To Game Or Not To Game? Gamification in Learning.

Written by Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas edited from the original written with Fabricio Oliveira & Camilla Groth.  

In January I started a teaching course at Aalto which included how to activate students learning within a classroom. This blog posts navigates an introduction into active learning and basic gaming methods, then giving examples of storylines used within teaching to demonstrate gamification and storytelling in classrooms. Lastly a full (episode one style) storyline of Spartacus is included, which was taught to students within the course.

Want further links? You can also find out powerpoint presentation and links to other gamification methods at the bottom of this page.

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Active learning is student centred and promotes deep learning as the students actively take responsibility of their learning process. This can happen intuitively if the intrinsic motivation to learn something for the purpose of achieving something positive can be induced. Games offer such environments, thus in particular Dungeons and Dragons has been extensively used for educational purposes when encouraging students with low confidence and low study motivation.

When engaging learners in active participation and in team work around a common subject, the experience is shared and the learners create knowledge together. In ideal cases this speeds up the learning process as the group is “more than one” and mutual experiences can also be discussed and reflected on from more perspectives than one.

Roleplay includes active participation, collaboration and seeing things from a new perspective. It also challenges the static audio-visual and “PowerPoint centric” lecturing style so often ruling the university teaching. In role playing, you can include more physical and bodily learning elements and tasks, incorporating more experiential learning processes. Additionally, you can activate the learners’ intrinsic motivation by making the learner submerge into the world of the subject – in our case a distant historical setting that becomes a lived experience.


When using a game as the setting for learning activities, role playing is one key method. Here a game master (the teacher) presents the fictional setting, arbitrate results of character actions, and maintains the narrative flow. The participants will chose a role character from a set of options determined by the game master. This can include also customising the character and its properties such as skills, intentions or position in the game (for instance friend or enemy, historical character or someone in a particular physical or psychological state). The participants or players then assume the role of that character and start playing, acting and making decisions within the perspective of that character embracing the role formed.

As the game master leads the game and the situations that the characters encounter, the game is not entirely in the hands of the players but the storyline is pushing the events and players towards conducting “learning activities” that help the players achieve the intended learning outcomes.

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Setting the storyline is important as this is the driving force and environment of the whole learning situation, and thus is promotes the intrinsic motivation as well as secures the learning outcomes. Below are some storyline examples, which I have written, for different learning purposes. Each purpose has a different activity (here dice roll and correct questions) within different contexts (fantasy and math).

Dice Roll: Fantasy

You all wake up slowly shaking the hazy sleep from your eyes and look around you at the remaining metal of the ship torn apart, fragments of what was once your home lying – still warm from impact- at your feet. All of your teams’ clothes are drenched in mildew green sweat as the humidity from the jungle around you rises to seep into your skin. You hear someone coughing in the distance… This can’t be real is all you keep on thinking. This can’t be real. You check who is around you… *people all say who they are and what race & class*. You all stand up, wiping the green stuff from your slightly tattered body suits and you see a box in the corner glinting under the green jungle leaves its golden lock. Your team walks over and someone kicks it hard but it just won’t budge. Pick someone from your team to roll a dice, if you roll it above 5 then the box opens, if not, then the key you try to used gets jammed inside of the chest*.  For those who opened the box, as you look inside you find drinks which you all quickly slurp down *+1 strength*

Correct Questions: Math

As you stand before the towers of Yasha you look down to the ground and realise this may be the last step you will ever tread. Fearlessly your group look at each others eyes, not speaking a word. You all turn and begin to realise the task ahead. He must be stopped. The evil King has ruled long enough harrowing your lands further into the disappear whilst his wealth grows richer behind these steep walls. As you group stands in silence contemplating you feel the ground shake, softly at first and then harder and realise what is coming. The Pentagrams on horses are riding towards you over the mountain of Pythagoras screaming “All is number”, ready to quarter you as you stand. Quickly – to scale this wall you need to give the formula to work out one side of the triangle to figure out how high you have to climb. If you have spell book 39, you get to turn over Hint 2 to aid you on your quest. *insert 30 second timer*  

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The content of the above learning situation can differ and the roleplay settings can be more or less complicated. Thus, adjustment needs to be done depending on the required learning outcomes.

The idea here, is to teach history through a roleplay game that encourages group work and solving problems together in order to advance and learn more. There are elements of competition between the groups and they have to collect points (or they lose points) as they go through the learning “path”. The storyline  is based on historical facts as the base and the environment for the roleplay scenario. The students have to solve problems in order to advance their knowledge and to advance in the game. They are given a set amount of “lives” and they either gain or lose lives (hearts on their gaming paper which was given) and in the end the group with the most hearts win. Each problem solving task is naturally bound to the topic of historical facts but the tasks are different in nature so that the diversity of the group is utilised (everyone can participate, not just one leader).


We are in greece, the year is 73 BC you are an enslaved greek in the house of Pupus Piso in the center of the city.

The air is warm around you and dry as the earth. You slowly wake up opening your eyes to see the stone room and the cold earth pushed hard into your back. You sit and sigh taking a moment’s rest listening to the fishing nets being thrown into the water behind your house. Your master Pupus Piso is angry with you. This psychological warfare between master and slave reached its tipping point as he told you he had no time to talk to you anymore. You look through the door at the golden goblets of wine strewn on the floor from last night’s elegant dinner-party thrown by your master the senator. He told you he did not have time for your idle talk anymore and then sent you to check on Clodius who had yet to arrive. After several times of sending you to find this guest of honour he asked why Clodius has yet to come, to which you answered “he declined”. In despair and anger Piso asked you why you didn’t tell him earlier and you told him he never asked and he told you not to talk until spoken too. Now your fight against the inferior position has left a wrath on your back from the anger of Piso. You’ve been taking too much influence from the slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known as the servile wars. Maybe rebelling was not all that it was cracked up to be. You rub your back tenderly and try to remember what else Piso has been referring to the thirds servile war as.. he was always shouting about something between his glasses of wine and feasts filled of trapped beasts. 

Question: Quick you have 30 seconds to google what was the third servile war also known as? Report your number via the messenger with the yellow answer paper to the game master or perish a heart.

Ahhhh the Gladiator War and The War of Spartacus, you remember now. They were only a few hundred meters to the south when 70 of the enslaved gladiators escaped from the gladiator school in Capua. So far they have defeated every Roman force sent to recapture them. You doubt they will last much longer once the Roman Senate (your master included) grow more alarmed. They consider this more of a policing matter than war as slaves are considered natural and necessary. You walk towards the main room picking up golden goblet as you go, feeling the warm breeze from the north run through your undergarment chiton and your himation cloak. You see the barley risen sun and gather some gold coins from your supply to walk into the city centre to pick up more barley bread to dip in wine to make a breakfast of Akratisma, before attending to your chores. Maybe you will even get some figs or olives to try and please your master.

As you enter the Agora, the Greek marketplace, you hear the bustling of the stalls around you selling their goods. Someone to the right of you is shouting political agendas about the new Senate politics wanting a stronger army against Spartacus. You snigger as they mention military terms applied to slaves. A slave as a leader? Who heard of such controversy and hierarchical military leadership amongst slaves. You buy a loaf of bread after haggling for a lower price and begin to head back before you overhear someone dropping your master’s name on the other side of the stall. You lean closer to listen in.

“… He is not a good slave. He should have just cut him where he stands”

“Ahh!! Now now Aesop, you know he can make some gold from him. He is disobedient but that can all be beating out”

“You mean will be beaten out, I saw Piso warming the fire before – for a branding show!!”

You freeze and drop the bread, rushing to pick it up from the dusty floor before composing yourself and walking towards the nearest alleyway. Maybe Spartacus has it right, you angrily think clenching the bread so hard you feel its thick crust crack under your fingernails. You heard whispers they are up towards the capua volcano hiding between the herdsmen and shepherds of the region. Without thinking you walk towards the volcano.

As you enter the rebel slave camp in Mount Vesuvius, you can see the thin but resilient faces of the slaves. It looks like stubbornness has worn thicker than the roman starvation had planned. Some slave from the house of Clinias just told you that they had defeated a second expedition, almost capturing the praetor commander, killing his lieutenant and seizing the military equipment which would explain the shiny new metal shields that glinted from the bottom of the volcano like warning signs to the roman empire. It appears more slaves have flocked to the Spartan forces as well as you..  you squint your eyes into the distance to estimate the approximate number of slaves around you

Question: Quick, write a number on the back of your heart paper estimating the number of slaves in Spartacus ranks after the second expedition. You have 30 seconds to write and hold up your paper.

Answer: If you guessed between 60-80,000 then you are close, get one heart. If you guessed outside of this, perish a heart.

You estimated 70,000 – Ares does seem to favour these rebels showing Sparatucs as an excellent tactician. All around you men are training echoing out the gladiator show style of military practice. You hear whispers of further raids in Nola, Nuceria, Thurri and Metapontum. 

Two years later your marching with the Spartacus branch leaving your winter encampment to move northwards. The Roman Senate is alarmed at your troops defeating the praetorian forces and words is spreading that they have dispatched a pair of consular legions under the command of Lucius Gellius Publicola and Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus to slaughter you all. Sparticus ordered the rebelen to split into two; half to his man at hand Crixus. So far Crixus,which formed an troop of 30,000 has been defeated near Mount Garganus but now it is Spartacus groups turn. It’s time for your turn. You think to yourself this is everything that you have been fighting for, for the freedom of yourself, for the freedom of others, and the freedom of the future slaves to come. You lay down your circular shield and slide on your breast plate on, clipping it swiftly at the side to protect your heart. You can’t stop hearing your heart beating beating deep within your ears. You reach down to the rich volcanus ground for your….

Question: Pick one member of your group to turn over the piece of paper and charades style, which is where one person acts out whilst the others guess, re-enact the weapon that the greek warriors used.. you have 30 seconds and you must not speak until you have guessed. If you do not guess within this time you lose a heart. If you have no hearts left your team is dead.

Answer: Spear

The sharp ion head of the spear glints in the sunshine as the wooden shaft lays softly on your palm.

Will the Spartan army defeat the Senate republic? What will become of Spartacus and of the slaves that joined him? When will the rebellion zeise and slavery end in the greek era?

Join us next time to find out.

Whilst the students enjoyed this class, they did comment that the storyline could have been more complexed and they felt a bit rushed. Ideally, these gamification scenarios would be done over longer period and within the course learning outcomes.

Have you used gamification in the classroom? Have some feedback on the methods we used? I would love to hear from you comment or get in touch!


Some websites on active learning and gamification in education:

The BEER game.

For learning about Logistics. The purpose of the game is to coordinate and cooperate retailers and producers to supply for a demand.

What is Dungeon and Dragons:

Dungeons and Dragons for education:

Fantasy-based learning and gamification for maths

Paper about active learning:

Our PowerPoint Presentation

Role-playing in teaching Presentation

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