Computing Profession

Shall We Play a Game?

Students learning through gaming.
Aspects of gaming are being used to enhance education by increasing student interest and engagement.

In the 1983 movie thriller "WarGames," a chain of events that nearly leads to global nuclear war is set off by a teenager simply trying to play a game. The movie’s main character hacks into a computer system designed to teach warfare through gaming, but got much more than he bargained for. While disaster is ultimately averted in the movie, it explores a topic that is now of growing interest to developers, marketers and companies in almost every industry: gamification.

Information technology consulting firm Gartner, Inc. defines gamification as "the use of game mechanics and game design techniques in nongame contexts to design behaviors, develop skills or to engage people in innovation." The term gamification was first used nearly two decades after WarGames hit theaters, and today is very common; we see gamification applications on a daily basis, whether we recognize them or not. From the photos that we "Like" on Facebook to the badges earned for contributing to an open-source coding project, gamification is everywhere.

In the world of computing, gamification is being used as a tool to help developers learn to program. Gamification is at the core of Codecademy, a website designed to teach HTML, Python, JavaScript, PHP, and other programming environments. The site teaches beginning and advanced programming, and rewards users with badges for completing each module. Users "play" increasingly difficult levels, each designed to teach different aspects of the language. Time magazine named Codeaademy one of the 50 Best Websites of 2012, and several million users have taken its free courses – all built around the idea of making learning programming fun and easy.

Daniel J. Dubois of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, along with Giordano Tamburrelli of Università della Svizzera Italiana, authors of "Understanding Gamification Mechanisms for Software Development," have employed the concept of gamification in the classroom. The two experimented with a group of programming students using gamification tools to determine the impact it could have on software engineering. SonarQube (formerly Sonar), a tool for measuring the quality of code, was utilized in the test, and participants were rewarded with better grades for producing higher-quality code. While the authors agree that the results of the initial test were positive, more work needs to be done to determine the impact gamification can have in a programming environment.

"What we realized in reality is that applying gamification mechanisms is not as straight-forward as it might seem," said Tamburrelli. "Gamification in general is easy – like giving a reward, penalty, or incentive for certain behaviors – but if you just add gamification, you may add non-desired behaviors from your developers, such as cheating, to get rewards. Therefore, it is necessary to use the right tools to get the desired outcome."

Dubois agrees, adding that a major pitfall of gamification is potentially losing sight of the goal, as people focus on the rewards. "The idea of gamification is that you can influence the behavior of people by engaging them in the fun of games, but it should be optional. The game should still be a game and not force people to do something to earn an incentive. More-competitive people might focus on the rewards rather than the goal of creating a positive output," says Dubois, which is why he says cash should never be used as a gamification incentive. One of the goals of Dubois’ and Tamburrelli’s experiment was to encourage the use of best practices in software development, and they agree achievement points, reputation, badges, and other forms of incentive should not override this goal.

Why is there such an emphasis on learning through gamification? Gaming is something people are increasinglycomfortable with, and in educational applications – where keeping students interested is important – any tools that help increase the attention span and level of engagement is considered a win.

According to New York Times bestselling author and gaming expert Jane McGonigal, the average young adult will have spent 10,000 hours playing games by the time that they’re 21. In her 2010 TED presentation "Gaming Can Make a Better World," McGonigal said that, as a planet, we spend a whopping 3 billion hours a week playing online games. Among programmers and those interested in learning to code, gaming is clearly a medium they are comfortable with, so using this channel to educate is a logical step in the learning process. What better tool is there for learning to program than games, which potential developers are already playing?

A benefit of gamification in just about every application is the rewards themselves. For example, frequent contributors to Stack Overflow (, a Q&A site for programmers,  earn "reputation" for positive contributions to the site. By helping new programmers overcome a challenge or assisting advanced developers with a difficult problem, contributors’ reputations increase. Each user’s reputation and earned badges serve as the only currencies for contributing to the site; there are no monetary rewards for helping visitors with a problem. It is the gamification currency – whether as likes, points, badges, or other types of recognition – that keeps visitors engaged and coming back to a site or application.

Gamification is beginning to grab hold in many industries, creating the need for greater expertise in this arena. Gabe Zichermann, author of several books on gamification, including "The Gamification Revolution" and "Gamification by Design," is leading the charge for the "Gamification Design Certification" provided by the Engagement Alliance. The four-tier program offers "basic" to "visionary" certification for participants exhibiting their proficiency in the area of gamification. With demand for gamification growing across industries, there is strong demand for software developers with expertise in this growing field.

While many people may still prefer a good game of chess over a game designed to teach them, there is no question that gamification is here to stay as a tool for engagement.

Mark Broderick is a Tampa, FL-based senior research analyst covering the financial services and payments industries for ORC International.


Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More