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Gamification Is Simply Bells and Whistles

By Guy Boulet / November 2016

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Gamification has become latest buzzword in the learning community. Just as "rapid elearning" was supposed to make everyone able to develop "high quality" elearning content a few years back, vendors and others with vested interest are praising the merits of gamification as a silver bullet to improve the learning experience.

The use of games to motivate people is nothing new. For Campbell gamification is at least as old as the collectible stamps given out with purchases from the late 1890s onwards [1]. Stamps could be redeemed for prizes. They worked because of the obvious economic motivation, but also relied on the urge to collect and complete a set of items-a feature seen in many games. One could even argue gamification is at least as old as the Roman Empire when bread and circus were the two things the elite used to motivate the plebs.

But what exactly is gamification? Does it actually make learning more engaging? And, most importantly, does it make learning more efficient?

What is Gamification?

According to Deterding et al., the term gamification originated in the digital media industry [2]. The first documented uses date back to 2008. But gamification only entered widespread adoption in the second half of 2010, when several industry players and conferences popularized it.

For Mosca, there is not a consensus among researchers and designers about what gamification is, because its described features do not seem to pertain to a single phenomenon [3]. There seems, however, to be a basic understanding that gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-game contexts. In the instructional context, gamification is seen as a mean to make learning more engaging by the use of features normally found in games to support learning materials.

This definition is quite simplistic and , according to Chorney [4], it is important to make a clear distinction between the content and the mechanics of a video game. The content of a video game is the story, information, and/or experience that are provided by playing the game; while game mechanics are tools used by game designers to add a structure that complements and enhances the content of the game. These mechanics often take the form of a virtual reward system that can include: points, badges, levels, virtual currencies, etc. It is important to note the use of game mechanics does not necessarily make the product a video game.

Therefore, if we apply Chorney's definition to the instructional context, the learning content-which includes presentations, scenarios and exercises,-would be the equivalent of the game content. Therefore, gamification would only apply to the non-instructional materials—the container—to create interest and engagement toward the content. Basically, the intent of gamification of instructional materials is to make them more engaging through the addition of game mechanics such as scoring, unlocking new modules, badge collection, and others.

This means there is a difference between gamification of instructional material and the use of serious games to support learning. According to gamification advocate Karl Kapp, gamification is the act of taking a non-game item and turning it into a game, while serious games are the use of a game environment to teach a "serious" subject [5]. Therefore, simply adding scores, badges or levels to learning content does not suddenly transform instructional materials in serious games, they just make them game-like: they add game mechanics without game content. Robertson believes gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. Rather, she proposes the word "pointsification" to describe this process [6].

But whatever the name we give it or the distinctions we make, the concept of gamification remains, at its simplest expression, the use of game mechanics in non-game contexts.

How Are Learners Motivated?

Eliot and Covington define motivation as a theoretical construct used to explain behavior [7]. It represents the reasons for people's actions, desires, and needs. Motivation can also be defined as what causes a person to want to repeat a behavior. With gamification, two opposed types of motivation are involved in causing a person to want to continue or repeat the use of learning materials: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

For Ryan and Deci, intrinsic motivation is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge [8]. It is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for reward.

On the other end, Ryan and Deci also explain that extrinsic motivation is the opposite of intrinsic motivation as it refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain a desired outcome. It comes from influences outside of the individual [8]. According to Dewani, common extrinsic motivations are rewards for showing the desired behavior, and the threat of punishment following misbehavior [9]. Competition is an extrinsic motivator because it encourages the performer to win and to beat others, not simply to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity.

Therefore, extrinsic motivation can be considered as nothing more than a way to offset a lack of intrinsic motivation.

Does Gamification of Learning Actually Work?

According to an April 2011 Gartner press release, the information technology research and advisory firm forecasted that by 2015 more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes would gamify those processes [10]. However, less than a year and a half later, in November 2012, Gartner was predicting that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications would fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design [11]. Is poor design really the problem?

Essentially, according to Bénabou and Tirole, game mechanics are based purely on extrinsic motivators [12]. Students will indeed work harder for the reward, but ultimately gamification will detract from students' intrinsic motivation to learn. Incentives are then only weak reinforcers in the short run and negative reinforcers in the long run.

In a meta-analysis, Deci et. al. demonstrated rewards significantly undermined intrinsic motivation [13]. Only verbal rewards enhanced intrinsic motivation in general, but verbal rewards undermine intrinsic motivation if they were given with a controlling interpersonal style. The most damaging reward contingency was the commonly used one of performance-contingent rewards (i.e. rewards based on performance, such as points), in which not all participants receive maximum rewards. They also found, if anything, the undermining was strongest in the studies in which the measure was taken at least a week after the rewards were given. They did not find any significant difference between tasks that were interesting and dull for the subjects.

Hanus and Fox observed similar results when they tested students across two courses. They measured motivation, social comparison, effort, satisfaction, learner empowerment, and academic performance at four points during a 16-week semester [14]. One course received a gamified curriculum, featuring a leaderboard and badges, whereas the other course received the same curriculum without the gamified elements. Their results found students in the gamified course showed less motivation, satisfaction, and empowerment over time than those in the non-gamified class. They suggest, at best, their combination of leaderboards, badges, and competition mechanics did not improve educational outcomes and at worst can harm motivation, satisfaction, and empowerment.

What Does That Mean?

Currently, most claims about the efficiency of gamification of learning are purely theoretical. They are based on behavioral theories applied to learning. Basically, gamification proponents argue that the addition of extrinsic incentives to learning materials, such as points, levels or badges, fosters people's engagement towards learning activities and therefore give the learner an intrinsic desire to learn. But it seems clear that having fun learning does not increase the intrinsic motivation to learn.

According to Bogost, gamification proposes to replace real incentives with fictional ones [15]. The fictional incentives (points, levels, badges and others) improve the container (i.e. the way the content is presented to le learner), but do not add anything to the content. For Chorney, one example by which feedback and reward engage players without providing valuable content, is slot machines that use the powerful system of random payouts [4].

With gamification, even if the intent is to learn, collecting points and badges to pass to the next level becomes the objective. As demonstrated by research, points and other extrinsic rewards do not increase intrinsic motivation to learn, they undermine it [11, 12, 16]. Rewards diminish attention as the focus is put on achieving a better score rather than learning more. It doesn't mean that no learning happens, but simply learning is impaired by the game elements.

Why then, if gamification of learning materials makes them less efficient, is the concept so popular? If it does not profit the learner, who does it profit to?

For video game researcher Ian Bogost, gamification is nothing more than a marketing term, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business [17]. The rhetorical power of the word "gamification" is enormous, and it takes games-a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people-and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.

Robertson argues gamification is an inadvertent con. It tricks people into believing that there's a simple way to imbue their thing with the psychological, emotional and social power of a great game [6]. This could explain why, according to Campbell, game designers, researchers and even companies like Pepsi, IBM and Nike are staging a broad effort to gamify parts of our lives that previously have been impossible to play [1]. Gamifying your life, they say, could help you learn new skills, connect with others, and become fitter, happier, and healthier. Bénabou and Tirole recognize gamification is great for commercialization and influencing buying habits, but it can be disastrous for motivating students to want to learn [12]. In business, if only 10 percent of the people who access gamified marketing content end up buying the product, it can be considered a success. But in the learning context, having only 10 percent of learners achieving the objective is a failure.

In the end, gamification is simply bells and whistles. It attracts your attention at first but after a while it becomes annoying and detracts you from the real objective. And if you need bells and whistles to make your content interesting, it's because it is boring. As suggested by Deci et al., rather than focusing on rewards for motivating learning, it is important to focus more on how to facilitate intrinsic motivation [13]. This can be done by creating meaningful learning contexts relevant to the learners and where they can immerse and make decisions based on realistic scenarios.

Gamification may make learning content more engaging, at least for a while, but it doesn't make it more relevant or effective.


[1] Campbell, M. The audacious plan to make the world into a game. The New Scientist 209, 2794 (2011).

[2] Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nackle, L. E., and Dixon, D. Gamification: Toward a definition. CHI 2011 (May 7-12, 2011, Vancouver). ACM, New York, 2011.

[3] Mosca, I. +10! Gamification and deGamification. GAME, The Italian Journal of Game Studies 1, 2012. (2012).

[4] Chorney, A. Taking The Game Out Of Gamification. Dalhousie Journal of Interdisciplinary Management 8, 1. (2012).

[5] Kapp, K. Gamification vs. Serious Games-What's the Difference? Blog. May 6, 2011.

[6] Robertson, M. Can't Play, Won't Play. Hide & Seek. Blog. Oct. 6, 2010.

[7] Ellliot, A. J. and Covington, M. Approach and Avoidance Motivation. Educational Psychology Review 13, 2 (2001).

[8] Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55, 1 (2000): 68-78.

[9] Dewani, V. Motivation. Slideshare. 2013.

[10] Gartner. Gartner Says By 2015, More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes. Press Release, April 12, 2011.

[11] Gartner. Gartner Says by 2014, 80 Percent of Current Gamified Applications Will Fail to Meet Business Objectives Primarily Due to Poor Design. Press Release, November 27, 2012.

[12] Bénabou, R. and Tirole, J. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. The Review of Economic Studies 70, 3 (Jul. 2003): 489-520.

[13] Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., and Ryan, R.M. Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research 71, 1 (2001): 1-27.

[14] Hanus, M.D., Fox, J. Assessing the effects of gamification in the classroom: A longitudinal study on intrinsic motivation, social comparison, satisfaction, effort, and academic performance. Computers & Education 80 (2015) 152-161.

[15] Bogost, I. Persuasive games: Exploitationware. Gamasutra, May 3, 2011.

[16] Lauckner, J., and Baldwin, D. To Game or Not to Game: The Effects of Gamifying Our Website. (2012).

[17] Bogost, I. Gamification is bullshit. Ian Bogost Blog. August 8, 2011.

About the Author

Guy Boulet is a learning specialist for the Royal Canadian Navy Learning Support Centre where he is currently designing virtual environments for training. He holds a master's of arts in distance learning from TELUQ-UQAM.

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