The Short & Long Game Theory for Academic Courses



This is a guest post by Dr. Szymon Machajewski, Blackboard MVP, faculty with the School of Computing & Information Systems at Grand Valley State University.


Gamification: the use of game design elements in nongame contexts (Deterding, 2012)

Gamification is a buzzword that sometimes receives a skeptical welcome in higher education.  Some may wonder whether playing games has any place in a college level class, and the research results are mixed. Some researchers found that applying leaderboards to a college course can actually demotivate students and lower academic results (Hanus & Fox, 2015).  Gartner warned that as much as 80% of gamification projects are likely to fail (Gartner, 2012).  So why bother with a pedagogy that may be risky to adopt and at the same time represents controversial characteristics of childish play and perceived lack of seriousness?

In my view, the risk is worthwhile.  Lack of engagement in traditional courses, especially introductory college courses, discourages students and faculty.  This lack of engagement can perhaps be due to what has been called dysfunctional illusions of rigor.’ Craig E. Nelson from Indiana University coined the term to reflect on research-debunked traditional views of college instruction.  Some examples include: “1. Hard courses weed out weak students.  When students fail it is primarily due to inability, weak preparation, or lack of effort. 2. Traditional methods of instruction offer effective ways of teaching content to undergraduates. Modes that pamper students teach less.”

Rather than ‘pampering’ students, active learning has proven to make a significant difference in academic results and student engagement.  In addition, research published by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that play is good for learning and it holds a large potential for teaching new forms of thought and behavior. In that same study, playing digital games was found to boost learning, health, and social skills.

At Grand Valley State University, I have conducted research on gamification which has led to the development of a “short and long game theory” (Machajewski, 2017). The application of gamification in academic courses requires the gameful design of individual lecture periods, as well as the gameful design of the semester-long student journey.

Some examples of short game elements include:

  • Clickers
  • Daily Journal
  • Duolingo
  • Kahoot
  • One Minute Paper
  • Problem Based Learning
  • Puzzles/Paradoxes
  • Quizlet Live
  • Think-pare-share

Examples of long game elements include:

  • Exam Peace of Mind Points PofM
  • Formative Assessments
  • My Progress instead of My Grades
  • XP Ledger – MyGame

While active learning fits well in the “short game” design, something else is needed to make the course “long game” worth playing for students.  We have implemented the “long game” design in our Introduction to Computing course at Grand Valley State University, which earned exemplary course status in the 2017 Blackboard ECP program.  The key to the “long game” is the adoption of an experience points (XP) ledger.  This instrument allows students to earn XP during lectures, homework assignments, hands-on practice sessions and track the total across the length of the course.

School grades used to serve as the “long game” strategy.  However, today they are more likely to demotivate students than encourage them to conduct deeper exploration or to appreciate the subject matter.  Grades have become a high stakes extrinsic reward.  Just as money—in the research of Daniel Pink—is a poor motivator of knowledge workers, grades are a poor motivator of intellectual performance for students.

Students are knowledge workers and require creative thinking.  To motivate knowledge workers, we need to appeal to autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  These three characteristics are based on the self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000).  Not only do we care about the intellectual performance of students during class, but we also want students to grow their affinity for the subject matter.  In other words, we want to avoid the sentiment: “I got an A in the class, but I hate math, and I hope I will never have to use it again in my life.”

For gamification to be successful in academic courses, you need to have exemplary instructional design, which is why the value of the Blackboard ECP program is directly related to gamification.  Clarifying instructions for students, setting attainable course and learning objectives, and chunking content to encourage progress are all efforts to turn a course into well-designed work, which is one of the definitions for a game.

A focus on student experience creates the common ground between instructional design and gamification.  Best practices of instructional design recommend active learning as the most effective way to engage students in the classroom.  While tutoring may increase grades by two standard deviations (Bloom, 1984), active learning could increase academic performance by 0.47 standard deviations (Ruiz-Primo, Briggs, Iverson, Talbot, & Shepard, 2011). Some students are 150% more likely to fail in courses dominated by traditional lectures over courses with active learning strategies (Freeman et al., 2014).

My gamification research (Machajewski, 2017) recommends Quizlet Live and Kahoot! as active learning platforms with a competitive edge.  The “short game” in courses depends on classroom, hybrid, or online deliveries.  However, the “long game” approach is just as important to consider.  Opportunities for improvement can be found in mitigating student exam anxiety, sufficient encouragement of failure in practicing of hands-on material, and adopting intermediate due dates to ensure an ongoing growth of mastery.

The specific technologies used in my Introduction to Computing course were presented in New Orleans at the BbWorld 2017 conference and can be reviewed in the conference publication.  My theory of the “short and long game” in academic courses is being developed on the background of case studies and emerging gamification tools.  Some examples of the case studies include a Germanic Studies course and STEM introductory college course.

Gamification in an academic course can be considered a complex system of many tools within two main categories: short-term engagement and long-term participation.  Adoption of just a few of them separately, such as a leaderboard, badges, a points system, or classroom response system may not lead to an intrinsically satisfying experience and expected high levels of motivation. This follows the Anna Karenina principle (Bornmann & Marx, 2012) present in complex systems.

Conversely, gamification studies showing negative results should not reflect a general lack of applicability of gameful design in academic courses.  A consideration of both the short game and the long game will help faculty experience more benefits of gameful design.  In turn, the reciprocal quality of engagement is likely to affect the faculty and the students.



Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher, 13(6), 4. doi:10.3102/0013189X013006004

Bornmann, L., & Marx, W. (2012). The Anna Karenina principle: A way of thinking about success in science. Journal Of The American Society For Information Science & Technology, 63(10), 2037-2051. doi:10.1002/asi.22661

Burke, B. (2014). Gartner Redefines Gamification. Retrieved from

Deterding, S., (2012). Gamification: designing for motivation. Interactions 19, 14–17.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okorafor, N., Jordt, H., and Wenderoth, M. P., (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 111(23),8410-8415.

Hanus, M., & Fox, J. (2015). Assessing the effects of gamification in the classroom: A longitudinal study on intrinsic motivation, social comparison, satisfaction, effort, and academic performance. Computers & Education, 80152–161.

Machajewski, S. (2017). Application of Gamification in a College STEM Introductory Course: A Case Study.  Retrieved from

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.

Ruiz-Primo, M.A., Briggs, D., Iverson, H., Talbot, R., Shepard, L.A. (2011). Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science 331, 1269–1270.