Motivating through gamification

“Students take on the role of lawyers in a simulated legal case, so they have to take sides with a client who presents [legal] problems. We have two elements that stimulate motivation: on one hand there’s the logic of competition […] and then there’s cooperation…” Quote from interview with Educator – EI03.

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In the research literature, gamification is seen as the application of game design elements in non-game contexts, where the elements do not constitute a fully-fledged game (Deterding et al., 2011). Although the term has come into general use only quite recently, basics elements of gamification like accumulating points and earning badges have been employed for years in different contexts, such as commercial loyalty programs.

In recent years, gamification has gained momentum within the business, corporate management and wellness sectors, and has raised interest in the academic and educational domains as well.

Undoubtedly, the key aspect driving researchers to analyse gamification in education is its potential for boosting motivation and engagement.

In their literature review, Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa (2014) report positive overall results in terms of perceived motivation, engagement and enjoyment of learning tasks, but stress that negative outcomes may also be present, for example stress due to increased competitiveness among students, or distraction from learning objectives.

The discourse around motivation informs the literature on game-based learning globally, with almost general agreement about the positive motivational power of games. That said, there is considerable debate about the different types of motivation game elements foster, be it intrinsic (internal drive to perform an action) or extrinsic (drive triggered by external influences), as well as the impact each of these may have on learning (Deci et al., 2001).

This scenario deals with the issues of motivation and competition, portraying the potential benefits of carefully designed gamification. It’s inspired by an example of meaningful gamification reported in the research literature (Nicholson, 2012), in which conventional gamification elements like points are integrated with deeper game elements like narrative and challenges (Enders & Kapp, 2013). Here, extrinsic incentives trigger intrinsic motivation in some learners. It also highlights that whilst competition with peers can have a negative impact on learning, it can also stimulate motivation. Example of this include inter-team competition and the sense of  achievement generated when learners complete a challenge.

Meet Carla and Samira, law students

Carla and Samira are two friends studying law at university. They’ve just met up in the law faculty corridor and they’re having a chat about university life. Carla knows that Samira has taken civil law and she’s curious to know how her course is going. Carla herself took civil law the previous year and found it really hard going: it’s a demanding subject calling for hours and hours of study. In the end she had to repeat the final exam several times before she managed to pass. It was particularly tough because she found civil law boring and had no feeling for the concrete application of what she was studying. This year, though, Samira is attending the course with a new teacher who’s restructured the course. After the first month, the teacher introduced a sort of a game that simulates an entire legal case. The students are playing the role of lawyers and have to complete some tasks in the effort to win the case.

Now Carla wants to know more about the approach. When she was at high school, a teacher tried to introduce something similar but it was all about earning points to boost your position in the final ranking. This made her feel frustrated and stressed because she really doesn’t like being compared with her classmates. No way did earning points motivate her to study.

Samira tells Carla how different her experience is from that. The teacher set up a complete legal case, with a client who comes to a law firm for help. In this way, the students are fully immersed in a legal battle. They all work together in teams so that no one is left out. An assistant lecturer represents the opposition, and a real judge plays the role of the judge. So there’s no competition among the students themselves. The teams work on tasks that reflect the actual steps taken in legal cases and the students behave like real lawyers, studying the law and drafting all the necessary documents. In this way, they gain a real working knowledge of the civil law code. At the end of each task, each group presents its work in the form of a document, or is involved in a simulated judicial hearing. All the team outputs are assigned a grade and feedback is given. So each of the teams proceeds in the case but the final outcome depends on how they perform. The positive aspect is that all the groups can, in principle, win the case if they complete the tasks satisfactorily. Carla sees how completely different Samira’s experience is from her own, and appreciates the way the professor is approaching the subject. Nevertheless, she points out that, at the end, there’s still an exam on the civil law code to pass, and it won’t be all fun and games like the playful experience Samira is engaged in now. Samira agrees, but explains that the game gave her the opportunity to experience a concrete application of the code and so now she’s more motivated to study it, however daunting it may be. In the end, she reveals that actually she’s quite a competitive person and so the approach suits her well.

In a nutshell

The application of gamification in education is a fairly new approach that needs to be analysed further. Benefit would be gained from more rigorous studies investigating aspects like the mapping of the game elements in relation to individual learners and also to specific contexts, as well as short and long term outcomes. Researchers and policy makers should invest along these lines.

Gamification should be carefully designed so to make the most of gaming motivational power.

Gamification is a way to design a playful learning environment that can host a comprehensive learning path. Designing and implementing a gamified experience, possibly entailing blended (online and face-to-face) interactions, is a feasible undertaking for individual teachers, whereas digital game development requires a range of professional skills. Gamification also lends itself to progressive and manageable cycles of design, deployment and validation.

Competition can create stress and harm collaboration, therefore its integration in learning environments should be preceded by careful consideration of the specific application context. Ideally, it should also take different forms.

Competition can be a suitable game element to include in gamification, preferably in the form of  personal challenge to achieve a goal, or as part of a mixed collaborative/competitive strategy.

Gambling and dark design

“The problem is a lot of the [free-to-play] games do use the gambling style mechanics to generate an addiction to try and maximise the revenue from those players. So done well with the right game, I don’t think free-to-play is a problem at all. But like anything it can be used irresponsibly.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28783.

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While academic research demonstrated a bias towards studies of violence, developer and player stakeholders in particular were more concerned about the manipulative application of psychological principles linked to dopamine triggers in the brain. These were referred to broadly as ‘dark design patterns’ and commonly tied to paid activities, such as compulsive buying of in-game goods or creating gambling-related reward systems. These systems frequently exist in legal grey-areas. For example, under British law the purchase of ‘loot crates’ (random collections of in-game items that may significantly improve the player’s performance) is not considered gambling because the player cannot ‘cash out’ their winnings (i.e. sell the in-game items), but other countries have varying legal perspectives on this. Regardless of perspective, many competitive games rely on small loot-crate-esque purchases to bring in the only source of revenue that the developers get, so changing the legal status of loot crates may have a profound impact on many game developers; however, the methods of stimulating purchases can be done in a variety of ways, on a scale from fair to manipulative. When implemented unfairly, these systems can result in heavy financial burdens for vulnerable players. The loot crate idea, and other systems like them, are not a priori manipulative, but the presentation and surrounding systems may make them socially problematic. Careful evaluation and tracking of such systems is likely to be a much more urgent concern for the future ethical status of video games than scare-mongering stories about violence.

Meet Karen and Davide, players of an online multiplayer warfare game

Karen and Davide have been playing online together for a few years. They both have two jobs to try and make ends meet, so playing a free game online in the evenings is a cheap way of relaxing. Characters in the game can be slowly made stronger, but there’s a random chance of getting a big boost to your character if you pay for a loot crate. Most of the crates have only minor improvements in them, but occasionally a bigger benefit will be in there and many players want to accelerate their characters’ growth to win more fights.

While some players may have enough money to spare to invest in virtual in-game goods, not everyone does. Some games are purposely balanced to entice players to buy a random loot crate in the hope that the reward will enhance their overall enjoyment of the game. However, each purchase is a gamble that might pay off, and if it doesn’t players can feel like it is worth spending more to have another chance of success. Various social mechanisms, variable-ratio schedule reward systems, game design choices, balancing of league competitions, and other techniques can be applied to push players to spend their money. These psychological techniques are linked to both gambling and addiction, and may affect players differently. Without sufficient current research, it is hard to say whether vulnerable players may particularly be negatively impacted, or if there are appropriate precautions that game developers could take to maintain their livelihoods without the risk of damaging or exploiting their players.

In a nutshell

The ethical spotlight in video game research is often pointed at violent games, but other aspects of game design would benefit from ethical study. Dark design patterns that exploit or manipulate players need to be closely examined with a balanced review that can guide developers away from using them either intentionally or accidentally.

Studies into past and present systems of monetisation and compulsion-inducing gameplay should be conducted. Great care needs to be taken to recognise the complexity of game systems and balancing: loot crates and many similar aspects of game design are not automatically unethical, and neither are free-to-play games, but aspects of their content and context may lead them to be exploitative or manipulative. Such studies will need to be conducted with the assistance of industry professionals who can assess and the multiple subtle ways in which such systems are implemented across the whole game experience, not only as an isolated systems. Such an isolation would result in flawed or binary moral/immoral judgement that does not match the nuance with which such systems can be integrated into games; such an outcome would not benefit the industry, nor would it contribute to potential guidelines.


Reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play

“The very act of playing […] assumes certain privileges and how we interact with others […] just the kind of social and financial and cultural capitals that people need to play […] I think we don’t necessarily think about those people that don’t sit within the same paradigms”-  Quote from an interview with a researcher. R09.

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As one of the multiple ethical considerations raised by our participants, a notion of ‘play as privilege’ was posed by one researcher during our interviews, highlighting a specific ethical concern around the assumptions made about the use of video games and gamification techniques in particular contexts.  This suggests the need for a consideration of ethics around video games that is highly contextualised and dependent on the particular experiences of those involved in gameplay. Here, ethics is positioned as being contingent on social factors, rather than necessarily being an inherent feature of the game itself. Moreover, it suggests that any ethical agenda around video game scholarship should include a careful critique of the context in which the game in situated and the privileges that are being assumed (or otherwise) by the researcher.

This scenario, therefore, is about reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play in social research. Instead of taking a top-down approach, where a gamified strategy is viewed as a universal  ‘magic bullet’ for improving an educational experience, the researcher adopts a ‘bottom-up’ mindset, involving the participants in the design of the project.

Meet Iain, a digital media researcher and Ruby (aged 8) a school pupil

Iain has designed a project to look at the affordances and constraints of using a video game in a geography lesson, with a particular focus on the attitudes and experiences of the participants involved. Rather than focussing purely on the educational outcomes of the planned intervention, Iain is careful to explore with the children their perceptions of the task. Moreover, working alongside the children, rather than dictating the approach he tentatively designed, he encourages them to explore their own usage of the game. Taking advice from the children, he adapts the approach to suit their needs. He ensures, for instance, that the intervention allows for independent work, as well as group work as some of the children express their anxiety at being made to play alongside others. Some children also explain that they feel that they need access to more conventional learning materials, such as books and on-screen texts, in order to help them make sense of the learning task.

By the end of the intervention, Iain has developed a complex and multi-layered approach to incorporating a video game into a particular educational context which is perhaps much more nuanced than the original top-down approach he had in mind. While this approach could not necessarily be adopted in every context, Iain’s final research output makes a number of valuable methodological recommendations for researchers and educators looking to make use of video games in a range of contexts.

In a nutshell

Play can be powerful, enjoyable, exciting and empowering. However, play does not suit everyone, all the time.

We need to take a critical approach to game play in order to consider more about the context in which it may and may not be most appropriate.