Explore how a gamification for learning experience in one online course fostered empathy and communication skills.

I’m not a gamer, but I have always been curious and intrigued by the possibilities of gamification for learning or games-based learning. In this blog, I share what a gamification for learning experience taught me about the power of meaningful, active learning as a way to foster critical competencies valuable to our learners.

What is Gamification for Learning?

Gamification is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. In simple terms, gamification is making something game-like. Gamification storytelling, specifically, engages users through a compelling storyline and immerses them in a journey, bridging knowledge with real-world applications and facilitates learning by “doing.” Examples of gamified learning include edX’s Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans: Exploring Humanity Through Literature and My Grandmother’s Lingo, a multiple award-winning storytelling experience. But is gamification effective for learning? Recent research points to evidence that gamification does benefit learning. 

A Gamification for Learning Example

When a Ball State University professor shared with me his own storytelling gamification activity, I jumped at the opportunity to test it. The web-based experience he created guides users through a “Choose Your Own Adventure™” story (designers will recognize this as “branching scenarios”). Users navigate real-world scenarios that trans and non-cisgender individuals often experience when traveling and visiting family. The below image is screen-capture from the activity, which prompts users to select one of three options. Students continue their journey depending on the options they choose.

Screenshot from gender identity gamification activity. Image features the text "You arrive at the airport. Your passport has the gender marker F. The TSA agenct looks at you, looks at your passport, you, passport, you. You get through security and you have to pee. The TSA agent that looked at your passport is heading to the same bathrooms as you. You always use the men's bathroom. Which one do you pick?" As a response, the options are the person in a dress symbol, the person in pants symbol, and "Avoid using the bathroom."

Examining gender identities is an integral topic for any introduction to gender studies course, which is the area I teach in. Typically, students in my course complete learning activities such as reading scholarship and personal essays by trans authors. While reading and discussing first-person essays or watching videos can be an impactful way to understand key course content, these learning activities alone are not quite as powerful as actively immersing oneself in someone else’s proverbial shoes through a gamification experience. I decided to introduce my own students to the storytelling gamification activity described above.

Building Key Skills 

Students in my introduction to women’s and gender studies course found the interactive experience eye-opening. For at least one student, this activity challenged her assumptions about what it means to navigate the world as a trans person. Others noted that the experience fostered empathy. 

Students also noted a valuable takeaway from the course overall was developing the skills to communicate about others’ experiences. Practicing key terms and concepts is one important step in developing the skills needed to communicate confidently with others, but interactive activities such as gamification for learning can aid students in understanding and articulating experiences different from their own.


This experience taught me that gamification for learning has powerful implications for fostering empathy and building communication skills. I’m excited to investigate technologies to actively engage students in future online courses. Have you explored or developed gamification for learning activities for your course? We’d love to hear more in the comments.


Caldwell, Leo. “More Than a Pee.” Leo Caldwell. March 2, 2017. http://www.leocaldwell.com/pee-interactive-trans-experience/

Deterding et al. “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining Gamification.” MindTrek ’11: Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments (September): 9–15. https://doi.org/10.1145/2181037.2181040

edX. “Fantastic Places, Unhuman Humans: Exploring Humanity Through Literature. Accessed May 11, 2023. https://www.edx.org/course/fantastic-places-unhuman-humans-exploring-humanity?index=product&queryID=24f2b2c504bdc8cbd7881a1361318724&position=1&v=2&linked_from=autocomplete&c=autocomplete

Joshua, Angelina. “My Grandmother’s Lingo.” Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). Accessed April 1, 2023. https://www.sbs.com.au/mygrandmotherslingo/

Sailer, Michael, and Lisa Homner. “The gamification of learning: A meta-analysis.” Educational Psychology Review, 32, no 1. (2020): 77-112. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09498-w

Sun, Bowen. “Gamification Storytelling: what and how?” Medium. April 12, 2023. https://medium.com/dislab/gamified-storytelling-what-and-how-through-a-case-study-of-inside-the-haiti-earthquake-project-722e879f1298

  • Cheri Madewell

    Cheri is the director of instructional consultation on the Teaching Innovation Team. Prior to joining the Division of Online and Strategic Learning, she was a faculty member for the Ball State Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Cheri’s background is in instructional design and technologies and leading international gender and LGBTQ grant projects.