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Psychological Theory and Gamification of Learning

2015 January 15

ResearchBlogging.orgGamification, the use of game elements in non-game contexts, is increasingly being implemented in both student and organizational learning initiatives. Many of these efforts are atheoretical, meaning that the teachers using them don’t necessarily have a well-grounded reason for gamifying. Instead, they often gamify with the intention of making learning more “fun.”

Unfortunately, 1) not all gamification is fun and 2) fun is sometimes counterproductive. It is common belief by educators that I’ve spoken with that fun and learning are opposed – as you increase the fun of a learning activity, its impact on learning goes down.

Personally, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Fun and learning should go hand in hand. It seems much more likely that the ways learning activities are being made fun are the problem – not the fun itself.

So if an instructor does want to gamify learning, what theories might be used to guide it? How can gamification be used that won’t potentially harm learning, fun or not?

Recent research by Landers, Bauer, Callan and Armstrong[1] sheds some light on this question by exploring several psychological theories of learning in relation to gamification. Specifically, they identify categories of theories that speak to gamification.

  1. Theory of Gamified Learning.  First, and perhaps most relevant, is the theory of gamified learning[2]. This theory proposes that gamification can affect learning via one of two processes and is intended to guide decision-making when creating gamified activities. Critically to both, gamification should not be intended just to “get people to learn,” and gamification cannot replace high-quality instruction.  Instead, it should be targeted at learner behavior and attitudes.
    1. Gamification can target a behavior or attitude that we already know affects learning. For example, we already know that students who spend more time engaging in meta-cognition (thinking about how they learn) tend to have higher grades. Thus, gamification might be used to increase meta-cognition (e.g., a mobile app might be used to reward students who “check in” to studying).
    2. Gamification can target a behavior or attitude that makes existing instruction more effective. We might have a great lesson plan to teach oceanography, but students might be bored.  To increase their interest, we might bring in an interactive demonstration to illustrate key points.  In such cases, the demonstration doesn’t actually teach anything new – it is a type of gamification intended to increase student engagement.
  2. Conditioning.  Classical and operant conditioning are classic psychological theories of learning. Although they have been generally replaced and supplemented with many other theories over the years, they continue to explain a great deal of behavior, especially in children. The most successful type of psychological therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, is even largely based upon operant conditioning principles (the “behavioral” part).  At its core, conditioning is quite simple – the goal of the instructor is to create a positive association with a beneficial activity (like studying).
  3. Expectancy Theories. Expectancy theory is used to describe human motivation.  It actually describes three separate motivational processes, listed below. Any particular learning activity can be described as the product of these three processes – if any of the three are low, there will be low motivation.
    1. Expectancy, which is how likely you believe your actions will lead to a consequence. For example, if I work hard, I’ll score high on the leaderboard.
    2. Instrumentality, which is how likely you believe that consequence will lead to a reward. For example, if I score high on the leaderboard, I’ll feel good about myself.
    3. Valence, which is the value you place on that reward. For example, feeling good about myself is very important.
      In combination, we might conclude that a leaderboard is likely to be unsuccessful 1) if students don’t think their effort will lead to a high position on the leaderboard, and 2) if students don’t think that a high position on the leaderboard will lead to anything they want.
  4. Goal-Setting Theory. Goal-setting theory is one of the most well-supported theories of motivation in psychology, and it applies well to learning.  People are motivated by SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.  If you incorporate SMART goals in gamification, you are much more likely to get students to do what you want them to do.
  5. Self-Determination Theory. One of the more recent theories of motivation is self-determination theory, which posits that all humans are motivated by a drive to self-determine – to identify a path for themselves forward through life. This is done by meeting three needs: feeling competent in the tasks you attempt, feeling that you have accomplished those tasks without the influence of others, and feeling that your life is connected to those around you.  SDT also defines two types of motivation: intrinsic, which refers to the motivation needs met by satisfaction of those three needs, and extrinsic, which is motivation that is not self-determined.  Other-determined motivation is most often considered synonymous with incentives, like gold stars, grades, and recognition from others.  Recent work in SDT has revealed that intrinsic and extrinsic motivations work together – that intrinsic motivation occurs when tasks have been internalized, whereas extrinsic motivators are most useful to get people to try new tasks. For example, a person being forced to play piano by a parent might hate it at first but do it anyone to make her parents happy, but later, as she becomes highly competent and autonomous playing, that playing becomes enjoyable on its own. Gamification can be used the same way, to introduce a person to something they don’t have any experience with or know they are good at so that they develop intrinsic motivation later.

Overall, no single theory is going to explain gamification or be the magic bullet for successful gamification. But these theories provide a strong foundation on which to build such efforts.

  1. Landers, R.N., Bauer, K.N., Callan, R.C., & Armstrong, M.B. (2015). Psychological theory and the gamification of learning Gamification in Education and Business, 165-186 []
  2. Landers, R. N. (2015). Developing a theory of gamified learning: Linking serious games and gamification of learning. Simulation & Gaming, 45, 752-768. []
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