Mission.io Blog

Gamification Has Ruined Education Technology

Classroom with students focused on studies, overshadowed by invading gaming robots. "Gamification has ruined education technology" as headline.

In a cluttered lab, where the air was thick with the aroma of instant coffee and the lingering scent of last night's pizza, a group of wide-eyed scientists stumbled upon something groundbreaking. They had successfully brewed an elixir vibrant with the colors of potential, emitting a mist that smelled suspiciously of innovation and pure engagement. This wasn't just any discovery; it was gamification, a solution they believed would revolutionize the dreary routine of many educational tasks, making learning irresistibly engaging.

The scientists, naively optimistic, had visions of their creation being the academic equivalent of Axe Body Spray, able to mask even the most revolting of realities with a single spritz. They imagined dull subjects finally coming to life, captivating students like never before. However, their dream quickly turned into a farce when the elixir was stolen, not by master thieves, but by the very corporations they hoped would champion their cause. In their hands, gamification was watered down to a mere shadow of its potential, becoming another overhyped term like "synergy" or "pivot," slapped onto lackluster apps and uninspired educational platforms.

I know many are not aware of the origin of gamification in education. It's an important one to know, and the entire basis of our conversation here today.

Long-time followers will recognize that I don't shy away from strong opinions. Occasionally, these take a turn towards the unpopular side.

But here's the kicker—I've got this platform, my digital soapbox from which I can broadcast these opinions with the volume cranked up to 11.

So broadcast I will. 

Unpopular Opinion #1: The vast majority of “gamified tools”... suck. 

It's time to face an uncomfortable truth: nearly every educational tool that prides itself on a foundation of gamification is, frankly, getting it wrong. And on the rare occasion they're close to the mark, they're utilized in ways that miss the essence of true gamification.

This has led to an abundance of tools that, while entertaining, offer minimal educational value. They're the digital equivalent of junk food: fun in the moment, but hardly nourishing. Take Kahoot, for instance. It's a brilliantly designed tool for quick reviews, engaging and user-friendly to the point of addiction. Yet, in our eagerness to 'gamify' the classroom, we’re definitely overindulging. We were given great power, but have not lived up to that responsibility (Uncle Ben would be horrified if he were still alive). This overapplication transforms a potentially powerful learning moment into a race for quick answers, teaching students speed over substance.

The reality is that these tools, when misused, don't teach our kids anything truly meaningful. Instead of cultivating deep understanding, we're training them to prioritize haste, to learn merely how to answer questions quickly. It's a misstep in educational strategy, one that we need to correct if we're serious about harnessing the true potential of gamification for learning.

Unpopular Opinion #2: Points and Leaderboards Don't Equal Gamification

Here's a hill I'm prepared to die on: slapping points onto an activity or crowning a leaderboard champion does not, by any stretch, constitute true gamification. In fact, I'd argue it's more akin to "competification" (yes, I’m coining that term).

Gamification is not merely about pitting students against each other in a relentless quest for points or leaderboard standings. Consider some of the most beloved games worldwide, like Minecraft. With 166 million players diving in each month, the allure isn't about climbing leaderboards but engaging in creative exploration and construction. It's a sandbox of possibilities, not a battleground for supremacy. Well, that is, until a creeper sneaks up behind me and explodes, completely destroying the glass beach fortress I just spent the last two hours constructing… then it is war. But I digress. 

Our students are already navigating a world rife with competition, from grades to sports and even social standings. Introducing yet another arena where they're measured against their peers does little but amplify this pressure. It cultivates a mindset where self-worth is tangled up in outperforming others, mirroring the very pitfalls we lament in social media culture. Isn't it time we reassess what we value and promote in educational settings? 

Unpopular Opinion #3: "Gamification" Needs a Rebrand

Let’s face it, "gamification" as a term is somewhat of a misfire. From the get-go, it's been a word too easily twisted and misinterpreted. It's a tricky concept, primarily because not all games are created equal, leading our understanding of gamification to vary wildly.

Take the vast universe of video games as an example. On one end, you have something like Flappy Bird—a game developed by a teenager in less than three days, relying on simplicity and frustration to hook players. On the other, there’s The Legend of Zelda, a masterpiece of open-world design that offers storylines, puzzles, cooking, battles, complete with a unique soundtrack and art style, crafted by over 300 people across five years. The range is staggering.

Herein lies the crux of the issue with the term "gamification." Despite their vast differences, both Flappy Bird and The Legend of Zelda fall under the umbrella of "games." Yet, the educational market is saturated with tools that mirror the simplicity of Flappy Bird, overshadowing the potential for deeper, Zelda-like learning experiences. This oversimplification has diluted the essence of what gamification could and should be—a vehicle for immersive, meaningful education, not just a superficial layer of "fun."

Alright, I think we’ve all caught a healthy enough whiff after airing out the dirty laundry of gamification gone wrong. Now, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to the part where we turn the ship around. It just so happens, in a fortunate twist of fate, that revamping and rescuing gamification from the clutches of mediocrity is kind of what we do. We’re still working hard, but we have the award-winning platforms to at least earn us a few toots of our own horn.

The Six Pillars of True Gamification

In the quest to harness the true essence of gamification, our team adheres to a six-step process. This methodology isn't just a random compilation; it's the culmination of rigorous research, extensive experience, and, let's be honest, a fair share of trial and error. Here are the six core components that, in our view, embody the spirit of genuine gamification. Whether you're evaluating potential tools or jazzing up your own classroom activities, these elements can serve as your beacon.

  1. Role/Identity: For students to dive deep into an activity, they need to feel a sense of belonging and responsibility. Crafting roles or identities within the gamified experience helps students feel seen and heard, fostering a mindset of "This matters to me" and "I belong here." It's about making the experience personally significant.
  2. Clear Objective: Transparency is key. Students should have a crystal-clear understanding of what they're working towards and what constitutes a win in this context. This clarity fuels motivation and drives engagement.
  3. Boundaries: Establishing the do's and don'ts upfront empowers students to explore and experiment within a safe framework. It's about setting the stage for a student-led adventure, where the journey is defined but the path is theirs to choose.
  4. Rewards: Points and leaderboards have their place, but they shine brightest when used sporadically, not as the primary goal. Employ these as tools for validation and encouragement, sprinkling them throughout the experience to reinforce positive behaviors and foster a culture of continuous improvement.
  5. Ability to Fail: Embrace failure as a spectacular part of the learning process. When students understand that failing isn’t catastrophic but a step towards success, they're more inclined to take risks and try new strategies. This mindset shift is pivotal.
  6. Epic Scale: To truly captivate students, the experience needs to transcend the typical classroom vibe. If it feels too much like traditional schoolwork, students will likely revert to their usual dispositions. We're aiming for a transformation in attitude, which means the experience must feel distinctly different and exciting.

Putting It Into Practice

Now that we've set the stage with our six pillars of true gamification, let’s walk through how these principles can transform a classic classroom activity into an unforgettable learning experience. Enter the Lego Bridge Challenge, a beloved activity that has seen countless iterations across the globe. It's straightforward: students use Legos to build a bridge spanning a gap. Simple, right? Yet, let's see how infusing our six pillars turns this simple task into an epic adventure.

To set the stage, simple pages were connected end to end to snake like a river across the classroom floor. The room was reimagined into a sprawling ecosystem, bisected by this menacing river. At one end of the room, the TV screen was set up to display an ominous image of a volcano sourced from YouTube, complete with a ticking countdown set for 30 minutes. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation as we explained to the students: this timer represented the time until the volcanic eruption, a cataclysmic event that threatened to obliterate all life remaining on this side of the river.

With the stakes clearly outlined and the scene set for high drama, we embarked on applying the principles of gamification to elevate this learning experience far beyond the ordinary.

  • Role/Identity: The introduction of unique ecosystems along the riverbanks allowed students to assume identities tied to specific creatures in peril. Each group was assigned a distinct habitat, fostering a deep sense of connection and responsibility towards their assigned segment of the "river."
  • Clear Objective: With the visual countdown adding urgency, students were tasked with constructing bridges sturdy enough to ensure the survival of their assigned creatures, blending a clear, tangible goal with the narrative tension of the impending eruption.
  • Boundaries: Defined areas along the river and specific building materials guided the students' creative process, ensuring that their engineering solutions remained within the realm of the scenario laid out before them.
  • Rewards: Creativity and structural integrity were incentivized through a dynamic points system, encouraging students to think outside the box while reinforcing the importance of teamwork and innovation throughout the build process.
  • Ability to Fail: The imminent possibility of bridge collapse under the weight of a textbook was presented not as a setback, but as a critical learning opportunity, emphasizing resilience and the value of iterative design.
  • Epic Scale: The dramatic backdrop of a looming volcanic eruption transformed the classroom into a world apart from the typical school environment, compelling students to engage with the task with unprecedented focus and enthusiasm.

The transformation of the classroom into a high-stakes rescue mission did more than capture the students' imaginations; it completely revolutionized their engagement with a task as simple as connecting Lego blocks to build a bridge. In the gamified version of the activity, the approach of the students was markedly different from their traditional, less engaged counterparts.

Rather than diving headfirst into construction, students in the gamified scenario paused to strategize, plan, and deliberate. They engaged in thoughtful discussions, weighed their options, and even debated differing viewpoints effectively. Past experiences were brought to the table as valuable lessons, guiding their design process with a focus on creating something not just functional but innovative.

Throughout the building phase, there was a noticeable shift in dynamics. Students constantly challenged their initial ideas, adapting their plans on the fly when faced with unforeseen challenges. Communication was frequent and purposeful, with every conversation aimed at refining and improving their designs.

In both versions, they were engaged in the EXACT SAME PHYSICAL TASK of connecting Lego blocks to build a bridge, but the experience and end product could not have been more different.

The end result of this gamified approach was strikingly superior. The bridges didn't just span the gap; they did so with added flair, incorporating details and innovations that were absent in the traditional versions. These constructions were a testament to the power of gamification in education—by simply changing the way a task was presented, students were driven to engage more deeply, think more critically, and collaborate more effectively, all of which culminated in a final product that far exceeded expectations.


At Mission.io, we take gamification seriously because we've seen its potential firsthand. The misuse and dilution of gamification by others in the edtech space isn't just disappointing; it's a challenge we're determined to address. Our technology isn't just about adding a gamified layer to education; it's about redefining what learning can look like when it's driven by genuine engagement and immersive experiences. We're not just using gamification; we're embodying its true essence, and in doing so, we're working hard to correct the course for educational tools everywhere.