In Defense of the Term “Gamification” as used by Learning Professionals

Recently, on one of my blog postings Design e-Learning Like a Game Developer: Provide Incentives for Good Work, I received a response related to the fact that “gamification” is the easy-way-out and that we need to be careful about extrinsic motivation, that I was not correct in my posting about the use of extrinsic motivation. To gain the full context, read the comments on the posting listed above and then come back and read this post.

I wanted to respond to the comment and, since I am not sure how many people read the comments on the blog, I’ve posted my response here.

First thanks for stopping by and making a comment, very much appreciated. I enjoyed your comments and I think we may be closer on the gamification concept than what you gathered from that one blog entry.

As a learning and development professional, I have spent years studying how people learn and the best methods of engaging learning from multiple perspectives and game-based thinking and mechanics (also called “gamification”) can provide rich and impactful learning opportunities.

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, etc).

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 these elements need to be examined for their possible application to learning.

Storytelling: 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.

Scaffolding: 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…as he was describing how children learned 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.

Feedback: As you mentioned, 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’s 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 & 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 study by Harackiewicz et al. (1984) 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, Eisenberger, Rhoades, L., & Cameron, J. (1999) found 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 & Armeli, 1997; Eisenberger, Armeli, & 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 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 and neither do you 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 be beacons of light that show 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.”


In terms of the word “Gamification”, my take is that learning and development professionals need to take the word back.

The term Gamification should not mean 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 student the basics of 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 a banning, boycotting or ranting against Wikipedia, the students are going to find and use Wikipedia anyway. We have to show them the right way to use it. And plus, 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 word “gamification” 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.

Eisenberger , R. & Armeli, S. (1997) Can Salient Reward increase Creative Performance without Reducing Intrinsic Creative Interest? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 72, 652-663.

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. 531-551.

Howard-Jones, P. A. & Demetriou, S. (11, September, 2008) Uncertainty and engagement with learning games. Instr Sci (2009) 37:519–536. 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.

Posted in: Design, Games, Games video games, learning design

Leave a Comment (7) ↓


  1. Kathy Sierra October 17, 2011

    “If we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out this gamification thing. ”

    … true, and I wonder… *SHOULD we*?

    I would rather see energy and resources spent answering the more important question which is NOT “how to use gamification appropriately” but rather, “how to produce better outcomes from learning/training”. And even that still begs for a deeper question around WHY we are doing all of this in the first place. From all I have seen around gamification — outside of use for obvious extrinsic-motivation-needed things like rote tasks and especially physical exercise with no intrinsically rewarding aspect– it is not addressing the biggest questions we hope to answer for improving the outcomes of learning.

    Operant conditioning (most of today’s gamification) is capable of producing behaviors that appear quite complex, through chaining simple tasks together. But a pigeon guiding a middle system should never be mistaken for a *smarter* more innovative pigeon. That is another part of my concern with gamification — that it seduces us — as trainers/teachers — into mistaking high engagement for sustainable behavior.

    Regardless, this particular thread has been the most enlightening and challenging for me personally. Can’t thank-you and Sebastian enough for that.

  2. karlkapp October 17, 2011

    Thanks so much for your comments, you bring up a great point about Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, Teresa Amabile which I eventually incorporated in a later comment post, I really try to provide a balanced approach to intrinsic and extrinsic in the book I am working on and will cover both, in fact, the Meta-Analysis that Kathy mentions covering 128 studies indicating problems with the extrinsic motivation elements is detailed in the book which will be published this spring. As are some of the other side of the argument of when to use extrinsic motivators, although, as I mentioned above, a question of when is a motivator intrinsic and when is it extrinsic is not as “cut-and-dried” as we often assume at first glance.

    The “why” question is critical to helping to solve this puzzle and look for me to write more on that in the future.

    In terms of the question of points as extrinsic motivators, I think that points, depending on how they are structured can be informational feedback and provide data on performance improvement and not simply serve as extrinsic tokens. For example in a game, you could perform a task of trying to close a sale and during the process, you could observe what types of phrases you select that provide you various levels of points, the closer the answer you select is to the proper closing method, the more points you would score. In that case, the points serve as an indicator of how correct the learner is to the right answer. To me, that can be an effective method of using points to provide feedback. To me a valuable aspect of using points is they allow immediate feedback to the player/learner in a manner that is not binary. You can craft degrees of correctness not absolutes. So in games where you are doing meaningless stuff to get points, purely extrinsic and not much value beyond getting points such as the parody games you mention, players get bored at best and far worse and more likely they become demotivated.

    But in games where the points themselves provide feedback on how to improve behavior, then the point system, if implemented properly, can help guide or inform intrinsic behavior due to the feedback they provide.

    In terms of Kurt Squire and James Paul Gee, I don’t want to put words in their mouth’s either,so I wasn’t specifically talking about the word “gamification,” The point I was making there is that plenty of scholars are trying to “crack” the code of how to add game-based thinking and game-based mechanics into instructional activities in a manner that makes sense and that is effective. Again, I don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bath water” we can use a careful combination of motivational strategies to move the learner forward.

    For example, we’ve had gold stars, grades, and grade levels in our school systems for centuries (all seemly extrinsic only reward systems) and we haven’t demotivated entire generations so, there is some combination of extrinsic motivational items mixed with the internal desire to learn that works at some level (although, current school systems are under performing so maybe now the combination needs tweaking.). We need to research and determine what it is is.

    If we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out this gamification thing. Thanks again for your lively and insightful additions to this discussion.

  3. Kathy Sierra October 16, 2011

    Wow, so much to think about. As to the comment on game scholars and their stance on gamification, my point is not that they are universally against gamification (clearly, they are not), but that virtually every game designer and game scholar would tell you that *extrinsic rewards* are NOT the reason people are playing well-designed games. So in that respect, where gamification is defined as extrinsic rewards (for non-trivial, dull tasks), then game designers/scholars are pretty universally against *that*.

    But again, this is where the overly-broad definitions of gamification make it so difficult to make ANY point about it without multiple qualifiers. Sigh.

    I think I have a better understanding of your persepective, and I will ask just one thing: when you review your most recent comment, for example, consider just how nuanced, complex, subtle this all gets once you really DO start looking at the research and implication for learning design. For me, the notion of using extrinsic rewards *where non-rote, potential creative, possibly intrinsically rewarding things are being taught/enabled* is a minefield. It is loaded with all sorts of poor outcomes, especially in the long run.

    Where you seem to support the idea of helping educators find ways to apply extrinsic rewards appropriately, I see nothing but complex, risky and *unnecessary* applications of “game mechanics”. I would far prefer that if the focus is on “what we can learn from game design to apply to learning” (which I agree is a wonderful direction) we look away from the “mechanics” (most of which are poorly understood to begin with, and tend to focus on operant conditioning when applied out of context) and instead look to the core heart and soul of games… things like intrinsically rewarding activities fueled by the right balance of meaningful challenges and increasing competence to meet those challenges.

    In other words, I am in favor of helping people understand the concepts game designers feel more strongly about than most of the gamification mechanics: feedback and flow. Rather than encouraging the use of rewards — known to carry risks — why not encourage the design of activities that are known to support sustainable behavior? Why not use that game-inspired thinking to enable motivation using things like indentification and integration combined with intrinsically rewarding activities?

    And that brings us back to relevance, the single biggest missing ingredient in most educational settings today. There is no meaningful challenge, no goal that learners perceive as personally “worth it”, and that assumes they even understand there IS a “worth it”. Simple acts of ID like making Just-In-Case learning *feel* more like Just-In-Time, for example… something you find in all simulations, but rarely in traditional text books and lectures, yet possible with just a change in framing… No gamification needed. And the list goes on.

    None of this is easy, but I do not share your optimism that we can help people understand the extremely difficult use of “incentives” applied to learning. Not with so much at stake, and not while there are other, less risky, and at least as effective (often more so) alternatives to extrinsic rewards.

    But thanks for such a detailed response. It is clear that you have thought a great deal about this as well. Which strengthens my point: it takes a s*** ton of effort to get this right. Even as a game developer, it still scared the heck out of me. As an educator, even more so.

  4. Sebastian Deterding October 16, 2011

    Dear Karl,

    thanks for that excellent unpacking! This thread is the most engaging and clarifying discourse I have encountered in a long time – for myself as well.


    Curious – would you say a point is automatically = an extrinsic reward? When & why do you think do points acquire an extrinsic reward value? Take all the achievement game parodies out there like Progress Wars: Once you have played them for a little while, getting points/levels looses all luster and interest. So there must be something to points – in well-designed games vs. game parodies – that makes them motivating beyond the mere fact that you get explicit feedback on an action (e.g. effectance in White’s term).

    I’d say, following the definition of extrinsic/intrinsic in SDT, the extrinsic reward value of a point is if it constitutes an instrumental outcome of value beyond the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself – cash value, feature unlocking, reputation, satisfying social demands, etc. Would you agree?

    *Game thinking*

    Funny, I recently had an exchange with Kurt on this, and I gathered from it hat he is interested in what “game thinking” might entail, but wary of the way “gamification” currently gets framed and applied – but I won’t speak for him :).


    Yes, Foldit is a beautiful example – for a “game with a purpose” (Louis von Ahn) elegantly combined with human computation. Foldit provides a full-fledged and self-contained puzzle game, complete with an *interesting challenge*, i.e. the intrinsic motivation of experiencing competence. Maybe that’s mostly nitpicking terminology, but I sense a danger in the way marketers try to paint “gamification” as the umbrella term for ‘everything-remotely-game-related’. It threatens to erase the important distinction between using game *elements* and building a full-fledged game.

  5. Sebastian Deterding October 15, 2011

    And I apologize for the typos!

  6. Sebastian Deterding October 15, 2011

    Dear Karl,

    thanks for that enormously helpful clarification of your stance. I especially laud your call that “Learning and development professionals MUST TAKE BACK the word” gamification, and that instead of discarding a certain approach to learning and change outright, we should be aware of knee-jerk reactions and instead have our practice be carefully informed by the existing research. And indeed, no serious researcher in the area of (intrinsic) motivation claims that extrinsic rewards are always and unilaterally a bad thing to be avoided.

    Just two follow-up notes on that:

    First, regarding research, your references lean heavy on the work of Eisenberger and colleagues – I understand this is because they are a good base from which to make a strong argument *for* extrinsic rewards. However, in this, the ‘opposition’ doesn’t get a fair hearing (e.g. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, Teresa Amabile in this context, not Dan Pink, who is with all due respect a popularizer, not a researcher ^_^). Whereas in fact their work (e.g. on the important disctinction of informing vs. controlling feedback, or different types of extrinsic motivation, from external to integrated) is of high value to getting feedback design right, in games, education, or elsewhere.

    Second, along those lines, what makes a reward a reward? The nice (‘parsimonious’, or ‘tautological’, depending on how you see it) thing about operant conditioning is that it just leaves out the question what makes a reinforcer a reinforcer – a reinforcer is by definition whatever happens to show having a reinforcing effect on a behavior, without looking at the *why*.

    Now rewards are not reinforcers – we need to be carefuly with language –, but the crucial question of *why* remains. Why is a coin in Super Mario – a certain ensemble of pixels and sounds emanating from a TV set – a reward, while 99,9% of the other pixels and sounds emanating from that same set during a gaming session is not? Why do those coins loose their interest for some players after some time? Why are the same kind of “rewards” more engaging in some games than in others? I hope you agree that do design effective learning, we need to understand this “why” question, because it helps us to steer clear of implementing something that happens to have no or little reward value, although on the surface it looks just like all the other coins or badges or whatever in all the other games.

    Again, people like Scott Rigby and Richard Ryan have done valuable empirical theoretical and empirical work on *why* a certain piece of loot in World of Warcraft is motivating, and under which conditions it is not. And I hope that that research will also flow into your book :).

    Finally, as regards language, it would be wonderful if “learning and development professionals” could take back the word as you envisage! However, it is a question of public relations, power, politics and discourse whether they CAN take back “gamification”, or whether the marketers you oppose ultimately play a better spiel and are thus able to appropriate your fight for a different cause under the same word as support for their causes in public perception.

  7. Kathy Sierra October 15, 2011

    One more thing… You refer to Cameron and Eisenberger for support of “extrinsic rewards”, and I will say that while they have been leading the controversy over Self-Determination Theory, I believe (I am not a psychologist, so NOT an expert here) that their challenges represent a very minority view. In other words, while *they* (as behaviorists) are uncomfortable with the extrinsic-can-undermine-intrinsic (I say *can* since it is a conditional effect, depending on the TYPE of extrinsic motivator and whether intrinsic motivation plays a role at all), modern psychology has not found their challenge to stand up against the overwhelming weight of evidence in favor of Self-Determination Theory.
    For more on this, here’s a write-up from Rochester university:

    And the wikipedia entry for SDT explains this as well. nutshell version: Cameron performed a meta-analysis on the studies supporting extrinsic undermining effect, and found what he believed were errors, then presented other research (such as the work you cite). Subsequently, errors were THEN found in the Cameron work, and in the end, SDT research was concluded to (outside of some fringe behaviorists) to be valid, and is the prevailing psychological theory for understanding motivation today.

    In game terms, Self-Determination Theory kicked Cameron’s Behaviorist butt on the motivation leaderboard. And this does not even include the most recent research, by many others including that mentioned in Amabile’s new book, Progress Principle. In her study, even *reading* about extrinsic rewards for writing caused people to change their behavior in a negative way. They were not even GIVEN rewards, just read a little document about possible reasons for writing that contained extrinsic rewards.

    While the studies (I believe more than 1,000 at this point) on the impact of motivators is overwhelming at this point, what is NOT clear is the *reason* for these results. The prevailing theory, I think, is that it is the effect on perceived autonomy.

    The biggest problem for most people is that this is counter-intuitive. This was not an easy transition for me… I am personally responsible for some of the most “gamified” systems in the early days of online interactive marketing, including a Cleo-nominated kid’s site loaded with extrinsic rewards for engaging in the pseudo-educational activities. That explains at least part of my hostility to gamification as practiced today… I am a reformed gamifier. ;).

    Thank-you for your patience with my excessive comments.

Karl Kapp
  • About
  • Contact