Create Autonomy in Gamification and Other Learning Environments

When thinking about creating a gamification experience (or any learning experience), allow and encourage the learner to make meaningful and consequential choices. Meaningless choices lead to dis-engagement and a lack of motivation and interest in the experience. Fake choices = fake interest in the learning event. Seek to give the learner a feeling of autonomy.

Autonomy refers to the initiative and freedom a person experiences when engaged in an activity in the absence of external pressure with respect to his or her personal goals (Ryan & Deci 2000). An environment which encourages autonomy is one where outside pressure is minimal, choices are offered and the goals of the learners are recognized (van Loon, Ros & Martens, 2012). Learner control is a definite satisfier, it makes learners feel more in control of their actions and is appealing to them. (Clark & Mayer, 2011; Reeve et al., 2003).

A gamification experience has to incorporate not just explicit engagement, but meaningful choice. When a learner makes a choice in a gamification environment, the system, teacher or environment responds in some way. The relationship between a learner’s “choice and system’s response is one way to characterize the depth and quality of interaction” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, pg 61).

This is not to say that the learner should have absolute control of where to go, what to do or what to learn. A large body of research has indicated that absolute learner control in open instructional environment is both inefficient and ineffective (Merrill, 2009; Clark & Mayer, 2011). Rather, choices can (and should) be bounded by rules and parameters but within those rules and parameters, the learner should have a degree of choice to determine specific actions and to set personal goals.

Salen and Zimmerman (2004) have developed an anatomy of choice useful for fostering autonomy within game playing. Here are the concepts presented with the concept of gamification in mind.

Adding choice into a gamified environment should involve answering these five questions.

1. What happened before the learner was given a choice? This question primarily addresses the context in which the choice is made and the rules and parameters that lead to the learner’s choice. How is the learner put into a position to make a meaningful choice?

2. How is the possibility of choice conveyed to the learner? What signals are given to indicate the appropriate time to make the choice? How is the learner prompted? Is it through presentation of possible choices? Is it through a question? Does it reflect a clear area to click on in an online environment?

3. How did the learner make the choice? Did they click on a word on the computer screen? Did they drag an answer to a designated spot? Did they bet a certain number of points to convey their confidence in an answer?

4. What is the result of the choice? How will it impact future choices? A learner taking action within a system will affect the relationships present in that system. What is the ultimate outcome of a particular choice on the overall learning? Will the choice lead to failure or success?

5. How is the result of the choice conveyed to the learner? This question relates to the method of conveying the result and consequences of the choice made by the student. Is the result of the choice conveyed immediately or is it delayed? The result can be a simple indication of a correct or incorrect answer; it can be the absence or rewarding of points, coins or badges. It can be a movement in the position on a leaderboard. Or it can be the presentation of additional information necessary to overcome an intellectual challenge.

In gamification, the learner needs to feel the choices they are making are both meaningful and that they have impact on the eventual outcome and that they are responsible for the choices they make. Carefully consider how you craft learner choices in any instructional environment.


Clark, R. C. & Mayer, R. E. (2002) E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. New York: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Merrill, D. M., (2009) First principles of instruction. In C. M. Reigeluth, A. A. Carr-Chellman (Eds.), Instructional-design theories and models: Vol. 3. Building a common knowledge base. (pp. 41-56). New York:Taylor and Francis.

Reeve, J., Nix, G., & Hamm, D. (2003). Testing models on the experience of self-determination in intrinsic motivation and the conundrum of choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 375–392.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55, 68-78.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2006) The game design reader: Rules of play Anthology: Caillois: The definition of play, the classification of games. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

van Loon, A, M., Ros, A., & Martens, R. (2012) Motivated learning with digital learning tasks: what about autonomy and structure? Educational Technology Research Development 60, 1015–1032 DOI 10.1007/s11423-012-9267-0.

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