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Gamification from A to Z: 26 Terms You Need to Know

As it turns out, there’s a whole bunch of serious science behind all of this playful pedagogy. And if you’re new to the world of gamification in the classroom, it can certainly be daunting to try and figure out where to start. But fear not! Here at EMC² Learning, we’ve spent the better part of a combined three full decades in our careers learning the ins and outs of all things gamified and we’ve even published three books between us along the way.

Fun fact: while all this gamification stuff might seem like child’s play, it’s actually kind of impossible to write three full books on “50 ways to give a kid a sticker.”

Gamification is very real, and very powerful. When used thoughtfully, it’s one of the most powerful tools in a classroom teacher’s playbook. But we’ll admit that making sense of all this game-y stuff can be something of an uphill climb, especially if you’re new to this journey. That’s why we’ve put together this definitive (read: in no way definitive) “A to Z Guide to Gamification and Game Inspired Course Design.” Let the games begin!

A – Achievements: In-game rewards that players can unlock by completing certain tasks or objectives. Buy two meals at Starbucks in a single day? Boom. Instant 10% discount. Walk the length of the Eiffel Tower in a single workout? Ding! Instant alert on your Apple Watch. From our reading streaks on our Kindles to our heating and cooling efficiency ratings in our homes — achievements are everywhere! And receiving an unexpected pop-up reminder that you’ve unlocked some super exclusive achievement can be tremendously motivating in getting you to engage even more deeply. 

Say, that sounds a lot like…

B – Behavioral Psychology: The study of how people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are influenced by psychological factors. To be clear: it’s probably worth pointing out that psychologists and schools of thinking on how to create environments (like schools) where subjects do what you ask them to do tend to fall into one of two major camps: Behaviorists and Constructivists.

Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner (famous for his rats in a box) famously conducted years of research on how to shape behavior through positive and negative reinforcement. Perhaps Skinner’s greatest contribution to the field is the concept of “operant conditioning” — a method of learning that uses rewards and punishment to modify behavior. Do good stuff, get the carrot. Do bad stuff, get the stick. And not surprisingly, this approach has crept into all sorts of well-intentioned systems that are supposedly designed to try to elicit all sorts of positive behaviors (think shiny bells and whistles when you close the exercise rings on your Apple Watch, or the feeling of receiving a 10% letter grade deduction each day a school project is turned in late).

Constructivist psychology, meanwhile, emphasizes that students are always engaged in a process of actively constructing meaning—a process in which the esteemed Harvard professor Robert Kegan explains that “the teacher can only facilitate or thwart, but not himself invent.” The constructivist approach is alive and well in all manner of fields ranging from talk therapy to Montessori schools. This school of thought holds that humans are meaning makers, and in a very real sense the meaning we create in turn creates our experience of the world. In the immortal words of Prince Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or in the question of a curious young sixth grader: “do you want to see what I made out of these LEGOs?”

To be fair, most critics tend to focus on the simple behaviorist elements of all things gamified (points, badges, leaderboards, and other such extrinsic trappings to signify a player’s rank or achievement within the game-like world). And when most “gamified” solutions in the education space tend to look a whole lot like button mashing and low-level bar trivia, we certainly can’t blame them.

But the good news is that while there are plenty of behaviorist elements at play in any game (and just about any system) that you can imagine, the best game designers actually lean more heavily on the constructivist elements that are made possible through the pedagogy of play. In other words: games help provide a framework for understanding. They create richly themed worlds for exploration. Sandboxes for creativity. And scheme for near-infinite opportunities where players make meaningful choices again and again and again — each time unlocking an entirely new outcome and invitation to play even more.

C – Consent: The late Canadian researcher Dr. Bernard Suits famously once quipped that all games are “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” That fundamental principle is the bedrock upon which all games are built — and it applies just as truly to tabletop favorites like Mahjong or Monopoly to cutting edge video games like Minecraft and Mario Kart. Each game begins with a single question: “do you want to play?” And once a player has voluntarily entered into the so-called “Magic Circle” of the game world, they willingly consent to taking on all sorts of challenges that might otherwise not exist outside of the realm of play. Whether it comes in the form of restrictions, opponents, high scores, or secrets to discover — the challenge is immediately clear, and it becomes the obstacle that players must overcome in order to progress in a game.

This is great news for classroom teachers who are looking to use gamified lesson planning techniques to add meaningful challenges to their classrooms. Because as Doug Lemov writes in Teach Like a Champion: “the reward for right answers… will be harder questions.”

D – Design Thinking: A creative, problem-solving approach that is often used in game design and in larger form strategy gameplay. In a world that’s increasingly dominated by “meetings that could have been an email” and “essays that were clearly written using Artificial Intelligence” — design thinking is, perhaps, one of the most fascinating and innately human fields of study available to classrooms around the world. How many times have you heard some variation of the phrase that today’s schools are “training students to solve problems that we don’t even understand using technologies that haven’t even been invented yet?”

Put another way: Do you want your classroom to prepare your students for the world outside of school? Then when and how do you expect them to learn how to use tools like ChatGPT or artificial intelligence or the very practical (and highly sought-after) skills like programming and coding? If we don’t provide ample time in our classrooms for our students to learn how to master each of these emerging opportunities ethically, responsibly and efficiently — how do we ever expect them to succeed once they leave our schools?

Answer: design thinking.

E – Engagement: The level of interest and involvement that players have in a game. It sounds cheeky, but the sentiment holds remarkably true across most every game and every classroom we’ve ever seen…

“When a person is captivated, they don’t need to be held captive.”

The best classroom management system a teacher could ever hope to have is a lesson plan that has genuinely captured the attentions and imaginations of their students. When minds are actively engaged in meaningful, creative, rewarding and thought provoking work — there is little time or incentive for a student (or a player) to find themselves engaging in off-task behaviors.

F – Feedback, Fiero, and Flow: Feedback is information provided to players about their performance or progress in a game. Fun fact — games are, like, really really hard to win! And they’re designed that way on purpose. If you’re playing a game with 5 players, that means that any one of those players only has about a 20% chance of walking away the ultimate winner. Video games likewise are designed with an intentional “sweet spot” where success meets failure. Because when a game is too easy, people simply don’t enjoy coming back to play it all that often.

In a gamified environment, the key is to continually escalate the level of challenge at precisely the same rate at which a player’s level of skill improves. This helps them lose themselves in the experience of the game, and creates a perpetual state of what the late Hungarian American researcher (and father of the fascinating field of positive psychology) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously describes as “Flow.” For gamers (and teachers), it’s the sweet spot where we’re actually doing A TON of hard work as the game gets increasingly harder and harder to keep up with our evolving skills. The reason?


In her New York Times Bestselling book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World Jane Mcgonigal notes that the word “fiero” actually comes from an Italian word roughly meaning “pride.” It’s the feeling of standing tall with our chests puffed out. As she explains, “fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it – and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell.”

G – Gamification: The use of game design elements and mechanics in non-game contexts, such as education or business. Still not sure that gamification has a place in our classrooms? Take a look at these news headlines from the past week alone to see how this radically engaging approach to user-centered design is shaking up everything from big business to healthcare.

Numbers don’t lie, folks: gamification is a very big deal. And it’s here to stay.

H – High Score:
The highest score achieved by a player in a game.

I – Immersion: The feeling of being fully absorbed in a game.

J – Juicy Feedback: Feedback that is visually and/or audibly stimulating and satisfying, often used in games to reward players. 

K – Kinesthetic Learning: A learning technique in which students learn through physical movement and hands-on activities. To be clear — research has consistently shown in study after study after study that the long-held belief in “learning styles” is completely fake, and the belief in these more fixed categories of how students learn (“auditory learners” vs. “kinesthetic learners” and so forth) can actually be quite damaging both to a teacher’s pedagogy and to the learners themselves. But virtually all games depend on some sense of movement — either the flipping of a card, the moving of a piece, or the driving of a ball or some such similar object down a field of play. And for that reason, we’re including Kinesthetic Learning here in our top 26 list of important terms to know. Because when we build the best games, we account for ALL of those so-called “learning styles” in one fell swoop. And players (on in the classroom setting, students) are reading, doing, listening, and reacting in an infinitely looping cycle of positive feedback over and over and over again.

In layman’s terms: games are often referred to “activities” because they depend on the players to be “active” to “activate” them. We think that this is a simple, but powerful reminder for classroom teachers as we design activities for our own instruction. 

L – Leaderboard: A ranking of players based on their scores or other metrics.

M – Myelination: If you wanted to get technical, myelination is the process by which brain oligodendrocytes produce layers of myelin that wrap around the neuronal axons and act as a layer of insulation for the transmission of electric action potentials down the neuronal axon.

In more direct terms?

The human brain works like a giant interstate highway. And myelination is the process by which the different “roads” that connect the millions of neural pathways in our brains either get paved (thus forging new connections) or fall into disrepair (typically from injury or lack of use). In short: the brain is a giant muscle. And each time you have the opportunity to think of “THING X” in a brand new context, it forces those neural pathways in your brain to light up and pave a new road between what otherwise might feel like two completely disparate concepts.

It’s also one of the reasons why gamification is a fantastic way to hack our brain’s pleasure centers. Because when we force our minds to make novel connections between new things, the brain literally gets heavier as it flexes those connective muscles. Once players get swept up into the world of the game (often through a narrative or a story), they really do start to see themselves as temporarily becoming their in-game avatar. You’re not Billy playing video games on the couch. You’re Mario, saving the Mushroom Kingdom from the evil Bowser. And when you start to see yourself as a player in the game, you release all sorts of dopamine along those newly paved neural pathways that helps you figure out all kinds of ways to beat the baddies and rescue the Princess.

Thanks Myelination!


N – Non Player Character: Non-player characters (also known as NPC’s) are those not-so-living, not-so-breathing avatars you see walking around a video game or lurking in the boxes of your favorite boardgames of old. They help add depth and storytelling nuance to the plot of the game experience, and can often serve as in-game guideposts for new rule variations or new adventures that require the player’s attention. Rich Uncle Pennybags or the angry traffic cop that tells you to “Go to Jail!” in Monopoly? Yup. Those are non-player characters. The evil King Koopa who kidnaps the princess at the start of just about every Mario game? Bingo. NPC’s. 

Delivering timely bits of news and in-game updates via non-player characters is a great way to keep players immersed in the world of the story without ever once interrupting their all important state of Flow.

O – Onboarding: The process of introducing new players to the rules and mechanics of a game. Giving players the chance to get a feel for how the game is played (and a sense of pride in these early efforts) can go a long way in helping them establish a feeling of control and emotional safety in the game world. That’s one of the reasons why so many games and gamified systems build in ridiculously easy checkpoint-like systems to offer all sorts of rewards as users complete even the simplest of tasks along the way. 

Add a photo to your LinkedIn page? Presto! Your profile is magically powered up to 80% complete. Now all you need to do is tell us where you work.

Looking to slay the monsters throughout the kingdom? If only there were a magic sword lying around here someplace. OH WAIT — YOU FOUND IT!?! Then the prophecy is true and you must be the chosen one!

P – Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (PBLs): PBLs stands for Points, Badges, and Leaderboards, are commonly used in gamification to create a more engaging and motivating experience. In a gamified context, points are typically awarded for completing specific tasks or challenges. Score a touchdown? Six points. Pass “Go?” Collect $200 dollars. These points can then be accumulated over time to indicate progress or achievement.

Badges, on the other hand, are visual representations of achievements and are often used to mark specific milestones or accomplishments. We see badges (or ranked titles) at play in all sorts of context both inside of the game worlds and beyond it, and they can be a great way to motivate folks inside of the gamified system and serve as really handy ways to make sense of each player’s role and specialized talents even to those who might be new to the space. Scouts move from Tiger Cub through Bear and all the way up to Eagle Scout, each time proudly sporting a brand new badge to let the world know their relative rank and standing in the group. The same can likewise be said for the “badge” like titles that are very much alive in higher education — from the titles used to signify each professor’s rank within a University (adjunct, assistant, associate, etc.) to the color-coded gowns worn at traditional graduation ceremonies (where each major sports a different colored velvet hood).

Finally, leaderboards are used to display the progress and rankings of all participants, which can help provide a sense of competition and encouraging users to strive for the top spot. Somewhat ironically, however, research has shown that systems that rely too heavily on leaderboards as the primary tool for encouraging player motivation can actually backfire and result in FEWER players giving their best than more. In a classroom setting, this is why games like Jeopardy and Kahoot typically have a very limited appeal once the initial novelty wears off — because once you’ve been mathematically eliminated from any chance of victory, it’s much easier to engage in all sorts of off task behavior than it is to win. 


Q – Quests: Quests are in-game tasks that players can complete for rewards. The term originally comes from the world of role playing games (think Dungeons and Dragons, or World of Warcraft). But it has made its way into all sorts of contemporary video games and tabletop games alike.

Quests typically fall into one of two categories: “Main Quests” (which are required tasks a player must complete, usually in a certain prescribed sequence, in order to unlock each new level of play required to “beat the game”), and “Side Quests” (which are optional tasks that a player can choose to undertake in order to hone a particular skill, unlock a particular secret, or gather particular items or currency with in-game value). In a classroom, it might be tempting to equate “Main Quests” with our regularly scheduled quizzes and tests. While “Side Quests” might be more like those optional enrichment activities that, while not required, can still be incredibly valuable in helping a learner “level up” their ability.

(Notice how we didn’t say that “Side Quests” can serve as “Extra Credit” to help replace “Main Quests” that weren’t completed to standard? There’s a huge difference between make-up work to compensate for a deficit and additional challenges that can help a student grow beyond the narrow confines of racking up a few extra points in the bank).

R – Rewards: In-game items or points that players can earn by completing tasks or objectives. 

S – Social Interaction: The ways in which players interact with each other in a game. 

T – Theme, Teams, and Tasks: When you peel back all the fancy bells and whistles, we’re convinced that most every game (or game-like experience) can really be boiled down to three basic elements — and they all start with the letter “T.” The THEME of a game tells its players the world in which the story of this activity will take place. It can be fantastic (like a trip through a far-off Candy Land), ominous (like a spooky Victorian mansion murder mystery in which suspects are mysteriously trying to figure out whodunnit), or inspired by real life (like a stroll around the Atlantic City Boardwalk) — but the theme that we select really can help set the tone for the type of gameplay that is to ensue in each setting. Candy Land takes very young players to a whimsical, childlike world of friendship, cartoons, and make-believe. Clue transports us to a game of social deduction and bluffing, where red herrings and clever deception become the rule of the day. And Monopoly turns everyday gamers into high-rolling real estate tycoons, fiercely competing to build massive empires of wealth while attempting to avoid foreclosure and bankruptcy.

Traditional schools do a tremendous job of giving our students all sorts of TASKS to complete. But when we start to layer in a splash of THEME (and the chance to work in TEAMS with our fellow classmates), we really can begin to unlock unprecedented levels of creativity in our classrooms.

U – User Experience: The overall enjoyment and satisfaction that players have with a game. Watch that video above and see for yourself! Games are fundamentally incomplete puzzles that require players to solve them. Gamified environments, in turn, are explicitly designed with the players in mind — and that means we’ve created entire worlds that depend on the user’s willingness to make thousands of meaningful choices, both small and large, in order to make these intricate systems work.

When they’re built to optimize the User Experience, gamified lesson plans can take the very best elements of what games do so well in order to elicit unprecedented levels of student creativity, joy, and productivity.

V – Virtual Rewards: In-game rewards that have no value outside of the game. 

W – Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Way back in 1817, the famed British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first articulated the concept of what he called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” which he then used to describe how an author might be able to write a story that both they and their readers know full well to be entirely a work of fiction. And yet, if the story is written well enough, readers (or listeners to a fictional podcast, or viewers of a fictional television program, or players of a fictional game, etc.) are able to lose themselves in the story as it’s being told to them — and we can’t help but find ourselves momentarily transported to a world where the impossible becomes all at once very, very real in spite of our conventional wisdom.

In layman’s terms: it’s the willingness to “play along” with the action as it unfolds before us.

We know that there’s no shark in the water. But Jaws still scares the heck out of us! Simple science tells us that there’s no such thing as a Darth Vader or a Death Star. And yet we cheer like mad for Luke Skywalker all the same. And even though our pal Mario is no more than a bunch of lines of code whirring past the screen in millions of megabytes per second, that doesn’t mean that we don’t get really upset when we push the wrong button and our hero falls down a bottomless pit.

And since they each begin with a simple question of consent (“Wanna’ play a game?!”), games have an uncanny ability to invite players to check our typical reservations at the door as they draw us deeper and deeper into these so-called “Magic Circles” from the moment that we arrive.

X – XP (or Experience Points): XP is the industry shorthand for “eXPerience Points” — which is another way of keeping tally on just how long we’ve been at it and how far along we’ve come on our journeys. It’s important to note that since these points are quite literally representations of how much experience we have accrued, the running tally of XP can only ever be added to — never subtracted from. A baseball player hits a home run and their team adds one point for each runner on the bases. That number can range from a single point (a solo home run) to a whopping four points (for a grand slam), and in each case it’s used to signify just how much “experience” (or achievement) had been in play at the moment the score was locked in.

And the team who has “experienced” the greatest number of runners who’ve successfully made their way across home plate by the end of the 9th inning is declared the winner. Notice how at no point in this scenario does any player on either team ever LOSE points along the way for their efforts.

This small shift stands in stark contrast to the “game” of traditional grading in school, where students earn a grade of X% on any given assignment, and that number can immediately go either up or down from the moment the very next class begins. No matter how well or how experienced they might be at any given point in the school year, a student is only ever one bad test away from watching their entire momentum be utterly derailed. Is it any wonder why traditional grades can be the cause of so much stress for both students and teachers alike?!

(For that reason, we strongly recommend keeping game points separate from grade points. And we have very strong feelings about going as gradeless as possible in your classrooms).

Y – “Yes, And…” “Yes, and” is the pillar of all improvisational thinking. It’s perhaps most widely famous for the role that it plays in improv comedy, and it’s the mutually agreed “acceptance” principle between all players that states when someone in a scene states something, all parties should accept it as truth. That way, instead of jockeying for which person can cram the most jokes in (often at the expense of their fellow players), the entire group starts working together to give over to a world in which all parties are playing for the same team in a world that rapidly starts to resemble a co-created “Magic Circle” where the willing suspension of disbelief becomes the law of the land.

In short: we’re all working together. The real fun begins once we accept it. Creativity can only come from a willingness to be vulnerable and think outside of the box. So the “and” part of this principle challenges all players to work together and build on each new stage of the reality in real time as it is created by the group. Keep going! And keep growing!

Imagine. Iterate. Invent. Again. And again. And Again.

Z – Zenith: Refers to the highest point or peak, which can be a goal or achievement for players to reach in a gamified experience. That “shout it from the rooftops, say it with your chest!” moment of fiero? Yup. That’s the Zenith alright. At the peak of performance, we experience a rush of all sorts of dopamine, adrenaline, and excitement for the work that we’ve done. But the best games constantly challenge us to “level up” our efforts to overcome all sorts of new obstacles at every turn. And so the “zenith” of level one actually serves as a sort of micro-sized booster rocket to help launch us into the creativity, choice, and challenge that awaits us in level 2.

After all: “the reward for right answers… will be harder questions.”

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