Connecting dots for digital learning and teaching

Gamify Any Subject, Quickly, Cheaply and Easily, No Progamming Required

by Tom Benjamin, Sydney


While working in rehabilitation hospitals I developed general principles to transform tasks into games. Gamification can be applied to most educational topics and the format below has been tested for late primary through secondary. It was first trialled in the Australian Tournament of Minds  as The Lost City Challenge and the results presented to the Global Learn Asia Pacific 2011 conference where it was awarded as an ‘outstanding paper’

A quest at its most basic can just be a series of clues. The ‘hero’s journey’ then takes place on the Web and in the Library where the learner works out the clue sequence. They then perform a task that they bring home. It really is just the time-honored field trip excursion. For example in my own primary school we used to walk a few blocks around the town looking for (feathered) birds. When we got back  to class we would sketch them and share the drawings. Doing the same digitally is now called a quest. The logic can be applied to many topics:

  • Astronomy – clues about constellations such as their myth combine with sky coordinates (declination, right ascension, altitude, azimuth, clock time etc.), history and observation with naked eye, binocular, telescope leading to ‘discovery’ of some asterism not easily found on a map. Students can sketch the asterism as it appears visually and as it would be depicted on a standard star map. refer to movie tom
  • Music – clues such as crosswords about a famous song might include a list of the artists who’ve performed it, the subject matter, style of music, history of the song, related human interest about the author etc. lead to a particular song (preferably out of copyright). The next phase of the ‘hero’s journey’ is ‘the return’ in which the hero shows the find to others. This means performing a version of the song (particularly using my ‘instant-play method by which beginners can play guitar in minutes , recording the performance, and posting to a free server such as YouTube. I’ve put a demo of such a  game on my own blog It’s called The Great American Ballad. It consists of three video clues in decreasing order of difficulty.

This format can be scaled to any topic and size from a single classroom to an international competition because the ‘heavy lifting’ has been done by the generous hosts of web 2.0 such as Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia. The rest of my tools are

As a demo I picked a ‘Great American Ballad’ that USA teachers should find particularly easy. The very title implies that only the most famous songs would be used as examples in such a series.

The purpose of the exercize is to demonstrate the principles of gamification: transforming a task into a game. A game version differs because of the introduction of certain elements:

  • Task – the demo here is not ‘music’ but ‘gamification’. This game gives you ideas for games you can create for your own topics.
  • Levellers –  ‘levelling the playing field’ is commonly done through cards, dice, and competitions. The levellers in the demo are the versions of the songs which only professional music historians would likely have ever heard. Most would have to search the web. The game is further extended by having players produce their own versions of the song. My ‘instant play’ method levels the playing field. Use of game clues and video-making elements spreads the skills over ‘knowledge’, ‘research’ and ‘artistic’ realms.
  • Contaminants – aspects unrelated to the learning because they are the result of prior knowledge or skill. The contaminants in this example might be music history, musical training or even the size and shape of one’s hands as determining the ability to play instruments. The object is to neutralize these contaminants (such as with my ‘instant play’ method) so we focus on the lesson at hand which might be music, music history, general history, or multimedia production etc.
  • Competition – this can be direct as in other players or indirect such as in matching a record set by another player. Human, computer or abstract competitors can provide motivation and perspective. Research has shown that around 60% predictability of outcome is common to major sports.
  • Discovery – unpredictability can be achieved through structure of clues and/or use of randomisers such as cards, dice.
  • Restraint – mock ferocity is the key to animal games, as when a polar bear plays with a sled dog. Relabelling knowledge tests as ‘trivia’ and singing as ‘karaoke’ achieved similar outcomes as it lowers the high-stakes to make fun rather than competition the goal.
  • Reinforcement – research has shown that rewards and prizes are not linearly related to attitudes. Achievement and Cognitive Dissonance research showed complex relationships. Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards have differential effects.

To play through the Great American Ballad demo sequence

Follow the  sequence on the MovieStorm site as follows:

  • Clue 1a refers to this as being Game ‘1’ and the first clue as being ‘a’, hence ‘1a’
  • Clue 1b follows
  • then Clue 1c
  • and finally 1d is the ‘answer’ (the actual full song)

Playing through such a set of clues via search engines and/or library takes the student on a  ‘Hero’s Journey’:“ A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man ” (Campbell, 1949).

The Great American Ballad game uses a newsdesk to set the stage. The ‘trials’ then consist of the classroom tasks. The Internet is the “region of supernatural wonder” Class reports, discussions, and .mp3/video uploads bestow ‘the boon’.

A second demo game in this series using a different song has been posted as The Lost Composer on

for follow up and correspondence join my Community at

My sites are

movie tom

tv tom

radio tom


Benjamin, T. (2011). The ‘Lost City’: Development of a National-Level On-Line Mystery Game Using Freeware and Low Budget Technology. In S. Barton et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Global Learn Asia Pacific 2011 (pp. 1210-1216). AACE.

Benjamin, T. (2011a) What can you do with a spreadsheet?

Benjamin, T. (2011). Play Guitar in 10 Minutes: Development of an instant-learn online music education system. In Proceedings of Global TIME 2011 (pp. 272-276). AACE.

Benjamin, T. (2010c) A new ‘instant play’ approach to music learning. Music in Action, Summer. V.8, no 3. Australian Music Association. Melbourne.

Benjamin, T. (2010a)  eGames: Is imagination the forgotten ingredient? Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 26, Issue 3, May. pp 296-301

Benjamin, T. (1982). Cognitive Rehabilitation: an Overview. Paper presented at theAustralian Brain Impairment Association.

Benjamin, T. (1981a) Games:  Concepts. Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Brain Impairment,

Conference. Benjamin, T. (1981b). Rehabilitation. Paper presented at the Australian New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Adelaide.

Benjamin, T. (1981b). Games for the Severely Disabled: Concepts. Paper presented at theAustralian Brain Impairment Association.

Benjamin, T. (1980a) The Use of Games in Assessment,  Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Brain Impairment Conference.

Benjamin, T. (1980b). Use of Games in Assessment and Therapy. Paper presented at the Australian Brain Impairment Association.

Benjamin, T. (1980b). Games as Behavioural Measures. Proceedings of The Conference of the Australian Behaviour Modification Association,


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“Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” -------- Chinese Wisdom "Games are the most elevated form of investigation." -------- Albert Einstein
"I'm calling for investments in educational technology that will help create digital tutors that are as effective as personal tutors, educational software as compelling as the best video game," President Barack Obama said while touring a tech-focused Boston school (year 2011).
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