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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"

How to make learning engaging with gamification

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