Use of Challenge in Gamification and Learning Design

Challenge is a strong motivator in learning (Malone, 1981; Schlechty, 1997; Jones et al., 1994). A challenge is a call to engage in a difficult, but achievable task. Uncertain outcomes are challenging because of the variability depending on the use’s actions, multiple goals, hidden information and randomness (Wilson et. al. 2009). Challenge is correlated with both intrinsic motivation and motivation related to fostering competence and student efficacy (R.W. White, 1959).
Challenges should be used in gamification to initially engage learners to start learning a task and to encourage learners who are reluctant to start to learn content. Often learners who are reluctant to learn content can be persuaded to begin the process by being challenged. This requires a careful balance as, in cases where a learner is overwhelmed with the content or feels that it is too difficult to even begin to learn, other methods need to be employed to engage the learner. These methods could include the use of story or the employing of spaced practice or the development of a sense of mystery.

Structural Gamification

If the structural gamification platform is too easy, the learners will not care. The goals, challenges and reward structure all must convey a sense of difficulty and high, but achievable, stakes. If a person doesn’t think the experience will be challenging or interesting or result in a large enough pay off, he or she will not engage. The challenge could be related to the number of points that need to be achieved, finding hidden badges or getting to the final level. Each of the challenges not only need to be related to structural gamification items but they also need to be tied to learning complex ideas, concepts and skills. Achieving the final level within the gamification environment must equate with having mastery and above average competencies in the actual work or learning environment. There needs to be alignment between the two.

Content Gamification

In content gamification, challenge plays a big role engaging learners. For example, a lesson might start by telling the student “you are a manger and an employee has informed you that a co-worker has been leaving work early for the past month, what you do?”

As the learners try to figure out what to do, the facilitator should provide guidance and assistance. The idea is that the instruction should use a progression of increasingly complex whole tasks (Merrill, 2009, pg. 42). The facilitator should be supportive of the learners but only provide information when the learners encounter an obstacle to solving their problem. Create the need for the learners to seek or require the information you want them to learn. This creates motivation and aids retention because people like a challenge and they will remember how they solved the challenge much more easily than remembering an abstract bulleted list titled “Five things to do if you suspect an employee is leaving work early.”

A well designed challenge encourages learners to engage with the gamification experience multiple times.


Jones, B., Valdez, G., Norakowski, J., & Rasmussen, C. (1994). Designing learning and technology for educational reform. North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. [Online]. Available:

Malone, T. (1981) Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4. pp. 333-369.

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.

Schlechty, P. C. (1997). Inventing better schools: An action plan for educational reform. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

White, R.W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-333.

Wilson, K. A., Bedwell, W.L., Lazzara, E.H., Salas, E. Burke, C.S. Estock, J.L., Orvis, L. K., & Conkey, C. , Relationships Between Game Attributes and Learning Outcomes: Review and Research Proposals Simulation & Gaming April 2009 40: 217-266, first published on August 26, 2008 doi:10.1177/1046878108321866

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Karl Kapp
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