Broadening the Definition of Gamification for L&D Professionals
Thursday, January 12, 2012

In my posting on Learning Circuits Blog, a reader left a thoughtful and interesting comment about points and the use of the term gamification and the Blogger software won't let me write my entire comment (too many characters) so I am posting my comment here. See Kathy Sierra's comments under What is Gamification and Why it Matters to L&D Professionals.

First, Kathy, as always, thanks for your thoughtful comments on the topic of Gamification. You always help to expand my thinking on the topic. Although, I have a couple of points of clarification that I'd like to make. 

You define gamification as "based entirely on operant conditioning, using +r in the form of rewards to reinforce behavior, especially the behavior of 'engagement'."   Your definition reminds me of the old folk story that originated in India where a group of people in the dark all touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but each only one part and they come up with different descriptions. One feels a leg and says the elephant is like a pillar; and one feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope, etc. Later they compare notes and are in complete disagreement because none of them has seen the entire elephant. (source)

I think you are only feeling one part of the elephant.

While points and rewards can be framed as operant conditioning and as a game-mechanic, it is only one part of gamification - one element, one piece. Not the entire definition of gamification.  If points or rewards were the single engaging element of games then the game Progress Wars  where you just click a button to get points would be the most popular game ever.

In almost every legitimate definition of gamification the term "game-based thinking" is used. This term encompasses ideas like challenge, story, instructive feedback, levels, characters and freedom to fail. These are not elements of a Skinner Box or operant conditioning. These are elements of  engaging games like Angry Birds, Civilization V, Red Dead Redemption and Monopoly. All enormously popular games that do not rely on points for motivation or engagement.

It is disingenuous to state that "virtually ALL game scholars, game researchers, and professional game designers are passionately against gamification." Serious and knowledgeable individuals like Sebastian Deterding and Amy Jo Kim and other well informed people are passionately for gamification - as properly defined.

Sebastian Deterding discusses gamification in terms of meaning, mastery and autonomy - concepts closer to Self-Determination Theory (a theory of intrinsic motivation) than operant conditioning. Amy Jo Kim discusses gamification as the design of the player journey where the player progresses over time, giving people something to master and building in emotional engagement.

Again, she is not discussing a Skinner Box approach to gamification, instead it is a thoughtful approach focusing on the overall experience and progress of an individual through some type of experience leading toward mastery.  Serious, well informed people are advocating for gamification beyond the concept of adding points to experiences.

But even points are not all bad or DEmotivational. It is true that points can, in some cases, be construed as extrinsically motivating; but they can and often are intrinsically motivating as well.

Research articles by Deci & Ryan, 1985 and Lepper & Henderlong, 2000 (some of the same researchers you mentioned  in your comment) indicate that in one sense something like desiring good grades can indicate that children are engaging in academic behaviors merely as a means to some extrinsic end.

BUT in another sense grades provide useful information about competence and mastery, and desiring this sort of feedback may reflect an intrinsic interest in the material or activity rather than an extrinsic orientation.

So are grades intrinsic or extrinsic? By extension then, are points, scores, and certain game rewards informational and, therefore, intrinsic and not extrinsic?  Giving points to someone (as a form of information about competence) is actually intrinsically motivating. Giving someone a reward related to a specific achievement that gives them information about their level of mastery related to the achievement is intrinsically motivating.  Informational-based points, rewards and achievements are intrinsic motivators, they are not operant conditioning.


Another interesting concept related to extrinsic motivation is that, over time, it might be possible that extrinsic motivators actually become intrinsic motivators. This is called "internalized motivation."

In the above mentioned article by Lepper and Henderlong, (2000) they state "One issue not addressed is the development of internalized motivation - those originally external motives that have over time become incorporated into one's personal goal or value systems." They go on to state that there is some suggestion in the literature that internalized reasons gradually supplant extrinsic reasons for engaging in disliked behaviors (Chandler & Connell, 1987) and that there are specific teaching practices that facilitate internalization (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, & Leone, 1994)."

Meaning that extrinsic motivations could eventually lead to intrinsic motivation - an area worthy of further study and a compelling reason not to dismiss points outright as dangerous. They, like almost any other instructional element, can be used appropriately or used inappropriate. Points are not inherently demotivational - it's how they are used, it's the design of the points system. Again, well designed systems of learning lead to positive results, poorly designed systems of learning lead to poor results. Just like every other instructional design element.

Your argument against points as solely extrinsic motivation needs be more nuanced than simply stating points undermine intrinsic motivation. In fact, points may actually be intrinsic motivators in many cases thus providing an excellent tool for learning and development professionals to leverage for instruction and motivation of learners.

Finally, given the idea that gamification is more than "operant conditioning, using +r in the form of rewards to reinforce behavior, especially the behavior of 'engagement'" then adding game elements to something like negotiation skills is gamification.

 If I take the content associated with negotiation skills and I add the elements of challenge, a story, instructive feedback, levels, characters and freedom to fail in the form of "The Negotiation Game" then that is the gamification of teaching negotiation skills.  How is adding game elements to a serious topic like negotiation skills not gamification given that it includes game-based thinking? It is adding game-based thinking, game mechanics and a game-based approach to learning - that is gamification. (Notice, I didn't even add any points or rewards.)

Perhaps it's just the word "gamification." So a growing trend now is to use the term "gamefulness" which may be less controversial as a term for discussing the concept of game-based thinking.

Regardless of what you call it, more game-based thinking can only improve the current state of mind-numbing, page turning e-learning--not harm it.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments about the subject of gamification.


Chandler, C. L., & Connell, J. P. (1987). Children's intrinsic, extrinsic, and internalized motivation: A developmental study of children's reasons for liked and disliked behaviours. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 5, 357 - 365.

Deci, E. L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B. C., & Leone, D. R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: The self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62, 119.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Lepper, M. R., & Henderlong, J. (2000). Turning "play" into "work" and "work" into "play": 25 years of research on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In C. Sansone & J. M. Harackiewicz (Eds.), Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance (pp. 257 - 307). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

About the Author
The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.
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