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Why gamification works [Part 1]

Candy Crush, a mobile gaming phenomenon, earns its makers, Swedish-based King Games, big money: $250 million in the company's last declared quarter alone. To date the game has been downloaded an eye-popping 2.7 billion times. My name is Susannah and I have, on occasion, been a Candy Crush addict. This annoying affliction has led me to contemplate the “why” of Candy Crush’s affect on me, and apparently billions of others.

I’ve started a bit of series on the “why” of good digital learning; we’ve explored why VBL (Video Based Learning) works, and last week I pulled out a few examples of good and bad infographics, to understand why the good work, and the bad fail. Building on my curiosity about the way games like Candy Crush affect our minds, I thought we’d take a closer look at gamification.

Gamification generally refers to the overlay of game-like elements (point scoring, advance through levels, competition, social recognition/leaderboards) to non-game situations - such as shopping - think loyalty point and coupon systems. Recently, learning system and content designers have been adding game elements to learning management systems, and it is this type of gamification we will explore today.

Gamification versus play

Play is a fundamental principle of early childhood development. It is a crucial way for a young mind to develop as it enables basic problem solving, tactile sensory exploration and socialization. In fact, play is so critical the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has named it as a basic right of every child. The benefits of play in early childhood, can not be overstated, and many studies show improvements in everything from linguistic ability, socialization and problem solving to brain size (in rats) when play, is at play.

Gamification, however, is different: and putting your toddler in front of a game like Candy Crush is unlikely to grow their brain as effectively as a piece of playdough. Gamification in the settings we are discussing apply more fundamentally to motivation, than the free-wheeling, inventive play found at recess.

One last point about what gamification isn’t - the fabulous online math puzzles, and outer space VR adventures teachers often use in class are also not gamification, they are simply just games, whose secondary objective is that kids learn something while having fun, or doing a puzzle.

In fact, the definition of gamification is just that: it’s not a game, it’s a way to make things students don’t like doing a little bit more fun and interesting, increasing their motivation to do it. So, time to drill down into motivation, how it works, and what gamifying a learning environment does to increase it.

On self determination

The majority of what I discuss below is based on the widely accepted self-determination theory, first mooted by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their 1985 book, Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. Essentially for motivation to be internally generated, and therefore of greater effect, positivity and longevity the activity must meet three essential human needs:

  • Autonomy — This is the human need to control the course of our lives, a degree of mastery over our destiny.
  • Competence — Sometimes also referred to as mastery, this describes a human need to get demonstrably better at doing something that is important. Achieving a measure of control over one’s environment.
  • Relatedness — The activity must fulfill the human need to have close, affectionate relationships with others.

Note here what is revolutionary about the idea is that external motivators are deemed far less useful in motivation, than internal drivers. This has been demonstrated time and again by economists and industrial psychologists who try and explain why it is that when it comes to purely mechanical actions, these can be increased by increasing the reward, however the opposite is true for cognitive tasks. The more cognitive a task is, the less an external reward is likely to influence the outcome. Watch this video to see the concept beautifully illustrated.

This winds us back to a pretty age-old problem in education: the majority of youngsters would rather do something else than go to school, and are by-and-large only motivated by external motivators like fear of failure, parents, teachers, detention etc. It’s worthwhile to note that even motivators such as A-grades, popularity, money and acknowledgement are deemed external factors in these instances because while they “come from within” they are based on egoic drivers, rather than true need fulfillment.

So let’s revisit those three drivers again:

  • Autonomy: When an activity is self-initiated and self determined, it is more likely to elicit powerful internal motivations.
  • Competence/Mastery: Rewards, communication and feedback that supports a feeling of mastery and competence will enhance intrinsic motivation for that activity.
  • Connectedness: We are far more likely to be internally motivated to do an activity if it generates connection and relationships with others.

There is a degree to which these three factors operate independently of one another, as well as collectively in varying degrees of importance, there is also a number of subsets of characteristics, which if you feel inclined to you can discover more about here. But for our purposes, I’ll stick to these three.

FREE Resource: How to make learning engaging with gamification

But wait! There’s more!

We’ve spent quite a bit of time teasing out the ideas of gamification vs. play, as well as the fundamentals of SDT (Self-Determination Theory). Next time I promise I will “reveal all” and offer up some practical examples of how good gamification overlays can be useful generators of authentic internal motivation.

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