Electrifying Education Through Gamification: Part 2 – Points, Badges, and Leaderboards

This is the second in a series about how teachers can use game mechanics to make their lessons more engaging, motivating and memorable. These posts are based not only on research I’ve done into how gamification is used by educators, but also on how I use game-thinking and game mechanics in my own classroom when I teach game design and production at The Los Angeles Film School.

Gamification is beginning to make its way into formal learning environments. Instead of courses consisting mainly of textbook learning and lectures, lessons are being built using game mechanics. In classroom settings, gamification can be implemented in a number of ways but the more common ones include challenges, points, levels, badges and leader boards Let’s look at how these mechanics can be used in the classroom.


In games, players are constantly required to meet challenges, such as solve puzzles, break defeat, or complete quests in order to advance. It’s a major reason why we play games. The same elements can be applied to a gamified classroom, as homework and projects can be presented in a fun, yet challenging way.

For your next lesson, instead of starting your lecture with a list of learning objectives, start with a challenge.
For example, here are two typical objectives for teaching skills required to deliver an elevator pitch.

One: Determine the features, benefits and unique differentiation of your product.
Two: Write a 30-second speech that creatively incorporates those elements.

Well, scrap those objectives and provide the students with a challenge.

You’re in San Francisco attending the annual Game Developers Conference, hoping to find funding for a new game project. As you get into the elevator to head down to the lobby, someone calls out, “Hold the door, please”. In walks in the President of Activision Studios. You have 30 seconds to describe your game concept to him. What do you say?

Which scenario invites you to step up and give your best? By simply changing how your present assignments, you can transform the task into a much more enjoyable activity.


When players successfully complete a challenge in a game, they receive a reward for their success. In school, students receive grades as their rewards. Unfortunately, there are several problems with a grade reward system. A student has to be sixty percent successful just to go from an F to a D. However, in designing games, we reward players for making even the smallest effort in the beginning of a game, to build confidence and keep them engaged. And for any students who were like me when I was in school, they go into class expecting an A, and anything less is demotivating.

As for students who get A’s with very little effort, earning another A is just not rewarding. But kids are very use to starting with a zero score or experience points at the beginning of a game, and earning a numeric reward that has no limit. Being able to earn your own personal best high score is perhaps the most frequently used reward system in games, and it’s incredibly successful. Numerical feedback like this is popular because it is easy to interpret and understand, and minor increases and decreases are easy to observe and quantify.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by TalentLMS, 89% of respondents report that they would become more engaged with a point system instead of grades. For you own reward system, consider throwing out the traditional grades. Have students begin with zero experience points and enable them to earn more by completing challenges.

Many games use a variety of systems to reward correct play including scores, experience, time remaining, and so on. You can do this in the classroom as well. Read an optional library book on the topic being taught in class? Receive “Reading” points.Use the final amount of experience points to determine student ability. But if you must use a traditional grading system, convert points to a letter grade when report cards are due.


Levels function in a similar way to points in a game to give the player a sense of progression. Players know that they are advancing in the game when they make it to the next level. Levels divide the game experience into discrete sections so that players can clearly see their progress. They can think about their performance and determine which strategies have been successful and which have failed.

Moreover, levels can be used to gate off certain features or rewards until the player has progressed through the more repetitive tasks of the lower levels. Likewise, the higher level will usually unlock more challenging tasks and goals, making the progression to the next level increasingly difficult.

In the classroom, you might use a leveling system to allow students “unlock” new challenges and receive rewards such as additional privileges and responsibilities within the class. Studies show that leveling systems are far more popular with students than are grades, but you need to carefully plan out level progression so as not to make any one student feel inferior to their peers due to being significantly behind.


Games often combine levels and points with an achievement system. Here is one system I created based upon digital worksheets developed by educational technologist Alice Keeler. When the students when students mark off that they have completed challenges, they are rewarded with badges. This gives them immediate feedback to motivate further achievement.

You might award students electronic or physical badges — even stickers! — to reward accomplishments. When students complete a lesson, give them a badge. These badges in turn increase the student’s overall rank, and unlock other more challenging lessons. Now, students have a clear picture of the path ahead of them and have fun along the way.The trick is to award badges wisely and in a meaningful way to make them more appreciated.

Badges can also be used recognition of specific achievements or ways to encourage students to go above and beyond. Game designers also use acheivements to reward players for doing something that perhaps not everyone would do, or finding something that not everyone would find. Get perfect attendance and complete all homework assignments on time for a month? Earn an “On Target“ badge! Badges allow for visual and public celebration of student achievement.

Even if badges are given for simply attempting an assignment, completing extra credit, or showing continued effort in reaching a goal, the mere recognition of effort can go a long way in motivating students to learn and is great tool for boosting student confidence.


Another game mechanic used to recognize player achievement are leader boards. Since the earliest arcade games, leaderboards have been a great incentive for players to play a game over and over again to hone their skills, just so they can see their name on the high score table. The competitive nature of a leaderboard gives players something to strive for, and staves off the boredom of doing the same tasks repeatedly, as there is a perceived reward at the end of the experience.

Using leaderboards to display high scores on quizzes or badges awarded for achievements can be enough to kick-start student engagement. If students can see how their learning journeys are progressing in comparison to their peers, they may be motivated to push on through the difficult assignments just to rise to the top of the board.

However, use of a leaderboard in a classroom has to be carefully planned so that struggling students don’t become discouraged. Those at the bottom will need other incentives not to give up trying to climb the board, and the board needs to be frequently updated or cleared so that no one stays at the bottom for long.

PBL Systems

This collection of game mechanics is often called a PBL system, short for points, badges and leaderboards. To summarize, learning objectives are presented as challenges, points and levels are used to measure progression, badges recognize student accomplishment, and leaderboards encourage competition. With such a system, students are rewarded for success but not penalized for failure.

By learning within a system of rewards without harsh penalties, students are not afraid to step outside of their comfort zone and fail. And by removing their fear of failure, students are encouraged to learn. Although PBL systems are the most common way gamification is implemented, they are many more game mechanics available to motivate learners.



In my next post, I’ll describe additional game mechanics you can use to motivate students through their desire for accomplishment.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on February 23, 2015, in Gamification. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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