Uncertainty and Chance May Improve Learning in Learning Games

Monday, July 13, 2015

Instructors and instructional designers often try to reduce chance or uncertainty as much as possible in learning games. There are two sets of thinking behind this practice:  

  • Every learner has a “fair” opportunity to win or achieve success.
  • The focus is on learning—and not the game itself. 

But according to several research articles, that might not be the best course of action. In fact, several studies contend that it may be time to rethink learning games from the perspective of merely answering questions and consider adding the element of chance and uncertainty into the mix. It might not be “fair,” but it does seem that uncertainty adds an element of learning and motivation not found in learning games with no element of chance or uncertainty. 
Here are some abstracts from studies worth considering. 

Robinson, S. (2012) “Taking a Chance: Introducing Uncertainty into Learning Games.” Proceedings of the Academy of Educational Leadership, Volume 17, Number 2, Pages 21-26. 

Gamification is the application of concepts and techniques from games to other activities. While gamification is often used in business marketing activities, classroom activities can also benefit from this process. Today’s learners often view traditional classroom activities as boring or routine. Incorporating game-like elements into class activities can generate excitement, anticipation, and engagement with both course content and other learners. This is especially important in an era when students have greater expectations of being engaged or even entertained. 

Recent studies in neuroscience show that adding an element of chance and risk to classroom learning games can have a positive influence on learning. This study presents a brief theoretical background on the use of learning games and the results of research involving learning games involving risk-taking and uncertainty. 

As the research article states: “The results of this study show that most students prefer a level of chance greater than 0 percent when playing learning games. That is, they are willing to take some amount of risk rather than relying solely on skill for assured results.” 

Howard-Jones, P.A. and Demetriou, S. (2009) “Uncertainty and Engagement with Learning Games.” Instructional Science. Volume 37,Pages 519–536. DOI 10.1007/s11251-008-9073-6. 

Uncertainty may be an important component of the motivation provided by learning games, especially when associated with gaming rather than learning. Three studies are reported that explore the influence of gaming uncertainty on engagement with computer-based learning games. 


In the first study, children (10–11 years) played a simple math quiz. Participants chose their preferred reward for a correct answer prior to seeing each question. They could either receive a single point or toss an animated coin to receive two points for heads or none for tails. A preference for the uncertain option was revealed and this increased during the quiz. 

The second study explored the discourse around learning when pairs of participants (13–14 years) competed against the computer in a science quiz. Progress depended on the acquisition of facts but also on the outcomes of throwing dice. Discourse was characterized by a close intermingling of learning and gaming talk without salient problematic constructions regarding fairness when losing points due to gaming uncertainty. 

A final experiment explored whether, in this type of game, the uncertainty provided by the gaming component could influence players’ affective response to the learning component. Electrodermal activity (EDA) of 16 adults was measured while they played the quiz with and without the element of chance provided by the dice. Results showed EDA when answering questions was increased by inclusion of gaming uncertainty. Findings are discussed in terms of the potential benefits of combining gaming uncertainty with learning and directions for further research in this area are outlined. 

Researchers state: “Our results suggest that gaming uncertainty can transform the emotional experience of learning. This may improve engagement and, more importantly, may also improve encoding and later recall. It has been reported elsewhere that memory for items encoded in a positive emotional context is improved, compared to neutral or negative contexts.” 

Ozcelik, E., Cagiltay, E. N., and Ozcelik, S. N. (2013) “The Effect of Uncertainty on Learning in Game-Like Environments.” Computers and Education. Volume 67, Pages 12-20. 

Considering the role of games for educational purposes, there has an increase in interest among educators in applying strategies used in popular games to create more engaging learning environments. Learning is more fun and appealing in digital educational games and, as a result, it may become more effective. However, few research studies have been conducted to establish principles based on empirical research for designing engaging and entertaining games so as to improve learning. 

One of the essential characteristics of games that has been unexplored in the literature is the concept of uncertainty. This study examines the effect of uncertainty on learning outcomes. In order to better understand this effect on learning, a game-like learning tool was developed to teach a database concept in higher education programs of software engineering. 

The tool is designed in two versions: one including uncertainty and the other including no uncertainty. The experimental results of this study reveal that uncertainty enhances learning. Uncertainty is found to be positively associated with motivation. As motivation increases, participants tend to spend more time on answering the questions and to have higher accuracy in these questions. 

As the research paper states: “Instructors often try to reduce chance as much as possible to make a learning game seem fair, but the danger is that the “game” becomes more like a public quiz or test. Introducing uncertainty into games can also make them more pleasurable, making them feel more like games.”

For more on game design, Karl will be facilitating ATD's LearnNow: Game Design workshop, September 22-23 in Atlanta, and December 8-9 in San Francisco.

About the Author

Karl Kapp is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA and is the author behind the widely read “Kapp Notes” blog and a regular contributor to ATD’s “Learning Circuits” blog. Karl has written or co-authored six books on the convergence of learning and technology including the bestselling book “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.” In that book, Karl explores the research and theoretical foundations behind effective game-based learning. He examines everything from variable reward schedules to the use of avatars to the use of games to teach pro-social behaviors. Karl’s latest book is a fieldbook which takes the ideas from the Gamification book and provides instructions for implementing those ideas. It’s called “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice.” Karl is committed to helping organization’s develop a strategic, enterprisewide approach to organizational learning. He believes that effective education and training are the keys to increased productivity and profitability. He can be reached at

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