Swords and sorcery: a structural gamification framework for higher education using role-playing game elements

Konstantinos Ntokos*

Senior Lecturer in Computer Games Development, Solent University, East Park Terrace, Southampton, Hampshire, UKSO14 0YN

(Received: 15 May 2019; Revised: 2 August 2019; Accepted: 11 September 2019; Published: 3 October 2019)


Students attend the first sessions of your units and then disappear, some of them forever, and some of them have no clue what is going on or they work for other units’ assessments. When it comes to providing them with formative assessment, it is not always well received as it is perceived as extra work. The purpose of this article is to define a gamification framework based on structural gamification that focuses on that weak part of your cohorts that do not engage as much, and it does that in a great way, as it embeds video game rules and role-playing into the curriculum. This is achieved through implementing game elements to the entire second-year cohort (N = 34) of computer game development students, in the unit ‘Engineering Software Systems’. The goal is to motivate and engage the at-risk students of the cohort with lower activity, attendance and involvement in the unit.

Keywords: action-research; motivation; player archetypes; SDT; RPG; Structural; Gamification; Role-Playing; Higher Education; HE; Player

*Corresponding author. Email: kdokos@hotmail.com

Research in Learning Technology 2019. © 2019 K. Ntokos. Research in Learning Technology is the journal of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), a UK-based professional and scholarly society and membership organisation. ALT is registered charity number 1063519. http://www.alt.ac.uk/. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), allowing third parties to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially, provided the original work is properly cited and states its license.

Citation: Research in Learning Technology 2019, 27: 2272 - http://dx.doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v27.2272


Academics in higher education (HE) seem to find challenge in maintaining the high motivational levels of their students during their teaching from the first to the last session. Sometimes, students seem to only care about their studies if it influences their final mark and, as a result, they are not participating in formative assessment activities or they are shifting their attention to units that have a submission deadline approaching at the expense of other units. Reigniting the spark of interest for those students can indeed be troublesome, but it is possible with the value that gamification techniques bring on the table. Imagine a world where students take part, engage, collaborate and are not lifeless puppets giving you the blank stare.

The sole aim of this article is the design and steady integration of a gamification framework focused around HE through an action-research project. For the purposes of this article, the framework will only address structural gamification and techniques/elements that were used within a unit for an entire semester (Kapp 2012). Studying the effects of structural and content gamification will lead to some good practices that will plan a more effective framework. Content gamification is the second phase of this study; yet, this is not within the scope of this article.

However, it is worth mentioning that gamification is not the ultimate cure for non-motivating students. The idea is not to completely engage the whole cohort in a ground-breaking way, but rather to target that part of the cohort that does not seem to be motivated. Partial success is still success. We do not guarantee that every student in every cohort will enjoy gamification, but that is something academics do not have control over.



Gamification is an emerging technique, with which we can fuel the motivation and engagement of those involved with it, be it students in a learning scenario, employees in an enterprise scenario (El-Telbany and Elragal 2017) or plain consumers in a marketing scenario, in which the advert becomes a treasure hunt (advergame) (Straub 2018). This is achieved by ‘gamifying’ specific streamlined processes/workflows, such as learning activities and lesson-planning (in learning scenarios) or other work-/duty-related activities in the enterprise scenario through the usage of game elements/mechanics which originate directly from game design used in video games. In short, we can say that something is gamified when gaming rules are applied to non-gaming scenarios or contexts (Deterding et al. 2011).

These activities manage to turn something otherwise dull to its creative/vibrant counterpart, giving more meaning and joy to those who are directly affected by it. Examples of gamification systems include but are not limited to the following (Jackson 2016):

Gamification, on its own, comes in two types: Structural and Content gamification (Kapp 2013). The former tackles structure in varied scopes of education: from lesson and unit plans to course structures without altering the learning content. The latter gamifies the content used in the teaching scenario, be it a 5-min think-pair-share activity, micro-lecture or an assessment activity by adding the elements of challenge, story, choice and reward.

To provide context, many academics have implemented structural gamification in the past using the typical PBL triad (points, badges, leader boards). Firstly, Lee Sheldon, a pioneer in gamification, has turned his classroom into a role-playing game (RPG) using a similar system with experience points (XPs) and rewards, without the element of combat, but still paved the way for use of RPG elements within the classroom (Sheldon 2011). De Byl has gamified the classroom using JustJeopardy: a gamified version of the Jeopardy TV show adjusted for class use which used typical structural gamification (de Byl 2012). O’Donovan has implemented an online learning platform that awards XPs, used on the leader board and dressed up in a unique steampunk theme (O'Donovan, Gain, and Marais, 2013). He additionally offered optional challenges and badges. Caton and Greenhill have designed a structural gamification framework that is used around positive and negative reinforcement, thus awarding or punishing students during group work (Caton and Greenhill 2013). Other cases of gamification using an XP system has been used by Barata et al. who has used leader boards and increasing levels to motivate students with the interesting addition of a public leader board visible throughout campus (Barata et al. 2013). Sticking true to the PBL, we can also encounter cases such as the studies of using badges on online learning environments (Hakulinen, Auvinen, and Korhonen 2015), the use of visual and thematic narratives to transform the class into an adventure (Leong and Yanjie 2011) and other complex systems have also emerged which are drawing from a pool of RPG terminologies such as characters, guilds, quests and raids, all linked to the quality of delivered work (Topirceanu 2017).

Like the mentioned studies above, we want to conduct an experiment involving RPG mechanics drawn from gaming contexts, which will be very familiar to our game development students. But the focus is on the structure with no alteration to content. As such, some of the suggested activities will not be linked with learning outcomes but will be linked with increasing metrics such as satisfaction, attendance and engagement.

Role-playing games

Role-playing games is a game genre in which the players control a single character (who has specific skills, personality, combat style, etc.) and must become one with it, and act as if they were that persona through the game’s environment. This idea originates from tabletop RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons, also known as D&D (Gygax and Arneson 1974), which influenced every video game under the RPG genre. With D&D and alike games, the gameplay is focused on story and character progression, as ideally, we become someone else and role-play his choices in his life, based on some given elements of the story, and shape the story based on these choices, which become critical if not meaningful, which is also the most challenging aspect of these games. For example, a player is controlling an evil warlock who tries to use magic to summon beasts to help him destroy a small village. That player must act exactly as how that character would act in that imaginary story.

Another important feature is combat and character progression. When a character defeats a hostile entity through combat or diplomacy and/or quests, that character receives XPs. If enough XP accumulates, then the character levels up, and his statistics improve. Statistics are important for RPGs since they determine how strong, quick, smart or charismatic a character is, and, in turn, they influence a huge array of combat abilities (weapons and spellcraft) and story-related abilities (hiding, convincing, gaggling and networking).


Motivation plays a critical part in this action research project as this is the main student attribute we are aiming to reinforce, as if a student is motivated enough, then engagement will follow, confidence and skillset will improve and besides keeping the students happy and passionate with what they do, this increases their chances in getting their dream job as well as raise the satisfaction score of the university.

To create a gamification system that is effective, it must focus on both aspects of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic is achieved when a student completes a task because it is either increasing his mark or avoiding it to be decreased. Intrinsic is achieved when the student himself realises that he has complete power over his knowledge and the ability to get the dream job, and that is his driving force rather than a visible reward or threat (Cherry 2018). In our case, extrinsic motivation is completed through rewards and the XP system (from the positive perspective) and leader boards (from both perspectives – students like being on top, but hate being on the bottom). Intrinsic motivation is achieved through the autonomy of selecting a specific character class and participating in class battles. To have more chances of winning the battle, you have to be in class. This has shown improvement in attendance and engagement, which, in turn, has improved the intrinsic motivation.

The underlying theory behind this is the theory of Self-Determination (Ryan and Deci 2000; Deci et al. 1991). Based on the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), intrinsic motivation is the catalyst for complete motivation, since the internal needs rest at the core and that can then be externalised with extrinsic motivation. The three basic ‘internal’ needs are the following:

Player archetypes

One last part of this theory is the breakdown of player archetypes, which comes from Bartle’s Player Taxonomy (Bartle 1996). According to it, a player can fit in a specific category, based on which elements of a game appeal to his play style. There are four categories and they derive from the degree of action or interaction the players have on the game environment or the other players:

Research rationale and consulting

There are three key issues that make a gamified class very attractive to potential learning and teaching scenarios for various academics. This came from personal observations and experiences over 4 years of teaching in higher education.

Student attendance issues

Students are generally most active at the start of a unit and less active towards the end of the unit as well as a couple of days before a deadline. This has two negative impacts:

  1. Students are missing out on important topics that may be placed towards the end of the unit. This is compromising their knowledge and their success rate for this unit.
  2. During times where another assignment is due, students may have decreased attention span, which is shifted towards working on their assignment rather than the session at hand.

Participation in formative assessments

Students generally believe that ‘If I am not getting marked for that, I will not do it, this is extra work’. That is completely valid, but that on its own has a couple of negative impacts:

  1. Pose a great issue with all academics who want to avoid the danger of a single big summative assessment. From one side, formative assessments prove to be a great asset for student learning experience and improvement, and from the other side though, students are not doing them disregarding the academic’s extra effort to plan and integrate these in the classroom (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006).
  2. Students are not receiving enough feedback from the formative participation since they do not generally take part unless it becomes mandatory, and this clearly has an impact on the outcome of the unit for them (Black and Wiliam 1998).
  3. Students are genuinely interested in getting more marks and avoiding losing marks, and since formatives do not influence that directly, students lose interest and stay in a ‘relaxed’ mode throughout the unit, starting to work within a very limited and time-restricted time frame before the deadline (Wiliam et al. 2004).
  4. This is having a critical negative impact on not only the students’ performance and achievement, but also on their confidence, and the worst is that they do not even realise that until they are very late into the semester or when they start working on their submissions (Postlewaite and Compte 2002). Teaching time should be spent more to tinker with topics and answer pre-prepared questions to improve your learning.

The application of gamification techniques within the learning context is one of the ways to battle the three issues mentioned above and as mentioned before, even partial success and steady or partial conversion from an uninterested student to a motivated student within a specific part of a cohort will be considered a success.


The information required to green-light this research was supported by students and colleagues alike:

The components of the framework

The framework itself consists of four main components.

XP system

The XP System ensures that students get awarded with XP based on their contribution inside and outside of class. Everything they do or say, how well they work together, or the quality and speed of their submissions is all converted to XP and awarded to them. As students accumulate more and more XP, the academics total these and form the class-wide leader boards. The leader boards themselves provide rankings for all students, and the element of competition, which is targeted towards the achiever and killer player archetype. A sample of the used XP system is presented below (Table 1).

Table 1. Sample experience point system.
Action Result
Attend class +5 XP
Original post in guild treasury (forums) +2 XP per post
Unit feedback/NSS completed +45 XP
Formative quest completed +100 XP
Your game project published +300 XP
Optional quest completed + Varied XP

RPG class

Each student can choose one of the four available RPG classes and use its abilities throughout the course. The classes influence the class and group dynamics, so the students must make wise choices, be diverse and use the class synergy to get the most out of it! This applies to socialisers and explorers. In the case of our study, we have utilised the following four classes: warriors, mages, rogues and priests.


Further to choosing their own class, students are called to use their class abilities in combat scenarios among themselves, which is a very engaging experience as they step out of class rules and follow the RPG combat rule set online. If a group is missing a critical class role such as their priest or warrior, then their team will not have many chances against well-rounded teams which are using their team synergy to overcome the fight. This promotes attendance and engagement and appeals to socialisers and killers. As this was found to be the most engaging aspect of the framework, we will explain the setup further. An important note before the explanation is that this is part of structural gamification and as such has nothing to do with the session content. It is a means of having meaningful uses of the four-character classes. It is also important to note that if the technique is used, it has to be consistent throughout the module. Having said that, the ‘rules’ of the encounters are the following:

Reward system

For the students who want to reach the highest levels in the class, there is the reward system which comes into play when they level up by accumulating enough XP (Table 2).

Table 2. Sample reward system.
Level Award XP to level Accumulated XP
1 Class Feature I 5 0
2 Access to Guild Treasury (Forum) 7 5
3 Class Feature II 10 12
4 Health Up 15 22
5 Class Feature III 22 37
6 Class Feature IV 25 59

Common rewards are further increasing in their class abilities and extra health points. Furthermore, achievements are extra rewards that grant more XP but the requirement to unlock them is hidden to all students. This promotes students trying different things in class to earn the achievements, if they know they exist. This applies to explorers and achievers and some examples can be seen below (Table 3).

Table 3. Sample achievements.
Achievement Description Scope XP Condition
I was there You actually were there and lived to tell the tale. Solo 20 Be part of 100% attendance in guild after week 6
Chrono-Breaker You were there when no one said you would be. Solo 10 Managed to come in class late at least eight times with a 100% attendance rate after week 8.
The Flash So fast that eyes cannot see you. Group 20 Delivered weekly assignment first for four times.
Submission Gold You should proudly carry the title of submission one master. Group 60 Best assignment mark


This project was implemented with the action-research methodology and could only be completed within a single cycle. For the Planning phase, we talked with people directly and indirectly involved with this and got feedback and ideas on improving classroom engagement. We also studied gamification software that already exists and gamifies classrooms, such as Classcraft (Young, Young, and Young 2013) and noted what types of mechanics and techniques they use to achieve that. Afterwards, we designed our gamification framework which also considered that this is specifically targeted for higher education, meaning that there would be no cartoonish or children-friendly themes, but it would be targeted towards a more mature audience within the context of a university unit.

With the framework complete, it was time to test it. That is what happens during the Acting phase. At the beginning, students were assigned a team, and they got to select a class from a set of pre-defined classes of warrior, mage, rogue or priest. Depending on the class they selected, they had different abilities to use in-class for the mechanic of team fights, a core RPG feature. Everything they do now becomes XP. Answering/asking questions, attending lectures/practical sessions, submitting weekly deliverables and getting a good mark on the formative assessments all award XP. The leader boards are updated on a weekly basis after all sessions are over, and possible level ups occur then. This is the most troublesome part for some academics because it currently requires a lot of time to facilitate/monitor on top of everything else they already do (teaching/marking/supervising/research). From this phase, we have clearly seen the need of developing a tool that implements this framework in a way that saves time.

Following up, we have the Observing phase, which shows if the framework was an improvement even partially for the given cohorts by collecting and analysing the data. The analysis is based on attendance, activity levels on the forum, percentage of submissions for the formatives and marking average (quantitative data). We are comparing that data with older years and cohorts doing that unit, but we are fully aware that data from previous years may have a different skillset diversity in their cohorts, a different lecturer, different assessment so that those records solely cannot prove whether the framework can indeed prove fruitful, yet indications at this early stage show that there is effectiveness.

Finally, we have the Reflecting phase, in which the students are providing feedback for the framework, its various aspects and what they thought of each component and whether they believe that this has improved their effort and enjoyment of their learning experience. This is done through qualitative/quantitative data acquisition with a questionnaire embedded on Moodle. During this phase, we attempt to identify the components that had the most and less impact, so we know which we can freely use for more units and which require further testing, adjustments and calibration to possibly achieve optimal results. The most critical part of the reflecting phase seamlessly sets the ground for the next cycle in action research.

Results analysis

Cohort information

The tested cohort comprised a sample of 34 students. Only one of them was a female and 33 were males. All students were studying in SWD505: Engineering Software Systems, a module that is part of the bigger computer games course. Fourteen came from the computer games (Indie) course, while 20 came from the computer games (Software Development) course. SWD505 is a shared module between the two courses. All students were avid gamers, and all were already exposed to gaming terminology as they all either play, watch or stream video games online.

Results analysis

Our results came from two sources:

Noteworthy results from the academic’s perspective:

Fig 1
Figure 1. Survey results for ‘The Gamification system has improved my attendance, confidence and engagement in class’.

Fig 2
Figure 2. Survey results for ‘The most engaging component’.

Fig 3
Figure 3. Survey results for ‘The least engaging component’.

Fig 4
Figure 4. Survey results for ‘Does Gamification Help improve the learning experience overall?’.

Qualitative results

What would you change in the framework for next year, knowing that the goal is to increase participation in formatives, and get higher attendance in class?

We received some positive and constructive comments from students who really liked the system:

Some students were neutral about it as the system was experimental at this early stage:

Of course, some students provided critical feedback, indicating that this is not something every student would enjoy:

Discussion and implications

The results were very positive, and the students seemed to be very happy with how this unit turned out to be. This is similar to other case studies that have used gamification elements, where the results were positive (Caton and Greenhill 2013; Hakulinen, Auvinen, and Korhonen 2015; O'Donovan, Gain, and Marais, 2013; Topirceanu 2017). However, this was not smooth sailing from the start. Looking back at how the unit, classroom activities and gamification structure were implemented, we have identified four main challenges that may make gamification less likely to be picked up as a technique.

Any type of gamification intervention adds a lot to the academic’s workload. This means that when we design our class schedules, plan out weekly activities and topics, write an assessment brief and lay out the assessment rubrics to our students, we are halfway done. We now need a way to incorporate all of them in class to retain our students and not just provoke enthusiasm only for the first few weeks. As such, this method is not recommended to use in more than one or two at most units per year.

Structural gamification or any XP-related gamification technique requires extra admin in-between teaching weeks. This is a quite determining factor on whether one can use structural gamification. With structural, you attempt to change the course or a unit’s main structure. As such, you are tinkering with how things are running for your units. Keeping track of a class-wide leader board for the individuals, knowing exactly which student is at exactly which level with exactly how many XPs ought to drain a lot of time in-between the sessions.

Leader boards are demotivating if everyone is on them. That is a big mistake from our end. The ‘year-wide’ leader board we set up had every single student on it and not by an alias, but by the student name. While the ones on the top had heaps of fun, the ones at the bottom seemed to be out-of-sync. Unfortunately, the ones in the bottom turned out to be the ones we wanted to improve, and the leader boards did not help. So, if we are to do leader boards again in the future, every five or six students should be put in different leader boards, and furthermore, every student should have an alias, to avoid creating a negative environment in class. This has the potential of even reversing the outcome we want to achieve.

There needs to be a line between gamifying a class and playing a game. Students can often misinterpret gamification as turning the class into a game. While this may be partially correct, the end goal is always to maximise learning, achievement and involvement, not to play a game. The result of gamification is a channel that accelerates learning, and the more engaging a gamified intervention is, the higher the risks of it to be interpreted as a game which compromises the learning outcomes in favour of a fun experience.

While we had identified a few challenges, we also discovered that while doing in-class RPG fights, all students would be fully engaged, including the weaker students. These students usually do not seem to engage as they fear failing a unit due to lack of faith in their skills or exposing their lack of knowledge to their peers. This results in procrastination, less attendance, less effort and less achievement. Such fears keep them away from engaging, and this is exactly what was reported by them on several one-to-one interventions. The RPG fights mechanic though had them be part of the team and engage in a more meaningful way. This small ‘push’ was more than enough to keep most of them coming back and attending more sessions than ever before, primarily because of gamification and over time because they wanted to achieve. As such, while looking at the attendance metric of the weaker students against the same students of last year, we can establish that students of this year were about 49% more engaged (2017 = 16% attendance, 2018 = 65%). However, as mentioned before, this is not a definite metric as cohort skill levels, unit topics or lecturers are never the exact same, so this dynamic changes year to year. Even this small amount of participation seemed to be enough to engage these students a bit more with software engineering.

Additionally, this method is best suited for classes with small to moderate number of students, that is, 16–32, since each RPG fight would take approximately 4–8 min to resolve and this is multiplied by the number of teams. The real feasibility behind using this framework relies on two factors:

Gamification has the potential to increase effort from students who are willing to participate in the experience and enjoy learning that way. We should always remember that it is not universally accepted by all students, and therefore, it would be nice to consider making it an optional part of the class. But based on factors such as at-risk students, sometimes it may be something worth trying in higher education. Following up this case study, there are plans of integrating content-wise gamification mechanics on the same unit running the year 2019, without structural metrics (such as XP, leader boards or badges). Information regarding this case study may be published in a future article.

Future plans

As found out during the action-research phases of the framework, it would help to reduce the time an academic is required to facilitate the framework and this would require a tool that simplifies the weekly calculation XP gains for every individual at the end of every week.

Furthermore, it would require more cycles to refine the framework and remove the components that do not resonate with students or reinforce/modify existing ones.

Finally, since this project tackled only structural gamification, it would make sense to design and implement a content counterpart that addresses learning activities and not unit/course structures.


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