Gamification of Education: Balancing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

by Martin LaGrow

The bleeding-edge blogosphere of education is alive and well, and the topic du jour is gamification.  It is a concept that is already being utilized aggressively in other markets, but there is a lot of debate about whether it has a place in education.  As with most new trends, we are dealing with evolving terminology with no pre-established definition.  As gamification takes on different directions in different contexts, no doubt people will be using the term without an agreed-upon understanding of what it is.  Gamification of education is not just the addition of games to academics—that concept is as old as education itself.  We can all think of games we played in the classroom as kids that complemented learning.  Nor does it necessarily speak toward the application of gaming technology to education.  Rather, gamification is the application of the mechanism and structure of gaming to a traditionally non-game focused context—in this case, the classroom.  According to Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer’s insightful paper, Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?, gamification is “The incorporation of game elements into non-game settings.”  The website goes into more detail, expanding the definition as it applies to education to include “…the use of game mechanics and dynamics like badges, leaderboards, and actions…for improving motivation and learning in informal and formal settings.”

Before discussing this in the context of education, let’s take a look at how gamification has infiltrated another industry:  health and fitness.  Virgin’s Healthmiles program is a classic example of gamification in action.  Designed to assist employers in promoting healthy lifestyles for their employees, the Healthmiles program exemplifies all of the hallmarks of gamification.  Employee progress toward a healthier lifestyle is quantitatively tracked.  Participants earn badges for various accomplishments, “level up” when they reach certain milestones, and can even compete against coworkers and other program participants through social networking.  Successful attainment of goals is also incentivized with HealthCash.  Virgin has successfully capitalized on the principles that make gamification effective.

Proponents of gamification in education see it as a cure for the malaise affecting our schools.  Students lack motivation.  Efforts to engage them through traditional means are failing.  On the surface, gamification seems like it may be the solution.  According to,

“Gamification… doesn’t rely on internal motivation (emphasis mine). Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated — at least at the beginning — and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.”  In other words, proper application of external motivation can prime the pump, if you will, of internal motivation and drive success.  While this may be true to a point, it is certainly not a panacea—and some will respond more to this type of motivation than others.

Let’s apply this logic to the Virgin HealthMiles program.  It’s a great notion—after all, who doesn’t want to be healthier?  Who doesn’t agree that exercising more and feeling better about themselves is important?  And this program rewards and incentivizes what we all know we should be doing!  So what rate of participation would you expect in such a program?  Seventy-five percent?  Fifty percent?  According to Virgin, “Our approach…attracts an average of 40% of employees.”  Clearly, external motivation cannot drive success in a vacuum!  While forty percent of employees taking steps (literally) toward a healthier lifestyle is certainly a good thing, what contributes to the 60%, on average, that do not participate in the program?  The answer, in part, is lack of intrinsic motivation.

Applied in an academic context, while gamification can certainly be an effective tool to produce desirable results in some measureable contexts, it is no replacement for internal motivation.  Students need to understand the value of the tasks that they are performing in order to achieve sustainable learning.  A life-long learner is not fostered by extrinsic motivation.  When the motivator is removed, the learner must understand the value of learning for its own sake.

Gamification certainly can and should play a role in the evolution of education.  However, as in all things, it is wise to avoid extremes.  Gamification is rooted in incentive theory.  Understanding this, before any major shift is made toward gamifying education in any context, it is important to understand other theories of motivation (drive theory, humanistic theory, arousal theory, etc.) to best address the needs of all learners.



Filed under computer games, education, education technology, games, gamification, Martin LaGrow, simulation

2 responses to “Gamification of Education: Balancing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

  1. Wm. F. (Bill) Sattelmeyer

    Hi, Martin,
    After showing my game theory students Jane McGonigal’s GDC video from last year, I asked them to each suggest ways we could “gamify” the game development courses. Aside from providing rewards like money and free tuition instead of grades, one of the top suggestions was leaderboards with running tallies of highest “scores” in the class. After they all agreed this would be a strong motivator, I then asked them how’d they’d feel if everyone in the class knew how well they were doing in the class (even if they used a private identity/name)…AND if they realized they were in the bottom 50%. Would they be more motivated to work harder because their scores were so low? Or would they be DEmotivated by knowing they weren’t getting the highest score?

    After some discussion, they admitted that if they weren’t getting high scores in a game (i.e. class), they would be *less* motivated to work harder, and they wanted other extrinsic motivators (eliminate the two lowest-graded projects or papers or multiple extra-credit projects that would function as power-ups. Unfortunately they didn’t have the option of starting the game (course) over again in a new identity (unless they failed outright). The extrinsic motivations were less, um, motivational than the rewards of having succeeded at learning a new skill or ability.

    I think there is much that can be discussed about gamifying education, but, as you said, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Gamers who like puzzles are a different breed from gamers who prefer FPSs or MMORPGs. Some players like acquiring things; others like the social aspects of the game. It would seem that the ARCS model of motivation still has a place in the development of lessons and courses that have meaningful challenges and compelling goals.

    • On a related note, I recommend reading “Drive: The Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink. In it, he references numerous studies that show how incentives negatively impact the attainment of goals in the long term. The evidence is counterintuitive, and it suggests that businesses with incentive programs are doing more to impede rather than attain goals by implementing them!

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