Teaching school science by gamification

In this blog post, Dr James Davis discusses the role of gamification in teaching and assessing school science. While playing games in school science may challenge some teachers’ perceptions around science pedagogy and curriculum, James discusses the opportunities that gamification can offer, particularly related to student engagement.

What is gamification?

Globally we have seen immense growth over two decades in both children and adults engaging with games such as digital games, alternative reality gaming, and eSports. An area of lesser growth is the gamification of learning in formal school settings. Gamification is the adoption of game structures, game thinking, the aesthetics of games, and the emotional attachment we enjoy about games, and applying these to the way we teach to engage students in learning.

Why gamify school science?

Gamification of teaching in school science enables us to situate children, as gamers, in authentic contexts and to engage them with game playing where science is embedded as part of the game. Authentic contexts can be designed around socio-scientific issues that are real and possibly localised to the communities in which children live. This makes learning real, and enables children to think and take actions relevant to their community, with the possibilities for creating a different reality within the game. This leads to student autonomy, critical, and creative thinking, which are important if children are to get the most from science education.

How do I design a game?

Most teachers think of gamification as involving online games, but this is not necessarily what we mean. When I introduce my preservice teachers to gamification as a type of unit planning, we often start out with thinking about a traditional board game as the starting point in the planning process. This becomes a way of storyboarding the game. The story of the game can then lead in many directions where students might engage with some type of online game component, by searching for information on the web, or with some type of physical science inquiry. For example, in a game, students might need to make a decision, choosing between a mysterious substance in powder or tablet form to create a speedy chemical reaction. So the game leads them to test the two options scientifically with a rate of reaction experiment. The types of events students engage with at different points in the game will shape their learning, and the direction of their next steps. Along the way students are achieving points for doing different tasks, contributing to their overall progression and game success.

How is a game structured?

To guide the initial storyboarding process I use an iterative gaming cycle called an Alternative Reality Gaming Architecture (Davis & Bellocchi, 2020). This starts with a puppet-master, who could be the teacher leading the game, or a student, if the teacher has taught the gamification process to enable student-generated games to be produced. The puppet-master is usually an adopted persona that is role played as part of the game. The puppet-master introduces the game, which we describe as the rabbit-hole, as a way to attract student interest and initial engagement by players of the game. A concept drawn from Alice in Wonderland, the rabbit-hole is simply an attention grabbing entry point to the game. It could take many forms, such as a role play, story, or video, depending on what technologies are available to you as a game designer.


Once passing through the rabbit-hole, students as players are introduced to a choice of trailheads. Each trailhead is a possible direction students could take to explore different ideas within the game. The game should also have a point system aligned to the level of challenge of each trailhead option, and the learning experiences within each trail. Trailheads will lead students into different experiences and learning outcomes, so across a classroom different student groups will be doing and learning different things within the game. As each group achieves the trailhead objectives, they return to the puppet-master to collect their points and choose a new trailhead to explore. The goal of the puppet-master is to keep the game moving, to motivate, and
scaffold students, as game players, toward successful outcomes.

What about curriculum and assessment?

Having fun and playing games in school science challenges some teachers because games are often viewed as frivolous and not part of the process of learning. To overcome this feeling science teachers may have about gaming, I recently published an easy to follow planning process to show how games can be embedded with formal curriculum and assessment. This process aims to help teachers start the process of gamifying a unit of work. I have done this in the context of science, technology and society, where I ask questions to guide the integration of science with other parts of the school curriculum. In this part of the process teachers are prompted to think about content knowledge, inquiry skills, types of learning experiences, and alignment of game points with formative and summative assessment. At the same time, the process I adopt should get teachers thinking about how different parts of the curriculum could connect to the game design.

Where to next?

Gamification is a novel way to think about unit planning and is long overdue in science education where we have so many children who struggle to engage with science. Gamification makes science more engaging because it puts fun first, generates student curiosity, provides autonomy for students, and builds contexts where science becomes relevant for students. My challenge to you as teachers is to read a little further and have a go at developing a game for one of your science units in the next year. Better still, you could teach the gamification process to your students and get them to develop their own games. In this way a student-generated game could be a product for summative assessment.



Davis, J.P., & Bellocchi, A. (2020) Gamification of SSI’s as a science pedagogy: Toward a critical rationality in teaching science. In M. Evagorou, J.A. Nielsen & J. Dillon (Eds.) Science teacher education for responsible citizenship: Towards a pedagogy for relevance through socio-scientific issues (pp. 101-116). The Netherlands, Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-40229-7


Dr James Davis is a Program Co-Leader in the C4IE Engagement and Learning Program. James is a Lecturer in STEM and Entrepreneurial Education. His research interests focus on enacted pedagogy and the emotive-cognitive interplay in student engagement and learning, using qualitative research methodologies. The contexts in which his education research is conducted include science, integrated STEM, and entrepreneurial education. James is an Associate Editor of the international journal, Research in Science Education.

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