Tag Archives: gamification

On Gamification: Chocolate is Good and Broccoli Healthy


Are you familiar with the expression “chocolate-covered broccoli”? It basically refers to adding a layer of cool stuff to a layer of boring stuff. If you work with edtech & gamification, chances are you’ve heard of it.

Opponents of gamification have the opinion that enriching education with gamified elements is like pouring chocolate on top of broccoli and therefore not good at all.

I disagree.

Think about when you cross a street. Do you ever tend to step on the white stripes of the crosswalk—or alternatively on the spaces in between—but not on the border? Or have you ever placed bets with your friends about a hockey game on TV? How about following your pace while running and later comparing it to your other runs on a training log? Maybe spent time on selecting the best filter for your picture so that it would get attention on social media.

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you’ve gamified your life, brought some extra fun to it. In other words, you’ve covered your broccoli with some chocolate. Now my question is: why couldn’t we gamify education? (And my answer is: of course we can!)

When thinking of gamified educational materials, it is important to keep two things in mind: first, pupils/students compare them with other educational materials, not with games outside education context. Secondly, not all education should be gamified. There are several ways to Learning and gamification fits some but not all.

Avatars, levels, points, rewards, and storifying are typical features of gamification. They take nothing away from the imortance of the educational materials they are applied to, such as theory content, exercises, and tests. No, they are just there to spice up various learning situations and drive engagement.

I currently work with Bingel, a gamified environment for primary education, grades 1-6. We launched it this fall in Finland and based on the feedback we’re getting it really seems to hit the spot!

Earlier version of this post was published in Finnish on Sanoma Pro’s blog.

Flickr image CC credits: Emilien ETIENNE


Norwegian #edtech Startups Bring Games to School

Norway has recently been in the news regarding educational technologies. The latest announcement being that itslearning acquired Fronter. Both are originally Norwegian learning management system providers.

There’s more to Norwegian edtech scene than LMSs, however. I recently visited Oslo and met a bunch of interesting companies. At Slush I had the pleasure of continuing discussions with two of them, namely Kahoot! and WeWantToKnow. Both are about play, games, and gamifying education.

Johand Brand of Kahoot! and Rolf Assev of WeWantToKnow.

Rolf Assev of WeWantToKnow and Johan Brand of Kahoot!

Kahoot! was launched at SXSWedu in March 2013 and has in a bit more than two years attracted 75 million users, of which 20 million use it actively every month. It is being used in 180 countries and so far more than three billion questions, “kahoots”, have been answered. Quite amazing numbers.

Kahoot! has concentrated on developing the service on its users terms, rather than doing everything what investors suggest. CEO Johan Brand emphasizes the value to users, warning also his fellow entrepreneurs about the “unicorn trap”:

Mathematics teacher Jean-Baptiste Huynh formed his company WeWantToKnow in 2012 and released the first game, the award-winning DragonBox Algebra. As the name suggests, it teaches algebra, but does this in a quite clever way: the gamer is not even aware of what she is learning. A five year old can just pick up a tablet, start moving various symbols on top of and next to each other, and at the same time learn the basics of algebra.

Since that WeWantToKnow has created more DragonBox games, one for geometry and another for learning numbers. DragonBox Numbers is aimed at 4-8 year olds for practicing basic mathematics skills such as counting, adding, and subtracting.

WeWantToKnow’s chairman Rolf Assev told me an interesting insight about their new game: based on the first experiences it looks like children continue to play DragonBox Numbers even after they have mastered it. This is good for refresher purposes, because practice makes perfect.

Both Kahoot! and WeWantToKnow are in the business of bringing gamification to schools and to learning in general. We at Sanoma Pro are in the same bandwagon. Examples are mobile games Peikkoleiri and Wonderbunny*, which we bring to market together with our partners who have developed the games: Bitarctic and Fantastec, respectively.

We’ve also recently launched a game related to learning the basics of accounting*, and a game for midwife students* simulating various stages of childbirth. In addition, we are currently launching Bingel*, a gamified and storified world for primary education pupils to practice various subjects.

* Content behind these links is in Finnish.

Gamification in Education

I take part in Twitter education chats from time to time, especially #edchat and #satchat. Alas, it has been a while since my last visit in either… Typically these chats are intensive one hour long bombardments of tweets, where one really has to pay attention for being able to follow the discussion threads. They are great but exhausting. This #slowchatED, in contrast, is really mellow. There’s a topic for one week, and one question per day is posted by the moderator. I urge you to try it!


I moderated the #slowchatED Twitter chat for the last week of May 2015. The topic I chose was gamification in education. I work for a provider of K-12 educational materials in Finland, so it was very refreshing to jump into discussions with (mainly) US educators.

When I asked about gamification examples, the first answers mentioning e.g. Kahoot! were what I expected. Kahoot! does a great job in turning a classroom or a virtual learning space into a competitive environment. I was also told about Classcraft, which I think I had heard before but never really took a closer look. Now I will for sure.

In my job I am mainly involved with online learning materials. Just to calibrate my thinking, I also wanted to find some examples where modern technologies play little…

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Learning Unintentionally vs. Stopping to Learn

One way to make a distinction between learning strategies is: 1) the learner is unaware of the topics she is learning; 2) underlining the topics, making sure that the learner knows what the learning goal at hand is.

In learning games the former is well manifested in Dragonbox. Dragonbox’s value proposition is, that it “secretely teaches algebra”. The gamer can in retrospect be told about the topics she learned, but she does not need that information when playing the game. I really like Dragonbox and encourage you to try it too!

Bingel adopts the other strategy. The topics are visible and the learner literally stops for each exercise. He typically selects the answer he thinks is correct (1st click), then pushes the button saying ‘ok’ (2nd click), and finally clicks the ‘next’ button to go move forward (3rd click). A user interface designer might say that this is not a fluent design choice, that you should manage with two clicks, even one.

(I am working with Bingel now, since we are bringing it to Finland. It was originally created at VAN IN in Belgium, and lately also localized in Sweden by Sanoma Utbildning, both our sister companies at Sanoma Learning.)

I discussed this theme with experts at VAN IN. Having the learner to spend time with each exercise is indeed on purpose. It forces to stop to reflect the answer. So in this case the didactical principles override the common design principles such as the fewer the clicks in a user interface the better.

Bingel lets the learner be in control at all times. That is why he first selects the answer, then has time to consider whether it was right or not before pressing ‘ok’. Then comes the feedback, where the learner’s own avatar appears to tell whether he got it right or not. In the case of a wrong answer, the avatar can also give hints on solving the exercise.

Having the learner to be in control of the pace he moves on is good for his working memory*. It also helps in cases where more than one learner are jointly solving exercises. They can discuss their candidate answers and the feedback before moving on.

* Check a research paper on this topic [PDF].

We Want Immediate Feedback, Nothing Wrong With That

As you might’ve noticed, I like gamification and am interested in how it could be applied in education. I see gamification as an important way to drive student motivation and engagement. Engagement, in turn, together with tools and services increasing teacher efficiency, can lead to better learning outcomes.

Feedback loop.

Wow, lots of big words. So let’s stop and elaborate a little. First of all, by better learning outcomes I don’t mean just good grades. No, they entail actually comprehending things and being able to apply them in various ways. (Think Bloom.)

Secondly, what do I mean with teaching efficiency? I mean facilitating the teacher in any way possible to reduce the bottlenecks slowing down important classroom activities. Teachers need communication tools, automatic grading, intuitive presentation materials, etc.

Finally, motivation and engagement. When students are motivated, they tend to spend more time studying (quantity), but also, and more importantly, they are “open” to learn things (quality). That is why students need engaging exercises and other content.

This is where gamification kicks in (again, as one option among many). I don’t see it as a grand learning theory, not at all. It shouldn’t get us into any Skinnerian dystopia in education. No, I just see it as a means to an end, a way to engage students. There are many many parts in learning and education where gamification plays no role.

Sometimes gamification is criticized for relying on external motivators such as badges, leaderboards, rewards, and immediate feedback. More “noble” would be to find the intrinsic motivators like mastery & creation and tap to those.

Agree & disagree here. I also think indeed intrinsic motivators are more important. However, extrinsic motivators can kickstart the process and lead to craving for mastery and actually learning new things.

It is no accident we play these casual games and spend lots of time in doing so. They carefully build on our need for feedback and advancing in levels. After a while we find ourselves not being so interested in badges and points any more but actually wanting to crack the game. If we can leverage this phenomenon somewhere in the learning process, what’s wrong with that?

A final comment on feedback: it doesn’t always have to be positive. Negative feedback in appropriate doses, forms, and contexts can also drive motivation and learn to better learning outcomes. Mere positive feedback creates spoiled brats.

Flickr image CC credits: stoic

First Ever @Oppifestival – a Good Mix of Local and Global, of Big and Small

Last weekend the very first Oppi Festival finally saw the daylight. I managed to stick quite well to my original plan of visiting various sessions. I must say that the organizers did a really good job, they had managed to invite amazingly good set of speakers, given that this indeed was the first time this event was organized.

And the famous speakers aligned well with less famous ones, creating a nice mixture of content. The same with nationalities, I think there was a healthy balance of Finland and other countries present.

The two highlights of my festival experience were quite chart-filled presentations. Pasi Sahlberg was comparing Pisa results with equity and other trends with easy-to-understand visualizations of country flags. And in another session Horace Dediu gave a breathtaking unified view of generations, tech trends, and other phenomena.

I also enjoyed very much my own sessions, first the panel with Clare Sutcliffe, Peter Vesterbacka, and Steve Taylor as the host – I think we had a nice discussion on startups, Finland, and education. Then later on I gave a 20 minutes talk about gamification followed by a very fruitful 20 minute discussion on the same topic. See a subset of my presentation below:


All and all, I really hope there will be another Oppi. And unlike your typical Finnish words, Oppi is quite easy to pronounce, so please keep the name even if it will be organized somewhere else. Thanks again for this cool event!

Disclamer: My employer Sanoma was the main sponsor of Oppi Festival.

Don’t Expect Any Educational Games From #SXSW Gaming Expo

I stayed for one extra day in Austin after SXSWedu ended. Four days of sitting down watching presentations made me want to just walk around the town. I also visited the SXSW Gaming Expo, hoping to score some educational games there.

Boy was I wrong. There was all sorts of cool games and playing going on, with virtual reality headsets and the like. But I couldn’t find anything related to learning. Well, there was one game, a Kickstarer-funded project called Classroom Aquatic. But I wouldn’t exactly call it a learning game. Take a look at the trailer so you see what I mean:

Avoid teacher’s and students’ gaze, look at other students’ papers to get answers, and throw erasers at people. Fun stuff for sure, but not quite what I was looking for.

Visiting the expo strengthened my assumption of education and hard-core gaming are still worlds apart. However, that doesn’t mean gaming wouldn’t have anything to give to education. Various elements can be extracted from games and used to gamify educational content, storylines and game characters can be reused, and innovative interaction mechanisms utilized.

It might be virtual reality headsets are entering the classrooms in the years to come.