Games in the Classroom. What games?

Not all students are competitive, which raises the question of what motivates children to play video games

Do you remember those old pictures of the evolution of humans and the parodies of them with the line ending with us hunched over at a computer? Some might say that the computer could be replaced with a smartphone or a tablet. People of all ages are buried deep into their mobile devices. It’s a big problem at schools as well, but some teachers are turning our urges to look at devices into educational opportunities.

One of the big draws for children to these devices is games. That’s why gamification is getting so much attention. Gamification is using the systems of games as a wrapper around tasks. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you have a set of math problems you want the children to master. If you were to assign each correct answer a point and then set up a leaderboard of all the students that updated in real time, that would be an example of gamification. Students with a competitive streak would want to climb the ladder, and do more problems to get ahead. 

But not all students are competitive, which raises the question of what motivates children to play video games. Games researcher Richard Bartle came up with a taxonomy of player types that we think would be very useful to help teachers create gamified lessons that resonate with students.

The taxonomy relies on two axes. On the X axis, you have the motivation of the player. On the left end, the player just wants to interact with other players. On the right end, the player cares only about the game world they are playing in. On the Y axis, you have the mode of action. At the top, the player wants to do all of the action themselves. At the bottom, the player wants to interact with others to achieve the game goals.

Put it together and you get four broad types of players:

  • Killers: Those who want to act against the other players
  • Socialisers: Those who want to interact with the other players
  • Achievers: Those who want to act to gain status within the context of the game world
  • Explorers: Those who gain enjoyment from interacting with the world.

Most players aren’t solely in one category, but most have a definite lean toward one or two of these motivations. Based on Bartle’s work, a test called the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology was developed to help people learn their own motivations.

It also explains why a lot of school games don’t appeal to some children. Most school games appeal to the Achiever mindset. Achiever games focus on gaining points, levels, or other measurements within a game. Our grading system is rooted in this mindset.

Schools are also pretty good at Socialiser-type games, especially for the younger ages. Games that push cooperation or group work fall into this category. The game is more of an excuse to socialise with other  people. Since this is an important skill for young children, these games are often encouraged.

If we take, for example, a game of math bingo, you can see how the game can fit into both categories. The achievers will be working hard to solve the math problems as fast as possible, but the game is light enough and social enough that the socialisers can enjoy it as well. 

But the other two categories are trickier in the school setting. Killers, as their name suggests, enjoy playing games because they can defeat other players. This urge is often channeled constructively through sport, but it can just as easily be done through ruining the game for other people by preventing them from getting ahead. Killers aren’t necessarily anti-social; they just thrive on competition. In the leaderboard example from earlier, the goal for the Killer isn’t to get the most points. It would be to beat all the other students. The points are just the method to get there. 

Explorers are probably the toughest to cater to. Creating games with enough long-term depth or with enough flexibility to let the child create their own goals is a challenge. In fact, they may even set a goal for themselves you don’t even intend! Explorers want to move at their own pace and don’t particularly like to be rushed. But there is a hidden key to explorers. They love to teach what they’ve learned in their explorations to other people. Thus, a good explorer is often an excellent tutor.

Try administering the test to your students. The answers will give you valuable data about the psychological motivations of your group and will help guide your gamification strategy. The test can be found at several locations on the web, one of which is at

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