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Why gamification works [Part 2]

In my last blog we started discussing the "why" of gamification, with a specific focus on the nature of motivation, lensed through one broadly held theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory (SDT), not to be confused at this point with self-directed learning. The authors of SDT have found that three internal drivers (human needs) must be fulfilled in order for people to identify their actions as “self-determined” and therefore leading to high levels of authentic motivation.

By authentic motivation I refer to what the theory refers to as “internal” motivation — borne of a genuine desire to do, and complete a task. Internal motivation additionally has been shown to yield greater perseverance and creativity when completing a task.

The three human needs that must be fulfilled by the task, in order for it to be internally motivating are:

  • Autonomy: When an activity is self-initiated and self determined, it is more likely to elicit powerful internal motivations.
  • Competence/Mastery: 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.

Gamification and online learning environments

An interesting SDT-based study found, in fact, that autonomy is one of the easiest aspects to build into online learning environments:

Since the feeling of relatedness is harder to achieve in online learning environments because of its inherent lack of a direct social interaction, while the feeling of competence is mainly affected by the results of the learning process, autonomy-enhancing features seem to be a promising approach to enhance learner's performance in task-specific motivation processes.

So let’s see how gamification (overlaying game-like elements to a task that is not a game) in lessons and education can enhance and fulfill these needs, leading to improved motivation.


The perception that we are free to choose, or not do that task, ironically improves our motivation to do it.

This well-written study by Diana Cordova of Yale University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University based on experiments using digital learning strategies with elementary school learners, concluded also that:

Contextualization, personalization, and choice all produced dramatic increases, not only in students' motivation but also in their depth of engagement in learning, the amount they learned in a fixed time period, and their perceived competence and levels of aspiration.

Naturally this is a bit of a whammy for educators; if we gave students the choice to study or not — they would for the most part choose not to. So the trick is to weave the illusion of choice into what is more or less a set curriculum. As the authors the study above say,

“Choice has long been the paradigmatic procedure for manipulating intrinsic motivation...these motivational effects remain apparent even when the choices provided seem trivial or completely "illusory"

Gamified learning environments can readily be laced with choices that are “instructionally irrelevant”, such as choice of avatar, but can also have a number of more critical choices woven in that, while instructionally irrelevant, can in fact improve outcomes. Gamified learning also has the capacity to include these other choice-enhancements making the learning pathway feel all the more personalized, and relevant:

  • Branching scenarios: students choose which next step to take from a number of options.
  • Timing: Students have the option to choose how the session is timed, and how often hints, tips and pauses are used.
  • Hyperlinks: The lessons are dotted with useful hyperlinks to various deeper explanations.
  • Assessment choices: students can choose to conduct an e-mail interview with a scientist, conduct an inquiry project using data on the Web, or interact with an online learning object that simulates the scientific process under study.

The eagle-eyed of my readers will have noted that these are in fact characteristics of digital learning overall, and not just gamification — which I feel demonstrates that these are in fact many reasons why digital learning tools, enhanced with gamification, can increase motivation dramatically.


One of the great-slash-annoying parts of Candy Crush is the abundance of celebration when one wins a level, there’s also the not insignificant rush of seeing all the candies explode, and the points tally race upward. Players are imbued with a saccharine, yet nonetheless rewarding, sense of accomplishment.

Gamified learning environments are able to do this brilliantly. Some of the ways students receive continuous positive feedback on their journey are:

  • Badges: within the journey, prior to assessment, students can collect badges of competence to demonstrate conclusion of mini-lessons within the course.
  • Points: Keeping in mind the original thesis: Internal motivation is far superior to external (motivated by reward etc.) the use of points in a gamified environment can nonetheless offer students useful insight into their growing competence within different areas of the desired mastery. In a gamified environment, points are not grades, but personalized markers students can use to decide where they need to improve practice or revise content again.
  • Celebrating success: For younger students especially the simple device of winning animations, stars and banners to signify competence can boost dopamine (the goal-achievement chemical) and enable higher enthusiasm and motivation.


In adolescents in particular, social reward is a potent motivator, and should be appropriately used in gamified learning environments to not only help solitary online learners feel more connected, but also to leverage this powerful form of motivation. One may jump to the conclusion that leaderboards are a great way to do this; but I disagree — as do a number of others — as leaderboards create a form of external pressure, not to mention shame-based competition that is most likely not helpful, especially in environments with learners of different abilities.

However, enabling peer-based feedback and connection is a characteristic of many good learning management systems, and can help students to feel that they are not “going it alone”. Forums and chat rooms, instant messaging and partnering up on certain aspects of the learning journey can all contribute to the all important human need for connectedness, and thereby increase genuine internal motivation.

In the end

I hope you have enjoyed our series on “why” some blended and digital learning tools actually work from a cognitive and psychological point of view. I’d love to hear how you go about motivating your students in the comments.

FREE Resource: How to make learning engaging with gamification

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