) than apply the trial-and-error procedure.


The last mechanic commonly used by teachers is called “Cascading Information Theory”, which is about giving players, or students, information in the tiniest parts possible, starting with the basics and moving on to more complicated concepts in order to avoid overload and aid understanding. Educators call it the curriculum (Healey, 2013).


Teachers, consciously or not, do use some game-like mechanics in their teaching but they could try to include some others which are the topic of further discussion. The first one is “Levels”, which uses the aforementioned “Points” in the way that collecting bigger numbers of them leads to gaining more or better rewards. Haeley suggests that teachers could change the grading system so that students start from zero points and gain more (2010). It would only make sense if leveling up on the process was added. Gaining levels should unlock certain benefits like new interesting contents available for the player, a YouTube video for instance, or leveling up could activate various abilities or privileges. Thus for example level 2 students achieve a warrant to go to the toilet without asking, level 5 students are allowed to eat a sandwich during the lesson. However, it is important to point out that according to Wang and Sun, points, while being good for motivation, are poor indicators of actual knowledge (2011). Therefore it would be advisable not to substitute grading with points as Haeley proposed, but rather treat them as an additional system aiding motivation of the students.


The next mechanic is “Progression” , i.e. “gradual success, typically via completing a series of tasks; the key is that progress is visual in some way. It’s something that language teaching doesn’t always do well. Learners often don’t know where they are on their way towards language acquisition” (Healey, 2013). One of the possible ways to do that could be making progression charts for individual students, consisting of indicators of how well developed are their general language skills like listening, reading etc.; what micro skills they have already mastered, what tasks or “quests” they have done, what achievements they have accomplished so far and so on. Needless to say, this chart would have to be regularly updated, which unfortunately could be time consuming but definitely exciting for the students. Furthermore, progression might be somehow incorporated or displayed in what is actually commonly used in ELT, namely students’ portfolios. Gamification mechanics called “Ownership” which is a sense of controlling something, but also ‘owning’ certain entities in games like coins or objects, could appeal to the idea of portfolio as it is something that learners have earned and own. Moreover, what should aid the feeling of ownership, in the sense of having control, is making students show their works to an audience bigger than the class or giving students some freedom when it comes to choosing subjects of the lessons and types of exercises or deciding on classroom rules.


Another idea taken from games is “Countdown”, which is basically a time limit put on an activity. Players tend to be more active when they see the deadline coming. It is ordinarily employed on tests and homework, but could be actually put on any activity with a reward for finishing earlier. There could even be a range of a few time limits on the same exercise, so that doing the harder limit would be awarded with more points. Here, however, it is important that the speed does not corrupt the quality of the student’s performance, hence reaching out to  Loss Aversion and taking points away for mistakes, or not accepting substandard work, might be helpful. Healey suggests teachers can do that but they should enable everybody to fit in the time limit at least sometimes (2013).


Now we are going to describe briefly the relation of game mechanics to task- and project-based learning. As Kathrine Bilsborough outlines “[i]n task-based learning, the central focus of the lesson is the task itself, not a grammar point or a lexical area, and the objective is not to ‘learn the structure’ but to ‘complete the task’. Of course, to complete the task successfully students have to use the right language and communicate their ideas. The language therefore becomes an instrument of communication, whose purpose is to help complete the task successfully. (…) Whereas TBL makes a task the central focus of a lesson, [project based learning] often makes a task the focus of a whole term or academic year” (2013).


“Blissful Productivity” in gaming is the “reason why the average World of Warcraft gamer plays for 22 hours a week — kind of a half-time job” (McGonigal, 2010). That is what  makes people often feel happier when working hard inside of the game, playing, than they would feel “when relaxing or hanging out”, states McGonigal (2010). It is a “feeling and [a] belief that whatever we are doing leads to a meaningful outcome. Even if the activity is or feels work-like, we feel a positive type of exhaustion afterwards” (Game mechanics, n.d.). This seems to be one explanation why task- and project-based learning can be motivating and effective. “Epic Meaning” mechanic is about the feeling of achieving big things, like saving the world. Teachers might try to make projects epic by having them resonate outside the classroom in front of an extensive, outside audience (Healey, 2013). Creating some kind of heroic narrative ought to support the ‘epicness’.


Applying “virality” when gamifying means creating tasks that require or work better with many participants involved, which is applicable to TBL and PBL. To exemplify, tasks can be like having students create sentences of certain kind, in groups, with a time limit. Obviously 8 pupils would create more correct sentences than 2 pupils. Besides, it strengthens the sense of community collaboration.


“Discovery” is a mechanic that appeals to people who are particularly motivated by exploration (Healey, 2013), i.e. coming upon new content or new interesting knowledge. Often in TBL and PBL students reach for external sources to find useful information. Even looking through an IKEA catalogue in search for furniture to cut out, in order to subsequently stick in on a poster, gives this feeling of exploration.


Another two entities that can be incorporated into TBL and PBL are: a “Quest”, which is a series of objectives to be done to obtain a reward, and a “Challenge”, something that makes a task more arduous, usually a time limit or competition (Game mechanics, n.d.). Challenges can also unlock Achievements, and along with Quests they are also a way to visualise progress.


This article only scratches the surface of the topic of gamification in English language teaching. Unfortunately, the field still lacks prominent empirical studies and the ones that have been conducted were based mainly on evaluation through the theoretical framework (Glover, 2013; Hjert, 2014; Kapp, 2012). This means that gamification cannot be considered a fully-fledged methodology system, hence using it with caution and reflection is recommended. Although this article only serves as a peculiar introduction to the topic and a minimalistic guide through its components, its aim is to encourage testing gamification ideas and deeper research in the field.




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Published: 2017-04-12