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8 Research Findings Supporting the Benefits of Gamification in Education

by Kelly Walsh on December 5, 2012


There are myriad ways in which “gamification” can play a positive role in the educational setting.

On Sunday, Tess Pajaron sent me a great article from Open Colleges about “The Virtues of Daydreaming And 30 Other Surprising (And Controversial) Research Findings About How Students Learn”. One thing that really struck me about this article is how many of these findings indicated benefits that can come from the use of gaming in education. Some of the findings directly addressed the subject, while others were indirectly indicative of potential positive outcomes of gaming in an instructional context.

Gamification Badges Picture (

Of course, the “gamification” of education generally refers to the idea of incorporating gaming elements in instruction and instructional tools, such as the use of digital badges in an online learning application. But with findings such as those below indicating that game playing can enhance the learning process, it is logical to assume that the use of gaming mechanics and concepts in educational tools and processes can also yield benefits. Naturally, it is left to the reader to draw their own conclusions after perusing this content and the original published sources cited.

1. Game playing can develop a positive attitude towards mathematics for children

Mathematics can be a dry subject, “full of repetitive problems, formulas, and exams”. According to research from Deakin University, incorporating games in the curriculum dramatically alters student’s attitudes about math. “More kids were able to articulate positive emotions surrounding math, as well as an increase in confidence about different concepts. There was more energy for math, more motivation, and ultimately more success. It seemed that playing math games helped to alleviate the tediousness of repetitive problem solving.”

2. Video games can lessen disruptive behaviors and enhance positive development in ADHD children

A study from The Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, focused on the use of video games to help children with ADHD, indicated that a video game designed to teach kids how to control their breathing and heart rate had a significant impact on their behavior (note: the sample size was small and more research is needed). This finding certainly runs contrary to the idea that video games make children ‘hyper’ or that ADHD is a result of overuse of video games.

3. Children who construct their own video games experience increased cognitive and social growth

Research outlined in the Lookstein Online Journal indicates that “children show cognitive growth when they are given the task of creating their own video game. In order to develop such a game, students must use prior knowledge, create links between scenes, and take control of their learning through trial and error. Children must use logic, survival skills, and generate new ideas and solutions in order to complete the game.”

4. Mature make-believe play provides the most beneficial context for children’s development

“Imaginative scenarios, in which children take on roles, props, themes, and collaborate with other children, is one of the most crucial avenues for development.” Many different games provide such scenarios, offering an opportunity for development. Of course it is also very important that kids also have time to play in traditional social groups. In an article written by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the argument is made that “play is an ever-evolving skill that children must be guided through. The classroom must allow room for play-based scenarios, as they are one of the building blocks of learning. It is within this context that children build the preliminary skills for advanced academic understanding.”

5. Play-based learning increases children’s attention span

“In this study done by the Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology (looks like the study is offline now – this is the same resource that was referenced in no. 2 above – KW 5/11/15), researchers took a closer look at how teacher’s beliefs regarding early education influence the classroom environment. A group of teachers partook in the study and here were some of the findings.

  • When teachers have confidence in a child’s ability to learn independently, the child/teacher relationship is stronger.
  • When teachers have confidence in a child’s ability to learn independently, the child/teacher relationship is stronger. Teachers are then able to take a more “facilitative” role and observe the student actively learning. The educators also recognized that when children are allowed to learn through play, there is far less time spent on behavior management. A child’s attention span is also longer.
  • Play-based learning shifts the focus of learning from the outcome or goal, to the process.”

6. Playing scary and violent video games help children master their fears in real life.

While many studies have been done centered on the negative impacts and consequences of prolonged use of video games, a study by Cheryl K. Olson appeared in the Review of General Psychology that suggests there are numerous psychological benefits to playing video games.

“In boys who struggle with stress, fear, and anger- negative emotions that can have violent consequences- video games acted as a safe alternative for the release of pent up emotion. There were other findings as well, comprising the fun of ‘unreality’- experimenting with a world where natural laws are suspended- plus the fun of challenge, mastery, and playing with different identities. These findings reveal that video games can be an alternate way to release negative emotion, and help children alleviate their innate desire for risk and adventure.”

7. Chess makes kids smart

Patrick S. McDonald is the Youth Coordinator for the Ontario Chess Association and he has compiled a number of papers and selected research highlighting the benefits of chess, with a specific focus on how it education. Chess makes students, “slow down, concentrate, use precise thinking, [and use] both inductive and deductive reasoning, as well as recognizing difficult and complex patterns.” There are plenty of online chess games, so this is yet another way in which computerized gaming can have a positive impact on a child’s educational development. That being said, using a traditional chess set is a wonderful experience, so be sure to encourage students to try that as well, and provide access to chess set if you can.

8. Music and movement augment children’s language capabilities during the preschool years

“Research shows that children who engage in music from a young age have a more finely tuned ability to speak and communicate. Though much of modern education focuses primarily on visual sight for learning, the auditory processes are critically important for language acquisition. The younger the child, the more important music becomes. Children who engage in music from a young age have a more finely tuned ability to speak and communicate.” Gamers know that background music is a part of many electronic games, and now we know that this exposure to music provides yet another benefit of gaming in the instructional context!


Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
Introducing a Game-Based Curriculum in Higher Ed
Tailoring the Classroom of the Future With the Fabric of the Past

The Gamification of Education and Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Learning Benefits


Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester, in White Plains, NY, where he also teaches. In 2009, Walsh founded He frequently delivers presentations and training on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. His eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book is available here. Walsh became the Community Administrator for the Flipped Learning Network in June of 2016. In his "spare time" he also writes, records, and performs original music ... stop by and have a listen!

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own, or those of other writers, and not those of my employer. - K. Walsh]

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

K. Walsh February 10, 2014 at 9:57 am

Thanks for passing this on Anna!

Anna February 10, 2014 at 1:02 am

Some very interesting points here! As a teacher, I’m always looking to expand my teaching approaches and tools. There’s another blog talking about gamification and teaching, perhaps you’ve seen it I thought you might be interested

Sasha Zinevych January 28, 2013 at 5:12 am

I really like your findings on education but do you think gamification can go beyond that? What about online marketing – do you think customers are somewhat like children and gamification could work with them as well?

K. Walsh December 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Wow – great insights Kathy – thanks! I had hoped folks out there who were knowledgeable about this would weigh in. Paul Driver also weighed in on Twitter and sent a link to this article he wrote for the blog ‘Digital Debris’: I find this deeper consideration of pros and cons of ‘gamification’ fascinating and eye-opening.

Kathy Sierra December 5, 2012 at 11:38 am

” it is logical to assume that the use of gaming mechanics and concepts in educational tools and processes can also yield benefits”

No, it’s not logical. Actual games and gamification (the use of gaming mechanics) are based on entirely different psychogical processes, and typically at opposing ends of the motivation continuum. We cannot make inferences about gamification/mechanics based on research into the effects of games.

It is *tempting*, though, to try to get the compelling, addictive, engaging benefits of games by using the mechanics. But most gamification is based on using game mechanics to create a Skinner operant conditioning behavior, while actual games are designed with an intrinsically rewarding, flow-inducing experience. These could not possibly be more different in the science of motivation (the leading theory today — Self-Determination Theory).

The frightening part is that using operant conditioning DOES produce a form of engagement, given that it’s the same dopamine reward system used to keep Skinner rats pressing a lever and casino users stuck to a slot machine. But it is — in most educational contexts — NOT the kind of engagement that’s ultimately useful, and the scary part is that this reward-driven behavior has been shown to DECREASE motivation around potentially intrinsically rewarding activities. Usually we do not know that we’ve replaced the formerly intrinsically rewarding potential with an extrinsically-driven behavior, since it happens below conscious awareness and takes time to recognize.

Using actual games in education is extremely powerful, with many different forms of use and benefits. Using game *mechanics* can also be beneficial in very specific, carefully chosen contexts — most often in encouraging rote, tedious tasks that are not intrinsically rewarding themselves but must be done (memorizing lists or procedures, etc.).

As a former teacher, I can relate to any teacher’s desire to see more engagement, but not all engagement is equal, and some is harmful in the long run. Even Skinner eventually admitted that using mechanics to drive behavior produces mechanical behaviors, no matter how complex those behaviors may appear. A string of chained simple behaviors does NOT equal actua complex thought and behavior, though it may look similar on the surface.

(sorry for the rant, but I take this seriously. Most of your post I loved)

K. Walsh December 5, 2012 at 8:16 am

I should add that experts in gaming and it’s relationship to education are likely to note that there are many distinctions to be made between different types, levels, and uses of games in instruction, but this article is simply intended to provide some interesting findings in regard to the general idea of the use of games and gaming when considered from an educational perspective.

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