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Running head: GAMIFYING LEARNING 1 Gamifying Learning Apostolos Koutropoulos Athabasca University

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A research-based assignment on the gamification of learning prepared as part oF EDDE 803 (Athabasca University EdD program)


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Gamifying Learning

Apostolos Koutropoulos

Athabasca University

EDDE 803 - Assignment 2

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November 3, 2015

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Gamifying Learning

Games, simulations, and gamification have been garnering more interest, by those in the

educational domain, over the last few years as ways of engaging the learner in new and novel

ways. However, games, simulations, and gamification are not new in educational contexts.

Sheldon (2011) writes that mammals use forms of play to train their young. He goes on to

explain that simulations, such as flight simulations, have been used as early as the 1940s (p. 14).

Kapp also reminds us that tools and technologies, such as Audience Response Systems, which

we have in use in educational settings today, can also be used for gamification (2012).

Even in non-educational scenarios, games have been used to engage audiences, and to

reach a state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004) so that real world concerns take a back seat while

you are engaged in a specific activity. One such example is provided to us by the Greek

historian Herodotus in describing a famine in ancient Lydia. The rulers of Lydia instituted one

day of eating, and one day of game playing without eating, in order to extend their food supply.

This was, reportedly so successful that the Lydians were able to survive ten years on their food

supplies and diminished food production (McGonigal, 2010; 2011). While this may be an

exaggeration, what was described by Herodotus was that the Lydians had reached a state of flow

when playing games. Flow is described by Csikszentmihalyi as a mental state where the is

intense focus that leads to a sense of clarity and ecstasy; where you know what you want to do,

and what is possible to do, and you get immediate feedback (2004). McGonigal further explains

that flow is created when people voluntarily undertake work that is tailored at the limits of their

skills, and that this work contains feedback mechanisms (2010). In colloquial parlance one might

call it as being in the zone. This sense of flow is a desired state when we gamify the classroom

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because learners will have reached a state of total immersion in whatever activity or content they

are working on.

Gamification History and Definition

Games and gamification (also known as gameful design) are not the same thing, as

Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nackle explain (2011). However, they do exist on the same

continuum as toys and playful design in Deterding et al.’s framework (2011). The first use of the

term gamification is also not clearly defined. Werbach (2015b) argues that the first use of the

term was made in the 1980s by Richard Bartle who had undertaken a project to modify an online

platform called a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) and gamify it to make it more engaging to that

system’s users. Burke (2014) on the other hand writes that the term coined in 2002 by the British

consultant Nick Pelling. It was, in Pelling’s words, a deliberately ugly word to describe

“applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both

enjoyable and fast” (p. 5). While the origin of the term may be in dispute, gamification has

evolved both since Bartle and Pelling. Just like its provenance, gamification does not have one

specific accepted definition (Kapp, 2012; Werbach, 2015a, Burke, 2014). Very broadly

gamification can be defined as the use of game elements and game techniques in non-game

contexts (Werbach 2015a).

The Gartner group defines gamification, more specifically, as “the use of game

mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals”

(Burke, 2014, p. 6). Key components of this definition are: (1) Game mechanics, which are

elements that are common to many games; (2) experience design, which describes the journey a

player/learner takes in a game; and (3) goals, which are the learner’s goals, not goals set by some

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external entity such as the teacher. This imperative to motivate the learner to achieve his own

goals connects with learning theories, such as Knowles’s principles of Andragogy (1984).

While gamification of products can be seen as early as 1912, with Cracker Jack’s

introduction of a toy in each box of caramel popcorn, and more modern uses of the

characteristics can be seen as recently as 2007 with companies such as Bunchball (Werback,

2015b), the concept didn’t take off until Jesse Schell presented, a tongue-in-cheek presentation,

about gamifying everything in day to day life at the DICE 2010 conference.

Some examples of gamification are Pain Squad, a game-based solution to encourage and

motivate young patients to log their feelings and symptoms while they are hospitalized (Burke,

2014); Nike+ an application which tracks not only your own running habits, but also allows you

to both compete with friends who are using Nike+, and receive cheers and encouragement from

those on your social network (Burke, 2014; Kapp, 2012). In the educational realm, we can see

badges as a type of gamification element with platforms such as the Spanish Massive Open

Online Course (MOOC) platform MiriadaX awarding badges for MOOCs that you complete

through their platform, on Open2Study for exhibiting certain positive learner behaviors

(Open2Study, n.d.), and on Khan Academy where badges are awarded to show learner

investment in learning (Khan Academy, n.d.).

Games Defined

If gamification uses game mechanics to motivate and engage learners, the questions then

become: What is game? And, what are general attributes of games? Games have been viewed in

a negative light. McGonigal brings to our attention phrases such as “gaming the system” or

“playing the game in order to get what you want” which (2010), however such negative

connotation needs not be expected of games and gaming in general. So, what makes a game?

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Werbach cites the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga, and his work Homo Ludens, as the

start of defining games. Huizinga described the concept of the magic circle where he describes

that magic circle as a boundary. In a game there is a boundary that is physical or virtual. This

boundary contains the world of the game, which is separated of the real world, and in this

boundary separate rules apply (2015d). When playing monopoly for example, the board for that

game is the boundary, and separate rules apply. In an athletic game, such as football or soccer,

the lines on a playing field delineate that boundary. When a player is in the magic circle, the

game rules are what matters, not the rules of the real world. Huizinga’s work seemed to focus on

games as competitive games.

This boundary isn’t the only thing, however, that separates a game from real life.

Following from the work of Bernard Suits and his work Grasshopper, Life and Utopia, Werbach

further describes that games need goals, constitutive rules, players that engage in the game

voluntarily, and players who are willing to overcome unnecessary obstacles (2015b). McGonical

also adds to these the trait that games provide feedback to the players (2010). This feedback

provided is immediate and applicable to the situation that the player is in. Thus, to state it simply,

playing a game is a state of overcoming unnecessary obstacles (McGonigal, 2010).

Since games have a variety of ways of engaging the player, and a variety of ways in

which a player can play within the magic circle, there is also a need to consider patterns of play,

and player types, because well designed games are not linear in nature, but allow the player

choice in achieving their goals. The player taxonomy that is most well-known is Bartle’s player

personality types (Sheldon, 2011; Kapp, 2012). While working as an administrator of a

commercial MUD, he collected data from an online bulletin board system debate on the subject

of what people actually wanted from the MUD experience. From this analysis of discussion

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forum posts four player types emerged: Killer, Achiever, Explorer, and Socializer (Kapp, 2012).

Killers are players who are about action, more fight and less talk. Achievers play for extrinsic

rewards such as loot, leveling up, badges, and top scores on a leaderboard. Achievers can be as

competitive as killers. Explorers enjoy discovering new things in the game, and going where no

other player has gone before. Finally, socializers play in order to interact with players as this is

where their enjoyment of the game stems from (Sheldon, 2011).

In addition to different player types there are also different types of play. Kapp describes

Caillois’s patterns of play taxonomy which contain four categories: Agôn, Alea, Mimicary, and

Ilinx. According to Kapp, Caillois’s framework is a direct response to Huizanga’s work, and the

taxonomy attempts to bring games beyond the mere concept of competitiveness. While there is

competition in Caillois’s framework (Agôn), he also described chance (Alea), games where the

player embodies someone other than himself (Mimicary), and games that purposefully

temporarily disorient us (Ilinx) in order to have us re-assess something we held as true or given.

Caillois didn’t see each type as being mutually exclusive, thus a combat simulation would be

Mimicary in that the player is taking on the role of a soldier, Agôn, because there is an enemy

involved and there is (usually) only one victor in such situations, and Ilinx because the

environment is disorienting both physically and also morally (2012).

According to McGonigal (2011), video games are making us good at four things: virtuoso

optimism, weaving a tight social fabric, feeling blissful productivity, and seeking epic meaning.

Thus, when playing a game we act urgently to tackle a problem (virtuoso optimism), working

hard at doing solving this problem, and being happy about it (blissful productivity), and helping

us develop bonds with others. Using game mechanics this type of happy, satisfactory, hard work

can be designed into learning solutions, and it ties in with the concept of flow.

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Gamification Applied to the Classroom

Looking toward games for ideas and concepts that we can apply to learning is also not

something new. Gee (2007) discusses several principles that he has discovered in video games

that are applicable to learning situations and environments. Sheldon (2011) has used game

principles to make the courses he teaches more game-like. Some of the most commonly regarded

mechanics are points, badges, and leaderboards, however those aren’t the only mechanics

available. Manrique (2013) has developed a series of gamification mechanics that can be used to

gamify both classroom and non-classroom environments. The benefit of this specific approach is

that it can be done as a card-sorting activity picking the most appropriate elements of

gamification for the design of learning.

Game Mechanics, Learning, and Instructional Design

In the instructional design field it seems as though training is always thought of as a

solution, by non-instructional designers, for almost everything that ails organizational

performance. Just like training isn’t a panacea for all performance issues, so too gamification is

not appropriate for all use cases. Burke writes that the most common wrong reasons for wanting

gamification is because games are cool and fun, because other are doing it, because learning will

be effortless, and that it’s easy to design gamified solutions (2014, p. 17). Just as instructional

design requires some work upfront to determine if training is an appropriate solution, so too

gamification requires a needs analysis in order to determine if it’s an appropriate solution for

overcoming engagement issues. Also it’s important to determine what type of gamified solution

would work in a specific situation. According to Burke, a gamified solution structures the tasks

to be undertaken in a logical order and it focuses the design on achieving player goals (2014, p.

89), and approach not too dissimilar to instructional design.

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Gamification need not adhere to only one theory of learning, or model of design.

Laurillard (2014) describes a variety of learning theories such as behaviorism, constructivism,

experiential learning, and collaborative learning. A gamified solution may employ more than

one approach toward learning because gamification, through the various types of play and the

various player types, should allow for different ways of reaching the same learning destination.

Another area where games crossover with learning design is in the area of motivation. The curve

of interest, for example, is the notion that designers should purposely sequence events within the

flow in order to grab and hold the player’s attention (Kapp, 2012, p. 45). This is similar other

learning models and approaches such as ARCS (Keller, 2010) and Gagne’s events of instruction

(Gagne & Driscoll, 1988) which begin with gaining and keeping the learner’s attention.

Motivation is also another key element to both gaming and learning, and hence to

gamified learning solutions for learning. Games, and learning, should not be too easy or too

hard. If a game is too easy it will lose the attention of the player, while if the objective seems too

out of reach, the learner may give up because they might think that it is pointless to event attempt

to reach such a difficult goal (Kapp, 2012). This should remind instructional designers of

something similar in the domain of teaching and learning, and that is Vygotsky’s notion of the

Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978; Laurillard, 2014). Working at a difficulty that

is just right for the learner ensures that the learner extends their skills and provides motivation to

keep the learner striving to reach higher levels of learning.

Ensuring that the learner is engaging within their ZPD can endow the learner with a

feeling of fiero: an immediate feeling of exhilaration triggered by personal triumph over

adversity (Sheldon, 2012). If the gamified solution is designed well enough, learners may

experience not just fiero, but an epic win, which defined as an outcome that is so extraordinary

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that the player/learner didn’t even know it was possible until they achieved it (McGonigal,

2011). Both a sense of fiero, and achieving epic wins are ways of keeping the learner engaged

in learning. Gamified solutions should encourage exploration and failure as well. An epic fail, a

spectacularly embarrassing or humorous mistake, can be equally motivating for learners to

continue their pursuits if spectacular failures surprise them, and perhaps amuse them, but also

don’t provide any long term negative effects to their grade.

Another common element between teaching and gaming is feedback. In games-based

feedback, one concept coined by Robin Hunicke is juicy feedback (Kapp, 2012). Juicy feedback

is feedback that has several key attributes, including that (1) feedback is fresh; (2) feedback can

be surprising and it contains unexpected twists; (3) feedback that is continuous in that the players

do not need to wait for it; (4) feedback that is coherent and emergent staying within the context

of the game and flows naturally from it; (5) and feedback that is inviting, which means that the

learner is interested in receiving feedback from the game (p 36-37). Regardless of whether the

learner does well in a gamified solution, or experiences an epic fail, there should always be

salient feedback to that learner.

Finally, there are elements of motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic and

extrinsic motivation are used to complement one another. Extrinsic motivation can be used, for

example, to pique a learner’s interest in a task that they don’t see as valuable early in the process

of learning, or to encourage learners to undertake a task that is perceived as boring (Kapp, 2012).

Extrinsic motivators can also be used to increase enjoyment in spending time performing tasks,

can focus attention on specific tasks, and provide a shorter perspective on time spent on task

(Kapp, Blair, and Mesch, 2014). Daniel Pink’s work in Drive (2011) is cited in Burke (2014) as

indicating that extrinsic rewards are not sufficient to sustain engagement, and some extrinsic

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motivators may actually have the opposite effect. For this reason intrinsic motivation can be

used to engage the learner for the long haul by tapping into the learner’s sense of autonomy,

purpose, and yearning for mastery of the topic (Burke, 2014). Kapp et al. warn that interesting

tasks do not need reinforcement by means of external rewards. Players will engage in them

without any external coaxing. Extrinsic motivators for interesting tasks should be used sparingly


Gamification Applied: Structural Gamification

Structural gamification is the application of game elements and game mechanics to

propel learning through the existing current content with no other alteration to that content (Kapp

et al., 2014, p. 224). In structural gamification the gamification that is designed is only a

wrapper for existing content. If the current content is not engaging, is not interesting, or is not

relevant to learners, they are going to look for shortcuts or ways to go around the gamification

elements because they’ll think it’s a waste of time.

In structural gamification the goals for the learners should be specific, and there should

be no doubt as to whether or not a goal was obtained. Instead of one, or several monolithic,

goals, the gamification aspect can be designed with, smaller, mini-goals that can lead learners to

mastery, with each step becoming successively more difficult. This appears to be congruent with

certain behavioral education strategies, as well as with Vygotsky’s ZPD (1978). Even though

mini-goals should be structured, structural gamification should also provide learners with the

freedom to pursue a goal through a variety of paths.

In considering extrinsic rewards for smaller goals, it is advisable, according to Kapp et

al., to provide rewards for accomplishing the mini-goals, rather than waiting for a big payoff at

the end (2014). An analogy in the game world would be to get an achievement at the end of each

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level that is completed rather than waiting for the entire game to be completed before earning a


The idea behind a well-designed structural gamification platform, according to Kapp et

al., is that every click is recorded and every answer, even wrong ones, are noted. This provides a

wealth of data and statistics about learner behavior, click patterns, and the number of correct and

incorrect choices made by learners (2014, p. 226). This aspect of gamification ties well with the

work done in the field of learning analytics. These types of learning analytics can also be used to

create systems that provide juicy feedback to learners so that they know how well they are

progressing without a lot of lag between learner performance and system feedback to those


Another consideration in structural gamification is that status is important element when

designing structural gamification. It provides an opportunity to make skills and learning visible

to people other than the learners. Leaderboards, and the ability to publish earned badges, are

ways of using this status mechanism. Kapp et al. recommend that designers only show relative

positions in a leaderboard (2014, p. 231). If you have a variety of player types in a classroom,

having a socializer on the same leaderboard as many killers and achievers could be demotivating

for the socializer since they would tend to be low on a leaderboard due to the way they chose to

play the game.

Finally, it is important to note that gamified solutions do not mean that they are

impervious to cheating (Kapp et al., 2014, p. 237). When designing a gamified solution the

instructional designer is not going to change the human tendency of some of the participants to

cheat. A remedy for this is not to stop or punish cheating, but rather to design a system to

minimize the impact of cheating, or even harness such cheating behaviors to make cheating

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conducive to learning. The second thing to be mindful of is that learners who experiment and

think outside the box will find additional ways to cheat, even ones that were not conceived by the

designers. The gamified solution needs to adapt with each successive iteration.

Gamification Applied: Content Gamification

Sheldon’s work (2011) is a very good example of what Kapp et al. (2014) describe as

content gamification. Content gamification is the application of game elements, game thinking,

and game mechanics to alter the content of a course and to make it more game-like (Kapp et al.,

2014, p. 237). The idea isn’t to create an entire game out of the course, but rather to add elements

of games in the instruction, and execution of the course. An example of this could be adding

story elements to a compliance course, or instead of learning objectives there can be challenges

issued to the learner/player for him to overcome.

According to Kapp et al., the most common elements for making typical learning content

into gamified content are: stories, challenges, curiosity, characters, interactivity, feedback, and

freedom to fail (2014, p. 239). Stories provide a powerful element in gamifying content because

research, cited by Kapp et al., indicates that learners are better able to remember facts and

terminology when they are woven into a story as compared to when they are presented as a

decontextualized bullet list (2014, p. 239).

Kapp et al. advise designers to consider creating virtual opponents or foes, which create a

sense of good tension in the course. This, along with challenges, connects with Caillois’s Agôn,

where competition can exist between a player/learner and another entity, even if the entity is

virtual, or exists within the magic circle. Challenges can be either against an opponent, or

against the player himself. A challenge, according to Kapp et al, is a strong motivator for

learning (2014, p. 241). Challenges should also embrace learner failure. A content gamification

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solution should encourage students to view failure as something that motivates them to overcome

that obstacle. One of the ways of doing so using a game mechanic called a “save point” where

learners can brought back to after a failure. This point of return has the effect of allowing

learners to experiment, and explore, without risking permanent damage to their overall grade.

Finally, content gamification is immersive. Sheldon’s examples from his various courses

(2011) indicate that the entirety of the course adopted language used in specific games. Groups

became guilds, points on graded items became experience points, grades became levels, and

different deliverables, which could get you points, became raids, crafting, and boss battles. This

wasn’t just a cosmetic change, but rather an immersive part of the story of learning in those


Pitfalls to avoid and Conclusion

Games, and gamification, are not new in teaching and learning. In the learning field

we’ve been using some aspects of gamification all along, and the technology and tools that we

have today are capable of helping us build gamified solutions to help engage our learners in the

learning process. There are, however some pitfalls that instructional designers should be aware

of. As both Burke (2014) and Kapp (2012) point out, gamification is not simply about points,

badges, and leaderboards. Simply adding one or all of those elements to a learning environment

will not magically make your course, content, or learning more engaging. Understanding the

learner’s goals, and helping them achieve them is what will make gamified solutions more likely

to be successful. There are right reasons for exploring gamified solutions to learning, which

include authentic practice, positive behavior change, and overcoming disengagement (Kapp et

al., 2014, p. 21).

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Gamification is simply not about frosting on a handful of game elements onto a learning

solution and expecting that this will work miracles. Just like instructional design it is a deliberate

process that considers a variety of factors, and works with those factors in mind to design

optimal learning solutions. Gamified solutions are not easy to create, and they are not perfect or

appropriate for every situation. Rather, gamification is a tool in the instructional designer’s

toolbox that can be used in the process of designing instruction.

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