Defending the Term ‘Gamification’ as Used by Learning Professionals

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 learning opportunities.

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 forth).

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 doesn’t 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 point-based.


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. Vygotsky’s 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 later recall.

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 reward.

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.

The story of the FedEx Days Pink cites as an example of autonomy and “intrinsic motivation” 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 part out).

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 what—even Daniel Pink doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 don’t help people properly apply motivational techniques who is going to do it, not the marketers. Not those who have absconded with the word “gamification.”

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 aren’t going to know the real meaning of “gamification” if we…you, me, and others…don’t 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 Wikipedia—not only because the students are going to find and use Wikipedia anyway, but it does have valuable elements and is worthwhile…when used properly.

Gamification is no different. Learning and development professionals can’t 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 change…it’s what we do. It’s what we’ve 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 don’t try, no one will and the cheap and “easy way out” that we fear will be realized.

About the Author:

Karl Kapp, Ed.D., CFPIM, CIRM, is a scholar, consultant, and expert on the convergence of learning, technology and business operations. His background teaching e-learning classes, knowledge of adult learning theory, and experience training CEOs and frontline staff provide him with a unique perspective on organizational learning. He is author of Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning, which discusses how to use technology tools (games, simulations, mobile devices, and Web 2.0) to transfer learning from experienced, veteran employees to the new generation of employees through the effective use of technology.

Karl is currently working on his fifth book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, in which much of the material for this presentation is discussed in more detail.

Reprinted from Learning Circuits

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