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The Gamification of E-learning: Christopher Lea and Christopher Patton

Page history last edited by Chris Lea 10 years ago


The Gamification of E-learning: Motivation for better learning?


Christopher Lea (8557670) and Christopher Patton (8739858) : Teaching and Learning Online: EDUC7005


1. Introduction


Gamification is one of the latest in a long line of buzz words being used in educational circles. Its links to video games make it a potentially beneficial motivational tool for online learners that goes beyond purely entertainment value. In this paper we will look at the concept of gamification in language education as a whole and in e-learning in particular. A significant amount of research has been done in recent years to try and determine how games and simulations impact the ability of learners to acquire and practice new language and also on the role it can play in motivating learners. We will review the various studies that have been done and the methodologies used before embarking upon a discussion of the results and what they mean to online language learners and teachers. Finally we will attempt to draw some conclusions from the work that has been done so far and predict how future research can contribute to learner development in an online context.


2. Definition of Gamification


It is important to make the distinction between gamification of  learning and game based learning. A simple and wide ranging definition of gamification proposed is “the use of game-play mechanics for non-game applications” (Deterding et al, 2011 in Muntean, 2012, p 323).  In (Lee, J. & Hammer, J., 2011, p 1) it is defined as “the use of game mechanics, dynamics, and frameworks to promote desired behaviour”. The same authors note that gamification is used in a number of fields where behaviour modification is desired, notably marketing and advertising.  A more thorough definition is “the application of gaming metaphors to real life tasks to influence behaviour, improve motivation and enhance engagement” (Marczewski, 2012 p 4, in Swacha & Baszuro, 2013, p 122). Most theorists writing about games and education seem to agree that providing motivation to the learner is a key to successfully implementing the gamification of an online course. The most common aim of gamification in online education is to increase engagement and enhance the user’s experience (Dominguez et al, 2012).


Gamification of learning online seems intuitively to fit well due to the nature of video game mechanics and the fact that the implementation of rewards and leaderboards is inexpensive and simple to achieve. However, we must look into empirical studies carried out in order to test this further before investing resources and time in its use in the design of an online course.These main components of gamified courses and learning activities are not exhaustive, Sailer et al (2013) point out that the list can also contain elements such as rules, levels, storytelling, among others.


Can be gained for participating in certain tasks or activities in the online environment
Awarded for completion of tasks and can be collected and displayed
Leader boards
League table showing the ranking of individuals compared to peers with their relative standings
Progress bars
Show progress towards a particular goal
Performance graphs
Provide information about performance, compared to previous performance on the same task
Tasks that are to be completed during the game
Games may be driven by narrative stories, which give games meaning
Chosen by players in a game, these represent the player visually
Profile development Tasks are often required to be completed in order to advance profile development and gain more badges


Table 1. Typical elements of game mechanics used in gamification (Sailer et al, 2013)


However, as Deterding (2011 b) makes clear, there must be meaningful elements beneath the game mechanics, if the game mechanics are the only thing driving the activity forward, the experience will be hollow and will not motivate users to continue. Thus, meaningful goals, based on intrinsic motivation, are essential elements in the gamification of an activity.


 3. Motivation in online learning


Keller (in Reigeluth 1983) defines motivation as choices made by people as to which goals or experiences they will engage with or avoid and how much effort they will spend to do so. This is a useful definition for online learning, however, it must be understood that it is not always the participant who will make these choices. In many cases, it will be the instructional designer who will decide which tasks it is necessary for the learner to engage with. For this reason, motivation in an e-learning context is a key concern for the instructional designer.


In an online learning environment, extrinsic motivation can be said to derive from external sources, where behaviour is driven by the benefits derived from the activity (Lee, Cheung & Chen, 2005), whereas with intrinsic motivation behaviour is driven by internal mechanisms, such as feelings of enjoyment or pleasure derived from the nature of the activity itself (Lee, Cheung & Chen, 2005).


The aim of gamification in an online teaching / learning environment is to combine intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to raise overall motivation and engagement (Muntean, 2012). However, this is not an easy thing to achieve and research has shown that extrinsic rewards can decrease intrinsic motivation, sometimes referred to as the overjustification effect (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 2001).


 4. Motivating factors of Gamification


Kapp (2012) states that motivation is the key concept in gamification. Therefore, we can assume that it follows that the main reason for employing gamification in an online course is to boost motivation, which in turn ought to lead to better learning.


“Learners should be motivated to learn. It does not matter how effective the online materials are, if learners are not motivated, they will not learn.” (Ally, 2009: p 28) Thus, this places motivation in a central position in online learning environments, and it is an aspect which must be considered by the teacher or instructional designer. However, thought must also be given to the type of motivation that will be needed. Intrinsic motivation comes from within the learner, and is difficult, if not impossible, for the teacher to create. Whereas extrinsic motivation, that comes from the design of the course of materials, or, in the case of gamification, rewards and achievements, is something that can be designed and controlled.


5.  Empirical studies of Gamification on learning



Some studies into the effects of game-based learning and gamification have focused entirely on testing and results. Rankin et al (2008) measured the difference in L2 vocabulary between face to face students and those who played a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called EverQuest II. They initially found that face to face students did a better job on vocabulary tests after their period of study than the game players did. A second study compared different ways of playing the same MMORPG. Some students played the game alone while others played in teams made up partially of Native English Speakers (NES). In this case the group who worked with the NES showed significantly higher results in testing than those who did not. The researchers concluded that “social interactions between native and non-native speakers became an integral factor in contributing to second language acquisition” (Rankin et al, 2008, p 5)


In a similar study Anderson et al (2008) looked at listening comprehension, again comparing students who studied face to face to those who played an online game. This time, students were asked to play the game America’s Army. The difference measured was that between students who were given a face to face tutorial, including vocabulary lists, and those who used the game’s online tutorial system. In this case, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in the listening comprehension results of both groups. In questions focusing on the students perceptions of learning via the game, the researchers noted a general positive feeling about using the game, but also a feeling that the support of an instructor was vital to success.


While these studies provided some data into the overall effect of game-based learning on test results, they did not delve too deeply into how well games motivate learners. Further studies looked at the issue of motivation in a more comprehensive way.


A quasi-experimental study into the effects of gamification and social networking in education was conducted by deMarcos et al (2014). The aim of the study was to try and measure the effect of gamification and social networking on large classroom environments and on participation rates. The researchers were also interested in whether the learners would have a positive attitude toward the tools.  The study involved three large groups of students in an Information and Communication Technologies course in Spain. The students were divided into three groups. The first group was the control group and had no gamification elements added to their routine, while the others were used to measure the effects of gamification and social networking respectively. 

The second group was given access to a gamification plugin that was added to their normal blackboard system. The plugin employed a number of badges for various achievements. Activities were divided into stages which allowed the learners to see progression, while some badges were hidden to provide a positive element of surprise. There enough activities in each level to allow the researchers to establish a leaderboard, meaning learners could draw additional motivation from their positions in relation to their peers. Finally, a discussion board was set up allowing learners to comment on the additions and their learning experience.


The third group did not have the gamification plugin added to their blackboard experience. Instead, they were given access to a social networking site that was set up to complement the main blackboard site. The learners initially used the site to view videos that provided instruction on basic computer tools. Learners were also provided with access to a range of common social networking functions including blogs, following and links to Twitter. For all three groups a pre-test, post-test design was used to collect data about the learners’ performance.


deMarcos et al (2014) started out by establishing that there was no significant difference in performance among the three groups on the pre-test. They found that the two experimental groups each outperformed the control group in four practical assignments. Further analysis showed that the social networking group outperformed the gamified group on two of these assignments (word processing and spreadsheets) with no significant difference on the other two (presentations and databases). They were surprised to find that the control group outperformed the other two groups in the final exam.  


 6.1 Potential Benefits of Gamification in e-learning


As Salmon (2002) says, motivation is a key factor in online learning, especially at the start of a course in order to promote effective engagement.


The biggest positive impact of gamification is that it seems to motivate learners in a number of ways. According to Lee & Hammer (2011), the traditional school environment fails to properly engage learners, which can cause negative behaviours like poor attendance, misbehaviour and cheating to be displayed. The use of gamification projects helps to set up different rules for learners. Instead of following the same routine, they suddenly have something different to look forward to and are more likely to engage with it in a more positive way. 


The gamified activties themselves can provide positive motivation through rewards, as well as negative motivation through punishments. Rewards can include simple things like points, badges or honours, level-ups, extra lives or progressions through the game hierarchy. Some of the benefits associated with gamification are the sense of progression provided by these rewards and the use of clear and achievable goals (de-Marcos et al, 2014).


McGrath and Bayerlein (2013) claim that the use of game mechanics in online courses can increase interaction and engagement with learning materials, resulting in a collaborative learning experience.


Further motivation comes from the opportunity to engage in social contact in games. MMORPG’s allow players to engage in chat or audio conversation with others in order to better perform in the game (Peterson, 2010). This interaction, whether with Native English Speakers or not, provides structure to the player/learners communication and an opportunity to practice language learned.


Deterding (2011 b) states that, from his research, one of the main motivating factors of gamification is status and reputation within your social community, which indicates that social factors have a key role in motivation and can be a driver for motivation.


6.2 Flow and Gamification


Csikszentmihalyi (2013)’s theory of flow  regards the level of challenge as a key factor in intrinsic motivation. Flow is a desirable state for game designers to achieve as it is the mental state of being completely focused on the task at hand and fully engaged in the task to the point of total immersion (Kapp, 2012).


Fig. 1 below illustrates relative levels of challenge and skill in a matrix that shows us that flow is best achieved with both relatively high levels of skill and challenge. This point of balance results in the learner experiencing flow. From this, it can be seen that negative indicators for motivation result in anxiety, apathy or boredom.


Kapp (2012) relates the theory of flow to gamification, saying that it is useful for providing the right level of challenge to learners, not too easy and not too hard. This can be designed into the system, which can provide the instant feedback necessary.




Fig.1 from Chen & Nilan, 1999


Chen, Wigand & Nilan (1999) argue that to experience flow in an online environment, there are four factors which need to be considered in task design. These are that tasks  must : provide immediate feedback; offer clear goals and clear rules; ensure adequate complexity and create dynamic challenges. If we consider these in the light of the gamified course, we can see that gamification offers clear goals and rules and is able to provide immediate feedback. However, adequate challenge and complexity in tasks is down to the course materials themselves. This would indicate that there may be a role for gamification in providing an organizational structure and extrinsic motivation and feedback in the form of rewards, but that flow would only be achievable through design based on sound pedagogical methods.




 7.1 Potential Drawbacks of Gamification in e-learning


The idea is that extrinsic motivation gained from the gamification of the learning materials can create a more fun environment, resulting in increased engagement and desire to learn due to the positive feedback mechanisms of rewards (Muntean, 2012). Negative motivation can include points or lives lost, the need to repeat levels, lower scores etc.

However, deMarcos et al (2014) suggest that an overemphasis on competition rather than collaboration in a gamified course could reduce participation of students and result in poorer scores than are achieved in more traditional e-learning approaches.


Muntean (2012) points out that the dangers of gamifying education are that, by applying extrinsic motivation to a course, this behavior could be internalized by students, thus reducing intrinsic motivation and creating the need for extrinsic rewards for students. Muntean (2012) links motivation to social pressures of acceptance and rejection.


Salmon (2002) says that teachers and instructional designers cannot create motivation on its own, but that it should be built into the design of the activities themselves that should build participation and enable learners to become more involved with the learning process. This would be a way of increasing intrinsic motivation rather than relying on extrinsic rewards.


Increasing extrinsic motivation can actually be a factor in demotivating students, especially those with existing high intrinsic motivation (Groh, 2012 in Glover, 2013). Increasing levels of extrinsic motivation can also reduce learning (Lepper, Corpus & Iyengar, 2005 in Glover, 2013), which is the opposite of any principal aim in an e-learning course. Such an effect suggests that gamification should be used extremely judiciously and that benefits need to be weighed against negative effects before committing resources to its implementation. Glover (2013) says that, for these reasons, gamified elements should be optional.


In e-learning environments, there is a suggestion that external motivators, such as rewards, can prevent participation in tasks which are intrinsically motivating and enjoyable (Newby & Alter, 1989 in Yoo, Han & Huang, 2012). Malone (1981) points out that extrinsic rewards can destroy intrinsic motivation and degrade task performance. Intrinsically motivated students will spend more time and effort on tasks and may learn better as a result.


Deterding (2011 b) also makes the point that by being driven by rewards, the user may not exhibit the behaviour that is desired by the designer. In an online learning context, the desired behaviour would be motivation to learn, however, the drive to score points and achieve greater social status through the accumulation of badges, may not positively affect learning at all. Deterding (2011 b) points out that by attaching rewards, such as points to an activity, the activity itself can be devalued.


Deterding (2011 b) also points out that one of the main motivating factors in games is that they are entirely voluntary. By gamifying a course, the instructional designer is making the game a compulsory part of the participation. The question needs to be asked whether this would be to the detriment of learners. Being forced to play a game, especially one that you may not enjoy, could prove demotivating for learners, and would consequently adversely affect motivation and learning.


If this is the case, it begs the question of whether gamification is really ever worth considering for using as a motivator in an online course. As participation is such a key part of a successful online course, decreasing this is not a desirable outcome.



7.2 Behaviourism in Gamification



There is a strong element of a behaviourist approach to learning in gamification theory. The idea that incentives and rewards are used to modify behaviour can provide effective short term results, but, withdrawal of these incentives may result in very little long term learning (Glover, 2013). As Ollikainen (2013) states, as a behaviourist approach to learning relies on rewards, the expectation of constant rewards is the mechanism that keeps learners engaged, once this is removed, the motivation will also be removed.


While it may be obvious to anyone watching someone playing a video game that they are extremely motivated (Sailer et al, 2013), the question remains as to whether or not this in-game motivation can be directed towards education, and whether or not this then results in better learning.


From a behaviourist perspective, learning occurs when future actions are influenced by positive and negative reinforcements in the past (Sailer et al, 2013). Gamification makes use of positive reinforcement through the use of rewards and quick feedback on task achievement. In an online setting, the feedback can be instantaneous as it is built into the design of the application. From this point of view, the learner is motivated to continue to collect rewards and is extrinsically motivated. There is no need for intrinsic motivation to play any part in this, as the reward, such as a badge or points, provide the necessary stimulus to keep playing. However, there is no indication that learning occurs here, the motivational stimulus merely propels the learner through the pre-defined, linear process, albeit in an enjoyable manner. 


8. Discussion



Motivation is clearly one of the most important elements of education. Learners of all ages, in all settings, need to be motivated in order to succeed. It is equally clear that motivation is a primary consideration in successful e-learning. Without proper motivation, either intrinsic or extrinsic, e-learners are unlikely to succeed in their educational goals. 


Prensky (2002) takes the view that most e-learning is painful and difficult and that the only way to make it engaging for learners is to make it fun. He sees fun as the primary motivator in e-learning. However, just because games are fun and engaging and education is at times difficult, this does not equate that by turning education into a game, fun will automatically follow and motivation will increase, leading to better learning. This fun element is just one part of the equation.


Lee, Cheung & Chen (2005) propose four ways to increase motivation and engagement with online learning environments, these are: by using the affordances of the rich and varied multimedia materials available online; by encouraging interaction between participants and building a sense of community; by providing immediate feedback on performance and by making the experience fun.


The question that needs to be addressed is how does gamification help drive these four factors. Gamification is very good at providing immediate feedback. By earning a badge for completion of a task, learners are rewarded for their work quickly and these rewards can then be displayed, to enhance the social status of the learner within the community. However, this is likely, in turn, to have a negative effect on the building of a sense of community. It is more likely that a collaborative environment will build a stronger sense of community. Rather than encouraging interaction between participants, gamification encourages competition. By gamifying the learning experience and making it competitive, the sense of community can be lost and can lead to serious demotivation.


Lepper (2009) warns that not all educational activities can be intrinsically motivating, despite the efforts of the conscious instructional designer. For this reason, gamification may provide a way to boost motivation, but ought to be used very judiciously for the reasons above.


In the area of varying the materials available, gamification can provide rich visuals, leaderboards and charts that help learners orient themselves within a course and visualize their progress. This is a beneficial aspect, but it still needs to be augmented with engaging materials and tasks, it is not enough to provide the structural components of gamification, such as the mechanics, and expect the course to be engaging and successful. These extrinsic motivators are helpful in a lot of cases, but tasks and activities need to be engaging in themselves in order to drive intrinsic motivation. Caution also needs to be exercised, as these same elements that may be introduced to boost motivation can also lead to demotivating learners who do not engage with the gamified dynamic.


The area of fun is also quite subjective. By making something fun, the designer is using subjective values and applying them to a diverse group of learners whose idea of fun may not be the same. The danger here is that designers see fun as adding funky visuals or jokes, however, it is more useful to see fun in course design in terms of Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow. Lee, Cheung & Chen (2005) describe this as occurring when actively engaged in challenging tasks, leading to peak experiences of intrinsic motivation. This notion of fun involves the learner in a far deeper learning process, without the need for external motivators such as badges and leaderboards. Thus, the designer’s efforts would be better utilized by concentrating them on the design of engaging and suitably challenging tasks that can increase intrinsic motivation, rather than the bells and whistles of gamification.


Every now and then, there comes along an idea that purports to be an answer. Gamification is a current favourite in many circles. As a business and marketing application, it could be a very powerful tool in driving sales and customer engagement with brands. However, as an educational tool for use in online course design to encourage motivation in learners, it is definitely not the answer, and in some cases could prove to be disastrous. A better answer to this question would seem to be that of the creation and nurturing of virtual communities of learners who are not only engaged with the tasks and activities, but who are also collaboratively participating in an online course.


The structure of a gamified course and the way the online system is designed can be said to provide the optimal conditions for encouraging flow. However, much of this must come from the design of the tasks themselves. Gamification can provide the structural organization, but the motivation must come from the task design. The implications of this are that gamification can help learners and designers by providing the mechanics that can be used to navigate an online course, but it is questionable as to whether aspects such as rewards add any useful motivational value.


In many ways, the use of gamification for online learning assumes that a technological solution is required to answer an educational problem. However, technological solutions are always socially shaped, they are not neutral tools (Kanuka, 2009 in Anderson, 2009) In fact, what most research and opinion suggests, and what we concur with, is that this solution should be pedagogical and that more research needs to be done in this area before any clear position can be taken either supporting or rejecting the notion that motivation can be improved through gamifying e-learning. 



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