The efficacy of gamification

23 Feb

On last week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] featuring Canary Beck, there was a short debate about whether gamification would be a useful way to approach education for new SL residents. That got me thinking about the pros and cons of using gamification, so I reflected on a couple of personal examples, looked at a bit of research, and then considered that particular implementation.


What exactly is gamification?

Gamification is more than handing everyone a trophy for things they might or should do anyway. Gartner research VP Brian Burke says, “Gamification is not about slapping points and badges onto an activity and expecting it to magically become more engaging.” Looking at the use of gamification in business, he differentiates it from standalone games and reward programs in this way:

  • Games primarily engage players on a whimsical level to entertain them
  • Rewards programs primarily engage players on a transactional level to compensate them
  • Gamification engages players on an emotional level to motivate them

I think that games and rewards can be part of a gamification strategy, and often are, but it’s fair to see emotional motivation as a point of differentiation. Mollick and Rothbard define gamification as something that “entails adopting the structure, look, and feel of a designed game with the intent of advancing instrumental organizational goals, while creating the same experience for participants that they would have if they were playing a game”. Hamari et al conceptualize gamification as having three parts:

  1. the implemented motivational affordances
  2. the resulting psychological outcomes
  3. the further behavioral outcomes

After all that academic posturing, though, the explanation I like best is from gamification expert Yu-kai Chou: Gamification is design that places the most emphasis on human motivation in the process. In essence, it is Human-Focused Design (as opposed to “function-focused design”). He explains:

Most systems are “function-focused,” designed to get the job done quickly. This is like a factory that assumes its workers will do their jobs because they are required to. However, Human-Focused Design remembers that people in a system have feelings, insecurities, and reasons why they want or do not want to do certain things, and therefore optimizes for their feelings, motivations, and engagement.

Gamification can be used to motivate us to do things that aren’t very good for us; they’re the techniques that drive huge profits for freemium games, after all. But when the goal is something useful and positive, gamification is a way to help us reach it.

Personal example: Nest thermostats

In my view, good gamification isn’t about dumbing things down or giving everyone a participant medal; it’s a way to make use of our inherent drives to promote a particular behavior. The app for my Nest thermostat shows a green leaf when I turn down the heat enough for energy savings. What do I care about a leaf icon? I don’t. Still, it triggers just enough of a reward reaction in my brain that I’ll turn down the temperature one more degree until I see it. The monthly report email from Nest uses other gamification techniques and encourages social engagement:


The fact that I purchased a digital thermostat suggests that I had an existing interest in energy savings before using the app, which is true. The gamification of Nest’s approach helps keep me on my toes, though. I don’t set the thermostat once and then bemoan my monthly bills; I have a visible incentive to push the limits of my comfort and a tiny feeling of reward when I do so. Those are so small that I never think about them until I start doing an analysis like this, yet they motivate me. Does this mean I never give myself an extra degree or two when the house is chilly? Nope. But I do it less often and we’ve been able to get by with lower settings even with record cold temperatures outside.

That’s nice for me, but is it really effective?

Beyond introspection about what works for me and anecdotes from others, I wondered if gamification is more than hype. I turned to “Does Gamification Work? – A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification”, a 2014 paper by Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa. They reviewed 24 studies in their research and found a variety of techniques used to provide the “motivational affordances”: points, leaderboards, achievements/badges, levels, story/theme, clear goals, feedback, rewards, progress, and challenge. And yes, the studies generally found that gamification was effective. There were some caveats, however. The positive results might have been skewed by novelty. Some users hated the same motivational items that others enjoyed. Even among the majority that enjoyed the gamified elements, motivation varied: some wanted to top the leaderboard while others were content to be in the ranking at all.

In their conclusion, they mention what seems to be a key point for gamification detractors: that intrinsic motivation could be diminished from extrinsic rewards. They provide no follow-up to support or refute the statement, perhaps because it wasn’t addressed in the studies they reviewed.

Triangulating from self-determination theory [7] as well as from the traditional definitions of games [3], both suggest that outside pressures (such as extrinsic rewards) undermine intrinsic motivations (see e.g. [6]) and hence would in essence undermine gamification which is an attempt to afford for the emergence of intrinsic motivations.

Looking at my example above, I don’t feel that Nest’s use of gamification undermines my intrinsic desire to save energy. It keeps me more mindful and encourages me. I may get satisfaction from thinking I’m helping the planet or saving money, but those are less tangible than seeing that little green leaf when I choose 66 degrees instead of 68.

Another personal example: learning German with a game

I’ve spent a couple days playing a new German learning game from the Goethe-Institut, Die Stadt der Wörter. Previously I played their Lernbenteuer games on my phone and frankly, at times they were tough! My German vocabulary is not so practical: I can read a bestselling German mystery novel but I don’t know the words to apply for a job. This new game has basic tourist-level vocabulary. Hotel, shopping, transportation, food, free time. It also uses many different motivational techniques. Since they’ve been teaching German for a long time and have tried other game techniques, I wonder if their new approach is based on earlier results.


The basic gameplay involves going through various parts of a city on short missions, clicking on items and typing their names (as you see the words and hear them used in sentences). You earn points as you complete each mission and are sometimes rewarded with additional gear to customize your avatar. Then, they start to pile on the gamification elements to encourage practice and engagement. You can pick up homework papers along the way; complete them correctly and you earn stars, more avatar gear, and coins toward future discounts in the Institut’s store. You are always given a visual display of your progress in the game and there is an achievement area where you can see your progress toward various goals. To add a competitive element, the top 3 players’ avatars are shown and the top 10 players are listed. You can see where you rank at any time, but it isn’t a persistent, annoying element. The game can connect to Facebook and occasionally you are offered the option to share your progress. You can also play mini-games against friends in the game.

It’s as if they took a list of gamification techniques and wedged them all in there. Maybe that is useful for some learners? For me, I feel like I ignore a lot of the options yet still practice well. I’ll admit I feel a burst of competitive spirit when I see my rank improve, even though I’m still somewhere in the 300s. I am inherently motivated to learn German and I work on it every day; if part of that practice is expressly designed to be fun and engaging, I’m inclined to do a little more. That’s not a bad thing.

Welcoming new SL residents with gamification

Gamification in learning is nothing new. A spelling bee is gamification: there is nothing inherent in learning to spell that necessitates a competition, but ranking, awards, and public exhibitions can drive motivation. So, could it be useful for something like helping new residents in a virtual world?

Well, why not?  Taking into account that some percentage of users would hate a gamified method, if it’s possible to skip ahead or use the methods that already exist (mostly self-education or through volunteer groups), I think it would be very effective. Tutorial levels are a common model in video games and using them in an open virtual world seems similar to me, and could be done in a way that doesn’t give the impression that SL is just a game.

Groups in SL have independently developed tutorial areas for new residents and when I tried the new member experience last year, it seemed that Linden Lab’s intro taught some basic skills, but there was no sense of achievement, progress, or connection. I’ve been daydreaming of an implementation that would teach those skills — giving rewards and useful items along the way — and then branch to allow users to explore specific skills, tools, and landmarks for various possible in-world roles, such as Builder/Creator, Student/Educator, Socializer, Fashionista, Roleplayer, Photographer/Moviemaker, etc. Ideally, someone who passed through that sort of tutorial would have skills to get by and pointers to answer the inevitable “So, what now?” question. (I actually gave this far more thought and went deep into the weeds, sketching out a ten level system. If someone wants my input on it, just ask, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for now.)

When a new resident appears in SL, he has already demonstrated an inherent motivation to check it out and a curiosity about what will be found. The tutorial could be designed to use techniques to enhance intrinsic interest as well as providing extrinsic rewards, and with motivated learners in an environment where gamification doesn’t seem out of place, it would have the characteristics of the most successful implementations reviewed in the study earlier. Why not increase engagement and help new residents get off to a good start?

A final (huge) graphic

Gamification Infographic

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media


Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Learning, Research


Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 responses to “The efficacy of gamification

  1. Becky

    February 23, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for doing the lit review. I’m plotting a considerably more specific model for the UX that I alluded to in my interview, and would love to see what you’ve already come up with to see if it runs along the same lines, or might even be better than mine. Let’s compare notes! 🙂

    • Kay

      February 23, 2015 at 3:22 pm

      Mine was pretty “back of the napkin”, but your mention of personas as well as experience with early levels in MMORPGs and hearing some questions still asked by long-time residents shaped my thinking. I’ll send along what I’ve got in a day or two. I’m sure yours is more complete, but perhaps I have something in there that will help. 🙂


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