The Gamification of Learning

A recent Pew Report polled internet experts and users about the “gamification” of our daily lives, particularly in our networked communications. They write:

The word “gamification” has emerged in recent years as a way to describe interactive online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action – these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and “free” gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to “level up.”

According to the survey, most believe that the effects of this gamification will be mostly positive, aiding education, health, business, and training. But some fear the potential for “insidious, invisible behavioral manipulation.“

Don’t pooh-pooh the behavioral manipulation point. Do you really want to have your on-line behavior shaped like one of Skinner’s rats by some faceless conglomerate? But that’s actually not what got me going. What got me wondering about where this is all going is that it seems undeniable that gamification will shape how we learn, in particular how kids learn.

Elements that make up this gamification – rewards, competition, status, friend counts – are particularly powerful incentives. Neuroscience had repeatedly documented that these incentives rapidly and intensely “highjack” the reward centers of our brain. So it begins to feel as if we’re addicted to getting that next retweet, higher friend counts, higher scores on fruit ninja, etc.,…. Even the sound that our device makes when a message pops up gives us a rush, makes us tingle with anticipation. We eagerly wait for our next “hit” and are motivated to make that happen.

This gamification could have a powerful impact on how we go about learning. Psychological researchers distinguish between a fixed and a growth mindset – that is, peoples’ beliefs – about intelligence and learning. When people have a fixed mindset, intelligence is viewed as a hard-wired, permanent trait. If intelligence is a fixed trait, then we shouldn’t have to work very hard to do well, and rewards should come easily. In contrast, in a growth mindset, intelligence is viewed as something that can grow and develop through hard work. In this way, a growth mindset promotes learning because mastering a new skill or learning something new is enjoyable for its own sake and is part of the process of intellectual growth. Intelligence is not fixed because it is shaped by hard work and effort. For a nice summary of these distinctions, see a recent post on a wonderful blog called Raising Smarter Kids.

This is where gamification comes in. If children are inundated with incentives and rewards for even the simplest activity or learning goal, motivation for learning becomes increasingly focused on the potential for reward, rather than the process and joy of learning. In addition, when you’re doing things mainly for the reward, the motivation for hard work will peter out after a while. You just move on to the next, perhaps easier way of getting rewards rather than digging in and trying to master something. It also becomes more difficult to appreciate the value of setbacks – not getting a reward – as an opportunity to improve. In these subtle ways, gamification may undermine a child’s ability to develop a growth mindset. Instead, we might have a generation of children who are implicitly taught that everything we do should be immediately rewarded, and that getting external things, rather than the joy of learning, is why we do what we do.

Promoting a growth mindset is not only important for helping our children learn, but for helping them face frustrations and obstacles. Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, in Raising Smarter Kids, highlight several rules to promote a growth mindset:

1. Learn at all times. This means think deeply and pay attention. When we use technology and social media, we can sometimes err on the side of doing things very quickly and superficially. So, this rule is important to emphasize with children today more than ever. We also have to remind our children (and ourselves) that it’s ok to make mistakes, even if we don’t get rewarded for our efforts.

2. Work hard. This is a skill that of course can be promoted by the presence of incentives – kids will work for hours at a game if they can beat their highest score. But what happens after they get the reward? Are they committed to continue learning? Will they continue struggling and practicing? Sustained hard work is an opportunity for personal growth that external motivation, like that from rewards, may not be able to sustain. Here, the enjoyment of learning and gaining mastery may be the most powerful motivator when it comes to helping children become dedicated learners for the long haul.

3. Confront deficiencies and setbacks. This is about persisting in the face of failure. The increasing role of gamification could both help and hinder this. Gamification will help in the sense that with so many rewards and game dynamics, opportunities for failure are around every corner and children will need to learn to persist. At the same time, what guarantees that a child will persist to obtain these rewards? Rewards are not equally motivating for all individuals. Will those not interested in rewards and games just be left feeling bored, and take part in fewer opportunities for learning?

I’m not saying that we should avoid all rewards – that would too extreme and impossible to boot. But we must maintain our awareness of how, with increasing gamification, the simplest act of using technology, logging onto our favorite website, or using social media might be subtly changing our motivation to learn.

19 thoughts on “The Gamification of Learning

  1. As always on Psyche’s Circuitry, I found this a thought-provoking blog. I share your concern about the gamification of learning, and agree with your conclusion that it’s not all bad, but that we have to be thoughtful in moderating its impact on our children, and making sure that they also have opportunities to engage in learning for its own sake.

  2. As a long-time gamer (tabletop and video), I tend to view on the optimistic side of this lens. I don’t see it as a threat as long as it’s in moderation. For example, we can look at our nation’s youth basketball system as an athletic-industrial complex, where pre-teens become pre-professionals, jet-setting to places like Las Vegas and New York to play weekend tournaments as they’re secretly guided towards shoe contracts and seedy agents. (Yuck!) However, for the super majority, (like myself) youth basketball was that place where I learned about accountability, hard work and being a good teammate. I learned that you don’t always win (even when you do win), and that the process (early morning practices, the bus-ride/lockerroom camaraderie, etc) can be even more rewarding than the final score of a game.

    Perhaps the “dark side” of gamification (or any other similar process) is when it lacks the presence of that teacher/mentor/coach/parent to facilitate this process. Those three key things you outlined will be amplified when someone is there to help provide context and guidance. Without that context, as you point out, then it’s just a “game.”

    Another topic, that seems relevant but missing in the “gamification conversation” — the “games for change” genre itself. I’ve found this trend to be a counter to this “dark side” of gamification, as the translation of history or social constructs into a game/simulation can be a compelling method to increase empathy and understanding. For example, I’ve understood that peace in the Middle East is probably an illusion – however, playing the game Peacemaker ( where you take on the role of being the Israeli Prime Minister or the head of the Palestinian Authority deepened my empathy for that quagmire. Another example is “Spent” (, which is a browser game developed by Urban Ministries of Durham, NC that challenges the player to get through the month on $1,000 as an unemployed single parent. While it doesn’t make me an expert on that experience, I gained empathy around the relentless (and withering) decision-making that those in that situation must endure ($5 bucks so my kid can go on a field trip or do I spend that on a prescription for my headache?).

    1. Mac, you make some great points! And I agree that there is clearly a very positive side to gaming. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. I especially agree that organized sports are an incredibly powerful force for all sorts of good lessons for kids and adults – especially about the benefit and joy of discipline and hard work. And games for change must have some positive benefit – or at the very least “do no harm.”

      What I really meant to get across was the POSSIBILITY (there is no evidence out there to help us figure this out) that integrating game dynamics into EVERYTHING we do – learning, buying, interacting with others – might implicitly teach us, or hard wire us, to be too focused on getting a reward rather than actually feeling that the process of doing something is rewarding in and of itself. I may be misunderstanding what is meant by gamification, but I think it is indeed this broad. The whole structure of social media sites like Facebook reflects this gamification – they keep us focused on getting likes, getting friended, etc.,…Companies that want us to consume our products are figuring out ways to use these dynamics to reel us in. I don’t think it’s all bad, and it certainly is our reality, but I think we all have to give some serious thought to this, and question what’s going on. I sometimes feel like the technocrats just throw these changes at us willy-nilly, and we sink into them all like a warm bath. Half joking, but only half….:-)

      Thanks as always for your insights and ideas!!

  3. just skimmed through this and remembered how my mom used to motivate me to learn math at High School and I believe that it’s starting to take effect now in College
    nice article 🙂

  4. Interesting post! Thanks for sharing.

    When I had a job I hated a friend and I used to joke about us getting ‘points’ for things like, dealing with a situation well and managing to get the earlier train home because I ran for it 😛

  5. “What got me wondering about where this is all going is that it seems undeniable that gamification will shape how we learn, in particular how kids learn.”

    This is very interesting and a question that merits far more time and thought (as I honestly do not believe anyone really knows how humans learn given the dearth of knowledge and the continuously expanding research on the subject). However, I do agree with the points made by JP Gee (“What video games have to teach us”) in that video games and other online social network configurations allow us to fail, to figuratively get up, and try again and again until we accomplish our goal. Educational systems, on the other hand, only reward those who succeed initially, punishing those who do not with bad grades. The saddest part is that we create a culture that does not accept failure in any sense (only in theory, perhaps, but not in practice) thereby curtailing creativity and the desire to try and try again. In all honesty, we don’t teach/encourage/model that it is alright to fail and get up again. Gamers, on the other hand, are teaching us that it’s cool to fall, dust your avatar, and get up to go try again. And if that is not a powerful lesson for kids of all ages, then I don’t know what is. Of course, I fully recognize that an existence online is not the same as real life, but I do know first hand that there is transference taking place both ways.

    And the social crowds out in FB and other networking sites? While we see a competition for “friends,” the altering of language, and construction of other banalities, we must recognize that in the actual use of certain technologies, these networkers are acquiring basic life skills to improve their life chances. Think about it: there are hardly any jobs around that do not require the use of technology to gain access to it. It seems to me that the communities within social networks are successfully teaching people about access and transmediation in ways that schools are not (but should).

    Anyway, that’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately.

    1. Wow, great points. I think you’re very right about games teaching us to persist. That is valuable. But why would a kid persist? Is it the rewards or incentives or the fun of the experience or the sense of competition or the sense of mastery? The answer to that question is incredibly important in terms of how games could impact learning, and will almost surely vary from person to person. On some level, because I’m not a gamer, I could easily be missing something here, though. I’ve never cared enough about a game to keep at it. The “whatever” it is that keeps people invovled just doesn’t motivate me. And I’m a very persistent person in other areas….

      I also never thought of FB and other social networking sites as being important teaching tools that take over where schools fail – I think you’re really right on here.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. I’d actually take this up a notch higher and say it just fits into a current fad of the country, which I’ll label, for convenience, as Freakonomics, plus the steady move to the right with utter dependence on the market (that worked so well in 2008) for everything. The rightwing POV is purely that people are only motivated by rewards, ideally only money (and only gold, at that), because this simplifies life so much, makes efficiency the end-all-be-all, and is another example of American exceptionalism (aren’t we so smart and the rest of the world, who are actually much happier than us, are fools). It’s no surprise to me in this broader context that tossing in rewards to every corner of online life is bound to follow. Of course, there is the interesting question perhaps of chicken-and-egg, i.e. years of digital gaming has led to contemporary economic thought, the economy as video game, just hit reset when banks recklessly lose fortunes.

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