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DESCRIPTIONA research-based assignment on the gamification of learning prepared as part oF EDDE 803 (Athabasca University EdD program)
Running head: GAMIFYING LEARNING 1
EDDE 803 - Assignment 2
GAMIFYING LEARNING 2
November 3, 2015
GAMIFYING LEARNING 3
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.).
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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