Gamification, or the practice of making education more like a game, has a seductive appeal for educators—after all, who wouldn’t want their classroom to be as engaging as a game? Gamers are motivated to master new skills and apply them to solve problems in creative ways, are willing to persist in the face of difficulty, and enjoy themselves while doing all of this. If only our classrooms could be more like games, then students would enjoy learning!
It’s easy to forget, though, that games don’t just create this miraculous player engagement without the teacher putting in a lot of time, effort, and most of all research and testing to create their compelling gameplay. Many game companies hire psychologists to focus on making their games as psychologically satisfying as possible. Those kinds of resources are hard for educators to match.
Still, there is much we can learn from the psychological principles of game design, ideas we can use to create a classroom environment that students are excited to return to, with material they happily choose to engage with. There are all kinds of games (and all kinds of classrooms), but broadly speaking, let’s explore the general principles behind why games are so compelling.
 I’ll mostly be referring to video games in this piece, but all the psychological principles discussed apply just as much to boardgames, card games, puzzles, and other games as well.
Games are emotional…
…in the sense that games make us feel all sorts of emotions, namely fun, flow, and fiero. Different genres of video games can create other sorts of emotions too, like fear, or sadness, or joy—yet these other emotions are more on a game-by-game and a player-by-player basis. However, the “Three F’s” of fun, flow, and fiero are essential elements of game design.
 This is an Italian word that loosely translates to “pride” in English, but I’ll explain it in more detail in a later section.
Fun is a word we use a lot, but surprisingly there has been very little psychological research into the causes of it. We know it involves a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter behind motivation, reward, synapse formation, and what makes having fun “feel good,” and that playing a game is very much a source of “fun.” In video games, especially, a player must learn a lot of new skills—and it turns out that not only does the learning process release dopamine, but dopamine helps with successful learning. A well-designed video game introduces a player to successive skills to master and creates scenarios that require new and creative ways to deploy the skills, with well-timed releases of dopamine along the way keeping everything enjoyable.
Dopamine works something like this in our brains: a success or surprise causes it to be released; this creates a good feeling—the reward—a reconfiguration of neurons to remember how that good thing happened—the learning—and a desire to do it again—the motivation. This process is the reason games can be so addicting.
Still, despite the challenge in researching “fun,” some attempts have been made among game designers to describe different aspects of fun. Most influentially in the field is Nicole Lazzaro, who breaks fun in games down to four key components:
Easy Fun. The pleasure of exploring, engaging with the game controls, dabbling in creativity, enjoying the visuals, etc. A surface level kind of enjoyment that doesn’t require a lot of effort.
Hard Fun. When you experience success in the face of frustration or overcome difficulties. It’s very closely connected to the feeling of fiero (which I’ll talk about later).
Serious fun. The satisfaction of experiencing personal growth or the happy realization of having an impact outside of the game.
In an ideal world, a gamer should experience all four kinds of “fun” while playing a game (not necessarily all at once, of course). When we look to add fun to our classrooms, it does help to think of which kinds of fun we can target.
Many players become completely absorbed in the game, temporarily losing all awareness of time and self—only when interrupted do they realize that hours have passed, yet they hardly noticed at all. This sensation is known as flow,, a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who defines it as: “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Csikszentmihalyi believed that regularly reaching a flow state is an essential component of happiness. To describe this sensation to the uninitiated, he broke the flow state into 8 characteristics:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
It’s still unclear what exactly is happening in the brain during a flow state (though there are theories), but it does seem to be connected, with a lowering of activity in the prefrontal cortex (Dietrich, 2004). Since the prefrontal cortex is the home of our working memory, it would make sense that this area of the brain would slow down during flow because we temporarily lose our inner monologue while in this state.
The key to achieving flow lies in the task difficulty—if a task is too easy, we will experience boredom, but if it’s too hard, we’ll experience frustration. Instead, flow is reached in that Goldilocks Zone of a task that is neither too easy nor too difficult. Flow also doesn’t happen right away, but instead begins to activate after 10-15 minutes of sustained focus on a task. It has also been found that it’s more enjoyable to experience flow in group tasks than feeling it alone.
 It should be noted that flow is a positive emotion, that should not be confused with hyperfocus—the latter is associated with ADHD and can have negative impacts on a person’s life (like forgetting to eat meals, do important chores, or complete job tasks while experiencing hyperfocus).
Last, but not least, we have the most important emotion one can experience during games: fiero. It’s an Italian word that literally translates as “pride,” but that simple translation doesn’t fully capture the thrilling sensation of victory that we experience while feeling fiero. In her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011), Jane McGonigal describes fiero as: “… what we feel after we triumph over adversity. You know it when you feel it—and when you see it. That’s because we almost all express fiero in exactly the same way: we throw our arms over our head and yell” (p. 33).
This is an intense emotion that many of us crave, so we look “for challenges that we can overcome, battles we can win, and dangers we can vanquish” (p. 33). In a game, that emotional high might come from finally defeating a difficult opponent. In other areas of life, we might feel it when our favored sports team wins a match, or when we get a job offer from a dream company we’re excited to work for.
Fiero is, for many gamers, the primary reason they play games. It’s one of the strongest rushes of dopamine we can experience (McGonigal, 2011). It’s a physical response—we have to pump our fist(s) over our heads in an unconscious pose and vocalize (“YES!”)—as much as it is an emotional one, and it’s a feeling that will stay with us long after the initial success. It requires task difficulty to be high, high enough that success feels triumphant, but not so high that we experience frustration and quit. Calibrating the task difficulty to the player so that they regularly experience fiero is one of the greatest challenges of game design today.
Games are motivating…
…so much so that players want to continue playing, even if they are struggling or losing. As John D. Rich, Jr. so eloquently explains:
“Video games usually begin with easy challenges that introduce the player to the virtual world, and the mechanics of the game, providing them with reinforcements for solving the puzzles and obstacles in the form of new character abilities or access to new elements of the game. Each level asks you to continually try to achieve something that is just out of your reach, offering you the chance to feel good about yourself for doing something that was previously impossible. In addition, failure is not seen as a reason to quit but instead as information gathered that can lead to the eventual accomplishment.”
As mentioned at the beginning, game design is a science, and game designers work closely with their company psychologists and play testers to create games that are intuitive, with clear feedback to constitute what success or failure will mean for the player. Even in the earliest days of game design, developers were carefully considering what they could do to motivate players to progress through a game, as illustrated by this interview with Super Mario Bros. creators Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka as they explain how they designed the first level of their game. They talk about the trials and errors of their early drafts, and how their game evolved based on player behaviors.
The psychological underpinnings of game motivation are best explained by Self-Determination Theory. This theory, developed by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, attempts to explain why people do what they do. Their argument is that people, at their core, do things because of an inner need for growth and fulfillment. Ryan and Deci describe several kinds of motivation that exist on a spectrum and are regulated in different ways:
- Amotivation (non-regulation): when you are not motivated at all.
- Extrinsic motivation: when you are motivated by external forces, things like money, rewards, praise, etc.
- external regulation: motivated by receiving a reward or to avoid punishment.
- introjected regulation: motivated by obligation or guilt.
- identified regulation: motivated by agreeing with a cause or identity.
- integrated regulation: motivated by who you are as a person.
- Extrinsic motivation: when you are motivated by external forces, things like money, rewards, praise, etc.
- Intrinsic motivation (intrinsic regulation): when you are motivated by internal forces, like the joy of learning or personal interest.
When applying this theory to the classroom, achieving intrinsic regulation is the ideal because it’s considered the best form of learning. Intrinsically motivated students enjoy learning and applying skills in the classroom and are just nicer to teach to. Similarly, getting players to develop an intrinsic desire to keep playing is important for game designers as well, because that’s an essential component of the “fun” of gaming. Getting there requires helping players (and students) meet their psychosocial needs, which are divided into three broad categories:
- Autonomy: the need to feel in control of one’s life.
- Competence: the need to achieve success through skill mastery.
- Relatedness: the need to experience a connection with other people.
- Autonomy: the need to feel in control of one’s life.
Game designers are masters of creating environments that satisfy these three needs. Games encourage autonomy by giving players multiple pathways that they can choose to take during gameplay. There’s lots of extrinsic motivation to be had, with regular rewards that players earn—balancing these rewards, and the shots of dopamine they provide, requires careful planning as too many can actually inhibit the development of intrinsic motivation in the long run. Players receive regular—oftentimes instant—feedback that informs them of their competence at different aspects of the gameplay. There are also opportunities for players to feel success and acknowledge their growth through the game. Many games are social, with either in-person or online collaboration encouraged, allowing gamers to connect with each other towards a shared passion—the game they all enjoy playing.
Games are social…
… even if we’re playing alone. How else can the rise of “Let’s Play” videos on streaming video platforms be explained? Still, most people prefer to play games with other people—for example, the 66% of Americans who play video games do so socially 83% of the time. Of course, games encourage competition between players (“Who can get the highest score?”), but they also foster cooperation as well (“Let me show you how I got that high score!”).
An explanation of the root of human competitiveness may lie in Social Comparison Theory, first posited by Leon Festinger in 1954. Humans are social animals that rely on hierarchy to maintain order, so we have a natural urge to compare ourselves against others to determine where we lie in the social pecking order. Comparisons go in two directions: upwards (or looking up at someone we think is better than us at something) and downwards (or looking down at someone we think is worse than us at something). People use these comparisons to figure out where they themselves stand and as a form of self-evaluation for their own skills and abilities. The only way to know if you are “good” at something is to compare yourself against others and see how you rank against them.
Enter games. Games present numerous opportunities for us to compete—or compare ourselves—against others. We can play against people who are better than us, those who are similarly skilled, or those who are worse. Our enjoyment of competition does vary depending on the skill of our opponents; for example, we tend to play longer and with more effort when competing against those who are at a similar level as ourselves. However, we enjoy playing against those who are worse than us, since that means we are in a state of “winning” through more of the game (though it doesn’t feel as fun for the losing player). Winning feels good but, of course, it feels best—fiero—when achieved against a difficult opponent. Games are usually designed to balance the skill gap between players with the use of random chance, so that even the worst player can occasionally turn the tables and eke out a victory.
Games can also foster cooperation among players. In fact, there’s an entire genre now of cooperative games, wherein players must work together to achieve a shared goal—they either win together or lose together. Players must share resources, advice, and techniques to help each other win. Working together toward a common goal is a great way to experience social fun; achieving a group victory against difficult odds, a means for feeling fiero. The best games have a mix of both competition and cooperation, leaving it up to players to decide which of the two forms of socialization they want to engage in (a great example of autonomy!).
Understanding the core elements of what makes a game so great—emotion, motivation, and socialization—gives us targets that we can focus on when “gamifying” our classrooms and learning materials. This is a process, and not just simply a matter of bringing games into the classroom, and it’s a process that will be more likely to succeed when based on the psychological concepts introduced in this piece. Remember—actual game companies rigorously test their games, making sure that each game mechanic is working as intended.
For example, let’s say we want to gamify our grading system. One way to do so would be to utilize the practice of “ungrading,” by having all students begin a unit with 0 points. Give them an “experience bar” (it can be paper!) where they can track the points they earn. As they complete assignments and earn points (starting from zero and gaining points, like a video game), they fill in their experience bar. As they reach certain milestones, they get rewards, earn a letter grade, or whatever other kind of prize you want them to receive.
That doesn’t sound so difficult, does it? But there are quite a few caveats to even that simple example. For example, for this “experience point” grading system to work, assignments must be graded quickly and clearly—a long delay in getting feedback can be demotivating—so that students can calibrate their learning process. This system also requires the teacher to know—and communicate—in advance how many points any given assignment could be worth, and what will be needed to achieve success. This can be really hard to do if you’re making your curriculum on the fly. Finally, adding a simple “gimmick” like this alone will not be the magic bullet that creates engaged, autonomous learners in your classroom.
To reiterate: gamification is a process, and requires the utilization of psychological principles, conscious planning, careful design, and consistent testing. Done well, it is theoretically possible to make learning a more enjoyable process. Done poorly, it could well do the opposite! As for more practical ideas for gamifying the classroom, well, I’ll leave that to the rest of our contributors in this month’s issue.
Cook, D., & Artino, A. (2016). Motivation to learn: an overview of contemporary theories. Medical Education, 50, 997-1014. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/medu.13074
Dietrich, A. (2004). Neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the experience of flow. Consciousness and Cognition, 13(4): 746-761. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2004.07.002
McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Jonathan Cape.
Julia Daley still fondly recalls the thrill of pushing buttons to “help” her father play Super Mario Bros. on their old Nintendo Entertainment System when she was just a few years old. Julia enjoyed a brief stint as a professional gamer while playing League of Legends, before retiring from competitive gaming to focus on teaching. She still enjoys gaming casually in her limited free time.