How Learning Is/Is Not Like the Zombiepocalypse

Gamification, the blending of game mechanics into non-game spaces, has both evangelical supporters (primarily from the worlds of business and K-12 education) and voracious detractors (often those who make and study games). Thus, rather than respond to this question, I will narrow my response slightly, and consider how gamification can increase engagement.

As an example of gamification, I present an app called Zombies, Run! Zombies, Run! is a training program which provides several different workout types, including a beginning runner’s plan and a more advanced interval program. In many ways the basics of the app are similar to other running programs and podcasts- simply put on headphones and begin; the app will signal when to speed up or slow down. However, unlike other running programs,  Zombies, Run! casts the runner as a player in a game about a zombie apocalypse. The “game” is played entirely through audio cues the app gives the runner during a workout. Runners are given a basic backstory, involving town of survivors whicht is barely hanging on in terms of supplies and defenses. Instead of completing workouts they complete “missions”. Each mission asks runners to explore the dangerous, zombie-infested world and gather supplies to help their struggling town. At various points during missions, zombies will close in on runners, encouraging them to run faster for their own survival.

Zombies, Run! demonstrates some basic principles of a positive gamified environment. First, the game takes a role which might otherwise be challenging or uncomfortable (new runner) and transforms it in a way which appeals to an individual’s sense of achievement. While the measurable benefits of beginning a running program may take weeks or months to become evident to a new runner, playing the role of hero in this narrative of survival rewards players each and every time they complete a workout/mission.  The app also uses the game mechanics of missions and chases to introduce an element of spontaneity and excitement. Each workout, while ostensibly being similar to the last, is a new experience as runners hear about the status of their fictional communities, search for new items, and evade the ever-present zombie horde.

In this case, the Zombies Run! app is able to increase engagement with a challenging task by providing additional levels of motivation, scaffolding difficult tasks, repeatedly rewarding players for successes, and bringing a sense of excitement/spontaneity to an otherwise fairly repetitive activity. Can this model work for learners? I think it can, and innovative new schools like Quest 2 Learn are already putting these ideas into actions. However, there are some hurdles worth mentioning. In the case of Zombies, Run!, players are coming to this gamified space with at least a bit of intrinsic motivation—they want to run. Though sustaining this motivation is often a challenge for new runners, an app like Zombies, Run! has the benefit of being used primarily by a self-selecting and interested population. Furthermore, while this app may act as the initial gateway which increases engagement with running in the short term, runners will fairly quickly “outgrow” the app by completing all of their missions. At this point the gamified space will no longer sustain their motivation, and runners will have to rely on or develop new strategies of engagement to continue in the hobby.

So where does this leave us? I feel strongly that gamification efforts like Zombies, Run! have great potential to engage learners above and beyond traditional models. However, I am equally cognizant of the challenges in implementing these concepts into traditional learning environments.


Zombies, Run! is a fantastic example of gamification. Sold initially as the running app for gamers, it tries to straddle the line between game and running app in ways that are rather different from other running apps, which often rely on points systems or a social media network. The selling point of Zombies, Run! is the world it puts the user in, but that world takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to maintain. Because running is something that demands an almost daily commitment to discipline, it seems to have a lot of parallels to learning? I am wondering if this is a question we can ask of gamification. Zombies, Run! is engaging and encouraging but unsustainable. Other apps are sustainable but fail to yield quality incentives. Can we merge the two? 

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