Video game achievements can serve as a model for classroom motivation

Peer pressure.

The very phrase brings up specters of after-school specials: poor actors playing poor stereotypes, saying poor lines like, “C’mon, Billy. Everyone else smokes, so why don’t you?”

But, as yet another after-thought from Extra Credit’s “Gamifying Education” article, I’ve been wondering: can peer pressure be used positively in the classroom? Can we have an environment where students are more actively encouraging one another to do well?

Of course, the thought momentarily makes that specter even more terrifying: “C’mon, Billy. Everyone else has a 3.0 GPA, so why don’t you?”


It’s the pressure part I don’t like. The last thing a struggling student needs – in addition to pressures from family, the economy, or whathaveyou – is their peers bearing down on them as well.

But peer encouragement? That I like.

I can stand at the front of a classroom and talk until my face is blue about how I want my students to succeed, but I’m still the teacher. I’m still the one who can take their hard work and mark it down. To some students, that can make it seem like I want them to fail, no matter what I say.

Instead, if it’s fellow students encouraging them, that may be a voice they are more willing to listen to.

One of Extra Credits’ ideas is to import the idea of achievements from video games: achievements are small awards within a game, given for reaching in-game milestones, completing a challenge in a unusual way, for finishing a level extra quickly, and others things like that. These achievements can encourage the player to find new parts of the game, to play it in ways they didn’t think of before, and to accept greater challenges.

Extra Credits discussed bringing this idea to the classroom, but making it a bit more communal; instead of one person in the class doing something special and receiving an appropriate reward, the rewards are class-based and possibly class-earned. Maybe if one student aces an exam, everyone gets a bonus point (or several bonus points) on that exam as a reward; or if a sufficient percentage of the class gets a B or better on an assignment, then everyone gets to choose one problem on the next assignment to skip.

Holding both individual and group achievements could help several dynamics in the class. By giving everyone a benefit from the really good students, it could help break the stigma of “know-it-alls” and “curve-breakers.” Similarly, if everyone recieves benefit for the class as a whole doing well, then that could encourage students to work and study together more.

I could also see a strong benefit from having rolling achievements, where the reward is only given to those who do a certain task, but the reward grows as more do it. The go-getters may do the work initially for a small benefit, but the more that join in, the more the reward goes up, and the easier it is for those who haven’t yet completed the task to convince themselves it is worth their while.

This idea could be implemented a thousand different ways. There could be several achievements mentioned at the start of class to give students something to work towards, and new ones could be added mid-semester if the instructor wants to encourage certain practices more.

If achievements are used in the classroom, though, it’s important to remember the lessons that video game designers have already learned in designing achievements:

One, the achievements can’t be worth too much. If they are, then they become a necessary thing to do, not an optional thing, and that puts the pressure right back into play.

Two, achievements work best when they ask students to go one step beyond something we’re already doing. In part, this is to trick the mind. Expanding on something we’ve already done always feels more tractable than taking on something completely new.

Three, achievements should help students feel masterful. If they are too easy, they are meaningless: too difficult, and they merely serve to frustrate. Adding just the right level of challenge beyond the normal, encouraging students to look at the course material in new and interesting ways – that can lead a student not just to learning, but to attaining a feeling of accomplishment.

And if the achievements can be done just right, then you can have students encouraging one another to have a sense of accomplishment.

Now that’s the kind of peer pressure I can get behind.