"Play is the highest expression of human development in ch">

Games and gamification in history education


“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, because it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul.” – this is what the educationalist Friedrich Fröbel said about play. By weaving play into lessons, we can create better conditions for learning. Therefore, the use of games and gamification are among the most effective methods of activating students, and their use makes the educational process more interesting. 

What is the difference between gamification and the use of games? Gamification is a much broader process that involves using the action of role-playing and digital games in non-game situations to increase engagement and activity. This means that we translate some elements of games (e.g. scoring, rankings, badges, tasks) into a lesson situation. Using games, on the other hand, is a way of activation in which we use educational games to convey different educational content. The main difference between the two approaches is that in gamification we add game elements to existing lessons, while in game utilisation we base a lesson (or a sequence of lessons) on the games themselves.

Why use games and gamification?

In an analysis of the use of gamification in education, researchers argue that through the use of this process, students’ motivation increases, they achieve better learning outcomes, and their communication skills increase (Vrcelj et al. 2023). A study from 2021 confirms the positive impact of gamification in history lessons – students who learned using this process achieved significantly higher results than the control group (Martinez-Hita et al. 2021).

One of the common questions in education is how to get people interested in the classroom, how to engage them? Thanks to neurological research, we know that the brains of 4th graders can focus for a maximum of 45 minutes – as they get older, this time increases and in the oldest students it can be up to 60 minutes (Hryniewicz-Czarnecka 2023). So where does the problem lie? We are only able to stay focused for a long time when we are interested in an activity. Without stimulating pupils and students, there is no way they can stay focused during a 45-minute sitting in their desks. 

How to do it in practice?

By using gamification in lessons, we can not only improve young people’s performance, but also make them more engaged in class. History lessons are an ideal situation where the use of this process can prove itself. The very premise of history as a collection of interesting and imagination-boosting stories can help facilitators. Here are some elements to keep in mind when embarking on a gamification adventure.

1. Consider the scale

A good start is to gamify one lesson. The materials of the Digital Historytelling programme can help with this – the games created there can be used during whole lessons and can be used as a basis for the educational process. The game “Forbidden Words” is based on the game “Taboo”, and thanks to its rules, we can easily introduce young people to important historical figures. How can this game be adapted to the topic under discussion?

  • – Ask pupils to select a dozen characters related to the material you have discussed. 
  • – Have each and everyone write 3-4 words that they associate with the person (these will be words that cannot be used when guessing). 
  • – Once you have chosen people and words, write them down on a card – the person and up to 5 forbidden words.
  • – In this way, you can create a card with a character, e.g. Mieszko I, on which the forbidden words are: baptism, Dobrawa, Polanie, prince, Bolesław Chrobry. To prepare it, you can use the card template prepared in the Digital Historytelling programme.

Another way is to apply gamification throughout the school year. From the beginning, an appropriate narrative is introduced, rules for collecting points, conditions for passing are established. How to do this?

  • Narration: invite pupils to take on the role of explorers, discoverers, historians. Keep in mind how different stories are built – it is important to introduce the young people to the story at the beginning, develop it until you reach a twist, and then try to make the whole thing end with a moral.
  • Rules for collecting points: agree with the young people how many points can be obtained for taking part in the game. For example, pupils can earn 100 points – depending on the activity, they can get e.g. 20 points for a test, 10 points for an extra activity, 5 points for preparing questions, etc. Points can take different forms – they can be swords (discussing medieval topics) or Phrygian caps (topics from the French Revolution)
  • Passing conditions: indicate how many points correspond to which grade. Decompose the point values into a percentage distribution (e.g. a student gets 75% of the points, so gets a B grade).

2. Invite pupils to create content

Don’t be afraid to put young people in charge of game preparation. They are good at knowing what they find interesting, plus they learn by finding game materials. You can invite pupils and students to create a board game for a follow-up lesson:

  • – Before the lesson, ask the student teams to each prepare 10 questions that will come up during the game.
  • – Check the questions you receive. You can divide them into easy (1 point), medium (3 points) and difficult (5 points), open and closed questions on different categories.
  • – Create fields on the board for the pawns to move around. The fields can correspond to the type of question or subject area.
  • – Teams move around the board, e.g. using a dice, and answer a question as they enter a field. On entering a particular space, the team can decide the difficulty level of the question. 
  • – When the team does not know the answer, the question can go to another group.

3. Challenges get us into the game!

We like games because they challenge us. Try to ensure that the tasks you will be given to complete are not too easy, but that they are not an insurmountable barrier either. ‘Special cards’ that can change the trajectory of the game work well in games. Look for moments in the chapter and create questions that can serve as a “twist”, i.g. a sudden revolution, a putsch, a coup, a strike. This adds an extra emotional aspect. How can ‘special cards’ be used? Let’s take the example of the board game from the previous section. Suppose we are discussing the 19th century. 

    • Determine at what times you can get a special card, it could be:
      • · the moment all the fields are passed,
      • · answering three questions in a row correctly,
      • · correctly answering two questions from the opposing team,
      • · entry to the special field.
    • Determine what the storyline of the card will be and what it will cause:
      • · A sudden work stoppage! You are behind a strike by luddites who have trashed the workplace. Other teams are waiting in line.
      • · A miracle! New machines have arrived at your factory. You are getting extra traffic.
      • · One hour off! You have made 150% of the standard, so you get 2 extra points.
    • Determine when special cards can be used. Negative and positive special cards should appear when you enter a special field. In contrast, the special cards themselves should be a form of reward for an additional achievement. 

4. Set levels and criteria

Most computer games are based on the rule of collecting points and passing the next ‘level’ – this could be the next lesson or section. Consider what the minimum criteria for success are, i.e. what the learner has to do to move on. You can make the scoring dependent on the topic you are discussing. Going back to the board game idea for discussing the 19th century, e.g. 5 points correspond to one factory and you will then be able to use them for the next game (e.g. on migration from the countryside to the cities). Apart from this, you could consider ideas such as:

  • – Ranking list: you can provide students with a ranking of the points they receive. This increases competition, which can mobilise work.
  • – Badges: for achieving certain levels (e.g. receiving a certain number of points), students are awarded a work pioneer(s) badge, which allows them to receive, for example, an extra ‘unprepared for a lesson’.

5. Rewards must be rewarding 

Rewards should be fair – only the most active pupils cannot be scored – and partially deferred. To maintain tension and engagement, the game should have a more or less even distribution of where points can be obtained. This allows pupils to score at their own pace. For group work, you can divide the points obtained by the number of people in the group. This will help to bridge knowledge gaps between individuals. 

Gamification is an ever-evolving method. As an educational environment, we can look for and discover new solutions that will work in a changing world. Give yourself time to test the process, see what comes easily to you and what you need to work on. It is also important that you have fun doing it, because a good game is when it will be fun for everyone.


Author: Konrad Ryszard Wysocki – sociologist, spatial and anti-discrimination educator, doctoral student in sociology and linguistics at the Interdisciplinary Doctoral School at the Warsaw University, works with the School with Class Foundation and the Field of Dialogue Foundation. Professionally and spiritually connected to didactic methods and youth participation. 

This article was created as part of the Digital Historytelling programme run by the School with Class Foundation in collaboration with Asociación Smilemundo and the King Baudouin Foundation with funding from the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme.