Recently, one of my blog postings Design e-Learning Like a Game
Developer: Provide Incentives for Good Work, received a response
related to the fact that gamification is an easy-way-out; that we
need to be careful about extrinsic motivation, that I was not
correct in my posting about the use of extrinsic motivation. I want
to respond to the comment.
As a learning and development professional, I have spent years
studying how people learn and the best methods of engaging learning
from multiple perspectives. I've found that game-based thinking and
mechanics (also called gamification) can provide rich and impactful
The elements at play
Some of the elements of games that can be used for learning are
listed below, but the list is by no mean exhaustive (no mention of
flow, curve of interest, avatars, cooperative elements, and so
The list does include rewards and achievements because they do help
with the entire process. These elements all contribute to an
effective game. Take one element alone and it doesnt make a great
game, but combine the elements and you can have a great game. All
of these elements need to be examined for their possible
application to learning.
Many games are great at integrating a story into game play and
research indicates that learners learn facts better when the facts
are embedded in a story rather than a bulleted list. Many more
learning programs should be story-based rather than bullet
The progression of learning that occurs over time during the game
is similar to the educational technique of scaffolding, which
builds on the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development
introduced by Soviet psychologist and constructivist Lev Vygotsky.
Vygotskys concept is relatively complex, but to simplify it: he was
describing how children learned and discovered, something he called
the Zone of Proximal Development.
Zone of Proximal Development is the distance between the actual
developmental level as determined by independent problem solving
and the level of potential development as determined through
problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more
capable peers. Game-based designs can bridge that gap in
pre-defined increments usually in the form of levels.
Another element that is important to facilitate learning is to
provide frequent opportunities for students to respond during a
lesson (Stichter et al, 2009). Games do this far more effectively
and efficiently than a classroom instructor. Game-based thinking
and mechanics provide continuous corrective feedback.
Freedom to fail and the element of chance
In an instructional environment, failure is not a valid option. In
games it is encouraged with multiple lives and attempts. Games
overcome the sting of failure specifically by doing things like
giving multiple opportunities to perform a task until mastery and
through the introduction of chance or randomness (two elements
schools and corporations work hard to eliminate). In fact, a 2008
study by Howard-Jones and Demetriou indicate that gaming
uncertainty can transform the emotional experience of learning
improving engagement and, more importantly, improving encoding and
Reward and achievements
Research indicates that in some cases extrinsic rewards actually
foster intrinsic motivation. In a 1984 study by Harackiewicz et
al., it was found that performance contingent rewards (found in
many games) produced greater intrinsic motivation than the same
performance objective and favorable performance feedback without
Additionally, in a 1999 article in Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, authors Eisenberger, Rhoades, and Cameron report
that performance-contingent reward increased students subsequent
expression of task enjoyment and free time spent performing the
task as compared with the receipt of an equivalent performance
standard and favorable performance feedback.
They also found that employees with strong performance-reward
expectancies showed an increased perception of self-determination
concerning how they carried out their usual job activities. This
relationship was found controlling for any effects of pay rate,
tenure and performance feedback on perceived autonomy. Reward for
high performance appears to strengthen the perception of freedom of
action experienced both for college students given novel tasks and
employees carrying out their usual job responsibilities. They also
found that employees who experienced high autonomy, steaming from
performance-reward expectancy, reported that they felt more active,
enthusiastic and energetic on a typical day at work.
There are even a number of studies supporting the concept that
making rewards explicitly dependent on creative performance
increases creativity (Eisenberger and Armeli, 1997; Eisenberger,
Armeli, and Pertz; 1998).
So, all extrinsic rewards are not bad, and while decades of
research are available to indicate that extrinsic reward structures
can be flawed, decades of research also exist to indicate that
extrinsic reward can lead to intrinsic motivation and creativity
and meaningful change. Even Daniel Pink in his TED Talk mentions
that rewards work really well when there is a clear set of rules
and a simple destination to go to.
And the story of the FedEx Days he cites as an example of autonomy
and intrinsic motivation he tells in the video is impressive. Only
at the company, the winning individual not only gets to feel good
about him or herself, they also received a trophy (he left that
The entire field needs to be examined to determine what elements
work in what situations and when to apply extrinsic motivation and
when not to apply it. We cannot universally claim extrinsic
motivation is always bad no matter whateven Daniel Pink doesnt make
that argument. But we need to be careful about how far we go.
Deciding not to use an extrinsic reward system because in some
cases they are detrimental is like deciding not to drive a car
because sometimes there are fatal car accidents.
The prudent thing to do is to carefully drive the car, use caution,
and obey known traffic laws. In the case of extrinsic motivation,
carefully apply the motivational elements when and how the
literature shows they have been effective. Research points to
effective use, we learning professionals just need to apply it
properly. Just because many people are not using extrinsic rewards
properly doesnt mean they should never be used.
Who is going to educate learning and development professionals
about the proper use of extrinsic motivation if not us?
Our role, as I see it, is not to shy away from extrinsic motivation
or to condemn it. Instead we need to become beacons of light,
showing people how to do it properly. If we dont help people
properly apply motivational techniques who is going to do it, not
the marketers. Not those who have absconded with the word
Taking back the term gamification
Using the term gamification should not mean that we have given up;
it should not mean the easy way out. It should mean the intelligent
application of game-based thinking and mechanics to learning (in
this case). When done well, gamification is a method of enhancing
relevance, application and engagement.
Learning and development professionals MUST TAKE BACK the word. We
must talk about the benefit of context through stories, challenges
for learning, feedback loops, curves of interest, scaffolding, and
even rewards and achievements. We cannot let the marketers own the
term, we cannot allow gamification to mean only rewards and badges
or superficial extrinsic tokens. But people arent going to know the
real meaning of gamification if weyou, me, and others, dont teach
how to properly gamify content.
Someone will always be standing by to gamifiy content. We need to
equip learning professionals to ask the right questions, to demand
context, story, feedback, challenge, freedom to fail, engagement,
and other critical elements of game-based thinking and mechanics
that will aid retention and application of learning.
The analogy I give is of Wikipedia. Teachers always tell students
not to use Wikipedia, some even ban Wikipedia. However, when asked
to write a report, where is the first place kids go for initial
information? Wikipedia (banned or not). Instead of banning or
forbidding Wikipedia, we need to teach students when using
Wikipedia is appropriate and when it is not appropriate. Educate
them on the proper use of Wikipedia. Education is what is needed,
not banning, boycotting, or ranting against Wikipedianot only
because the students are going to find and use Wikipedia anyway,
but it does have valuable elements and is worthwhilewhen used
Gamification is no different. Learning and development
professionals cant stand idly by and let someone else have the term
while we relegate ourselves to the small corner of the world known
as serious games.
Learning and development professionals should own engagement,
feedback, and behavior changeits what we do. Its what weve done for
decades (or should have been doing). We can have far more positive
influence taking back the word and using it to mean positive change
and positive motivation in the context of learning than we can
trying to eliminate it.
Now is the time to define gamification the right way, the way that
positively uses elements of games, that positively impact
motivation and that positively helps others. If we dont try, no one
will and the cheap and easy way out that we fear will be realized.
Eisenberger , R. & Armeli, S. (1997) Can Salient Reward
increase Creative Performance without Reducing Intrinsic Creative
Interest? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 72,
Eisenberger, R., Armeli,S. & Pertz, J. (1998) Can the Promise
of Reward Increase Creativity? Journal of Personailty and Social
Psychology, Vol. 74, 704-714.
Eisenberger, R., Rhoades, L. & Cameron, J. (1999) Does Pay for
Performance Increase or Decrease Perceived Self-Determination and
Intrinsic Motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
1999, Vol. 77. No. 5. 1026-1040.
Harackiewicz, J. M., & Manderlink, G. (1984) A Process Analysis
of the Effectives of Performance-Contingent Rewards on Intrinsic
Motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Vol 20.
Howard-Jones, P. A. & Demetriou, S. (11, September, 2008)
Uncertainty and engagement with learning games. Instr Sci (2009)
37:519536. DOI 10.1007/s11251-008-9073-6.
Stichter, J., Lewis, T., Whittaker, T., Richter, M., Johnson, N.,
& Trussell, R. (2009). Assessing Teacher User of Opportunities
to Respond and Effective Classroom Management Strategies:
Comparisons Among High-and Low-Risk Elementary Schools. Journal of
Positive Behavior Intervention, Vol. 11. No. 2. 68-81.