Gamification, Badges and Not Learning

by Jeremy Hodge on February 21, 2012

When people hear the word gamification, they immediately think of virtual badges, much like on Foursquare. However, gamification is a lot more than just badging, it’s about motivating a user base through different game design techniques. If you want to get a sense of the many different elements, I’d highly recommend checking out the SCVNGR game mechanics deck, which lists out 47 different principles of gamification. While there is definitely a lot to learn from various game mechanics in the way we design experiences, we need to be careful in how we use some of these principles to tap into human motivation.

One of the most fascinating books I’ve read about human motivation is Drive by Daniel Pink. Pink talks at length about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the benefits and downsides of each (for a nice summary check out this video from the RSA). In short, intrinsic motivation is being motivated by the joy of doing something, whereas extrinsic motivation is being motivated by externalities such as a reward (a cash prize or recognition) or even a punishment (if you don’t do your homework you get a detention). In all of Pink’s research it shows that extrinsic motivators are beneficial for repetitive, low-skill work, whereas intrinsic motivators are essential for knowledge work. Gamification principles such as badging fall under the extrinsic motivator category, yet more and more they are being used as a motivator for knowledge work.

In the area of online education, there are a lot of companies implementing badging in their experiences. Khan Academy and Codecedemy are two examples of learning platforms that use lots of badging and achievement unlocking to try and motivate people who are studying math and programming. However this turns the learning experience from a quest for knowledge, to a quest for badges. Education Technology enthusiast Audrey Watters wrote a post about some of the problems with Codecademy, and touched on this very issue of motivation.

“I’ve got badges. I’ve earned achievements. And I don’t know shit… The pursuit of knowledge about programming shouldn’t be conflated with the pursuit of badges. That’s the beauty of this sort of DIY learning tool too — the people who want to learn to code want to learn to code and the reward should be that knowledge, not some virtual item.”

I couldn’t agree more with Audrey, the intrinsic motivation of wanting to create your own programs should trump any sort of extrinsic rewards that you gain. The problem is that a lot of people don’t understand human motivation, and they think that the motivation for learning is tied to these types of rewards. Codecademy co-founder Zach Sims, shared this view when he responded to Audrey’s post.

“If you ask most people what stopped them from reading their entire programming book (and we’ve talked to hundreds of people), it’s almost always that they aren’t motivated enough. In school, learning is motivated by report cards and teacher expectations.”

I’m sure any teacher will tell you, that their most motivated students, and the ones that actually learn and internalize the material, are the ones who are motivated by the subject matter itself. Sure, grades and teacher expectations are important but they are not the primary driver in attaining mastery of a subject. In addition, programming is hard, it requires discipline, and will not produce immediate results and satisfaction. I myself am a user of Codecademy, and while I like the platform, I feel it’s too focused on leveling, badges and achievements, and the badges I receive for completing certain tasks, means absolutely nothing in terms of my abilities. I realize that it’s going to take A LOT of work to really understand and use the concepts in an effective manner. At the end of the day I’ll be able to demonstrate my knowledge not by being a “Level 100 super code master” but by being able to write an application on my own.

We live in an age of instant gratification, and people get frustrated when they don’t immediately get something for their efforts. However, many things in life, whether it’s learning to play guitar or build a webpage, are not going to give you instant satisfaction and takes a lot of hard work. Yet in the end, the fruits of your labor are extremely rewarding.

When I was studying jazz saxophone and composition in college, I didn’t get a back pat whenever I learned a new song or wrote a couple bars of a piece I was working on, I was motivated the desire to master my craft, learn everything I could about music and at the end of the day, perform and share my music with others. There were many hours I spent practicing scales and sight-reading, and while these weren’t the most enjoyable things to practice, they made me a better player and allowed me to create music that I could feel proud of. While I believe we can improve online learning experiences by incorporating gamification principles, we can’t ignore the fact that hard work and discipline are an essential part of the learning process.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Haris Krijestorac February 21, 2012 at 11:57 am

I often think about how gamification can help organizations operate better internally. Misalignment of goals among employees is a frequent problem in businesses. In a corporate setting people can sometimes try to make themselves look good before trying to achieve business results. If companies had a system that could align employee goals to real business goals, they could become more effective as a whole.


Andrew Vince February 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm

We need to work to enhance intrinsic motivation on all fronts, from K-12 and higher education to R&D to financial services. Trinkets (levels, badges, etc.) are all well and good, but are by nature superficial. We need to foster deeper thinking and learning. A great tie into Daniel Pink’s work is the work of Carol Dweck, as outlined in her book Mindset. Basically, there are people who generally favor a fixed mindset (those who believe intelligence is a fixed quantity, that there are “smart people” and “not-so smart people”) versus those who tend to have more of a growth mindset (those who believe they can achieve mastery through hard work). Those who trend more towards a growth mindset are more likely to take on challenges and therefore eventually succeed.


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