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Kathy Sierra On Gamification In Education


Kathy Sierra, the well-known and respected tech writer and thinker, posted a lengthy comment on my post from earlier today titled The Dangers Of “Gamification” In Education.

I thought it deserved to be read more widely, and she graciously agreed to let me reprint it as a separate blog post.

For those readers who might not be familiar with Kathy, here’s a short bio:

Former game designer (Virgin, MGM), was a master trainer at Sun Microsystems (training the trainers), taught new media studies and interaction design at UCLA Extension, and created the Head First learning series for O’Reilly Media. Her books are currently the top-two longest-running technology bestsellers on Amazon, with more than a million copies in print alone. She believes the success of her books is due to applying game design principles to learning, and that gamification today has nothing to do with game design.

Here is her comment:

I like to categorize areas that can/might be gamification into at least three categories:

1. Probably “safe” to gamify
2. Possibly OK to gamify (depending on what form of gamification)
3. Probably dangerous to gamify (because of the side-effects)

This all assumes gamification as opposed actual (including “serious”) games, where most gamification is based entirely around externally-regulated extrinsic rewards.

In the “probably safe” category, anything that is a rote, low-cognitively challenging, low-creativity, NON-enjoyable task carries little danger of demotivation since there is nothing intrinsically pleasurable. However, there are other potential side-effects including what happens when you REMOVE the reward system later, or what happens if your reward system becomes *too* engaging and overwhelms the otherwise intrinsically rewarding things that might have emerged *around* this initially low-enjoyment task.

(so I guess that means I put even “probably safe” things in a “but be careful” context)

Most health compliance and physical exercise falls into the “probably safe” category as well.

Also, virtually any extrinsic reward system can be used somewhat safely as long as the rewards are NOT perceived by the receiver’s brain as “the reason I am doing the behavior”. This is a tricky one since it all happens below the level of conscious awareness. But if a reward is given randomly or more importantly — as a form of recognition rather than as a DO X AND EARN Y, then it serves a different function and is far less harmful. But most gamification today IS of the form DO X AND EARN Y. Another misconception people have is that the damage occurs only if Y (the reward) is a “tangible thing”, but the form of reward makes little difference. It is the “externally-regulated” part that causes problems, so status, peer pressure, etc. are all potentially damaging, according to the hundreds of studies loosely grouped under Self Determination Theory.

In the NEVER safe category, I would put most forms of learning and engaging including collaborating, creativity, reading, etc. These are the areas of gamification I find the most disturbing, though those who want to gamify are well-intentioned. And unfortunately, “engagement” can look promising once gamification (or any incentive system) is used, just as slot machines or any version of operant conditioning using positive reinforcement can lead to increased activity. But at a risk we should NEVER take.

The studies are both counter-intuitive and disturbing. The monkeys that enjoyed playing with wooden puzzles until given their favorite treat reward for solving the puzzles, at which time their puzzle-solving diminished. The kids given ribbons for their drawings then showed less interest in drawing. The writers shown a list of possible external reasons for writing immediately wrote less complex and interesting poems than those shown a list of intrinsically-rewarding reasons for writing. And on and on and on and on. Animals, humans, children, adults, across wide-ranging domains and in studies conducted by dozens of independent researchers.

I “get” the desire to believe in the power of “incenting behavior we want”, and especially when it comes to learning. But it is yet another example of short-term gains at a long-term risk. Gamification proponents believe they are taking the “elements of games” and applying them outside of games, but they are not. They are taking mechanics, and not the heart of what makes an actual game (or other intrinsically rewarding experience) valuable and compelling. Educators COULD learn from game designers, but game designers have essentially learned from good *coaches*… it is really about balancing challenges with increased knowledge and skill, facilitated by high-quality timely feedback.

If educators want to learn from game designers, they should use the parts of games that matter and leave the surface mechanics behind. Otherwise, we end up with mechanical behaviors, just as Skinner’s pigeons. They used positive reinforcement to do very complex-seeming behaviors, but in the end were nothing more than a long series of extremely simple behaviors chained into a sequence that only LOOKED complex.

Thanks, Kathy!

Reactions are welcome…

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I’m a former high school teacher in… Hmmm, Hong Kong. But I’m working on a history gameification platform for Chinese history, well, I found your article somewhat useful for me. I’m pretty impressed.

  2. Ralph Koster said Learning is Fun. If we use mechanics to get people to realise they are learning, then I don’t see anything wrong with the principle in any of the above circumstances.

    For me, adherence to SDT is all about keeping it internal to the process, creating an endogenic reward system. If a learner increasing in competence is at the heart of intrinsic motivation, surely a game-like system that recognises the improvement is not only a desirable but an essential part of the experience?

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  4. In Edmodo we can give badges to students for certain things. This is a good thing and students love earning them. I think that right now I’ve seen that the earning of badges is often called “gamification” when perhaps after contemplating on Kathy’s remark, it probably isn’t “gamification” in a true sense. It isn’t making it a game – truly it is just recognizing an accomplishment. I think that recognizing accomplishments is a great thing if done fairly and done well. I see her points and what she is saying, however, I’m concerned we don’t have a clear definition of gamification and thus it is hard to apply what Kathy has said to what we are doing in education. I think awarding badges (which most of what I’ve seen in gamification) isn’t really the same thing as gamification. Hope she comes back and responds. Thanks for turning this into a blog post – I will read Kathy wherever she goes. A lot of my work in digital citizenship is inspired by her incident and I keep thinking of preventing such things of happening to others. Thanks for sharing, Larry.

  5. Excellent and thought-provoking.

  6. @ben — “if we use mechanics to get people to realize they are learning…”.

    You are describing feedback, which IS at the very core of not just *realizing* they are learning, but actually learning. Without quality, timely feedback… any learning that occurs is largely accidental. So, the examples of success in gamification of exercise, for example, has raised awareness on the power of feedback. But the mistake is to view the feedback AS the motivator, rather than feedback as a support tool for the thing that is TRULY motivating — the act of making real progress in something that is both challenging and deemed “worth the effort.”

    Game designers don’t start out by asking “which mechanics should I use to motivate players and make an engaging experience”. Ever. They start by creating a context in which learning is likely to happen, though an artful balance of challenge and ability — these are what the brain finds rewarding, not the trappings of gamification.

    Educators want to gamify to take advantage of the high engagement good games provide, but why not look at what game designers themselves are really doing? The mechanics are simply tools in their tool belt, but always — ALWAYS — in service of a larger goal. Why not study the things game designers have learned from? Starting with Mihaly’s “Flow”, for example. Or the work of Ericsson on the development of expertise. We assume, when we gamify, that learning is inherently boring and we need to “sex it up” to create engagement. But what if we assumed (as brain scientists tell us and Koster references) that learning is *one of the most compelling forces in the universe* and that the default is that learning IS fun and engaging. Then we are left with a different question to answer, namely “so then what is it we do that gets in the way?”

    The desire to “add engaging elements” is one we all share, but in reality, we should be figuring out how to “remove the things that block/wreck/derail the natural desire to respond to challenges by increasing knowledge and skill.”

    In our books, for example, we used game design principles to ask NOT how to keep them turning the pages but instead now to keep them from STOPPING once they started. These are very different questions, when you assume the default state of the brain is to find deep learning as addictive as any drug.

    Somewhere along the way, we have decided that “learning needs to be made more fun”, forgetting that learning IS fun. (not the same as “being taught and tested”) So the better question is to look at all the things that make it LESS fun and either removing them or compensating for them as best we can. It is what the best games — and the best teachers do. Studying what the best coaches do is a great place to start, as they are heavy on feedback and manage to make extremely difficult things motivating *without* if/then rewards.

    • I like that assumption: “But what if we assumed (as brain scientists tell us and Koster references) that learning is *one of the most compelling forces in the universe* and that the default is that learning IS fun and engaging. ”
      That’s why I got into teaching ..

  7. What gets in the way? is a great question, and that needs to be considered at deeper and deeper levels to address the issues of where we go wrong with engaging people in content and learning for its own sake.

    In education we often tend to stop at ‘the content’ and only address the engagement. In this way, we focus on ‘measurables’, and then look to see how we get people engaged in the things we can measure. When students aren’t inherently engaged, we often assume it’s an issue to be resolved by stimulation and gamification. The tragedy is, that when we approach it that way we can see that stimulation bring measurable improvements in the outcomes, and yet misses the whole point entirely.

    The content is one issue. We have a world that’s deeply fascinating and worth understanding, yet we often create content that doesn’t let us relate with it. See Vi Hart’s video on pi for a sense of pi as content that gets in the way of deeper connection.

    The assessments and measurements are also an issue. We naturally tend towards addressing the things that will be assessed. As a result, a test’s limits in understanding our development can lead to a narrowing of what we attend to, and ultimately a narrowing of what we think we should attend to. We can lose track of what was really worth engaging in.

    Finally, after this synergy of content and assessment change, we seek any way we can to raise engagement in the narrow assessment driven scope of the contrived content by stimulating students any way we can. And we get results.

    But what do we miss, what are the things we really valued right at the start?
    It’s up to us to keep that alive, and to take responsibility for how our own systems betray the things we really want to share.

    What gets in the way? Often it’s us.

  8. Not really having a deep knowledge of some of the theoretical background to these arguments, I did have a thought based on my own lengthy experience as a university student.

    Perhaps education has already been gamified without any effort to do so. I have seen fellow students who exhibit the exact ‘Do X, Earn Y’ behaviour with respect to marks and assignments. The focus not being “Why is it intrinsically/practically/philosophically valuable to learn this material.” but “What minimum parameters (X) do I need to hit to get a mark of Y% despite the nature of the material and the purpose of learning it.” The idea being to get the prize (diploma, degree) rather than to gain experience and knowledge and have the acquisition of the credential be a reflection of that.

    Perhaps rather than warning against gamification in the over-operationalized learning environments we have now (and which seemed to have already fallen victim), we should be moving away from that environment in its entirety and focus on encouraging learners into being autodidactic, independent thinkers, critical thinkers, and knowledge synthesizers. Thinking of a decentralized apprenticeship or mentorship type of model. But I suppose that’s towards the radical end of thinking.

    Very much not my field, but a perspective nonetheless. Cheers.

  9. EK, I like your idea about education being gamified without effort. I think it’s close to that. Maybe it’s gamified because it’s the least effort to minimum outcomes.
    I think teachers have made room for it by constantly seeking the most efficient ways to manage crowd outcomes and account for the difference they’ve made. The attention to required minimums is a side effect of that focus.

    I once saw a student tidying his teacher’s desk. I said ‘Good on you’.. he replied ‘ I’m doing it for points’.
    It was gut wrenching. The points game is rife in schools from the very start. In this case, while basic behaviors were being cranked out like widgets by single minded point obsessed children, the children themselves were becoming widgets. Manipulated by the game master who just wants things done and the crowd controlled.

    From a distance, this classroom could have look like a complex, empathic community working together. But it wasn’t.
    It was just a co-ordinated flock of many small, aligned, empty binary choices, destined to collapse when the stimulus was removed. When tidying someone’s desk becomes something you do for points, then it instantly moves to being something you ONLY do for points. Something important was being damaged there.

    The radical end of thinking is great, and it gives us vision and perspective on our current state, but education is a supertanker. While some of us have understandably jumped ship and headed west in their zodiacs, others are making a play for the control room to get the whole damn thing turned degree by slow degree.

    When we value education, let’s talk about exactly what it is we value. for me, I love watching kids have the experience of the world having a little bit missing that they need to fill. Like finding a secret door in a large house.

    We’ve recently made particles move faster than the speed of light. For me this means the large house is something we build as we want, with what we’ve got available. But really, it’s all secret doors.

    I want our kids to earn the same fantastic gift that field-leading experts have. A profound, humble understanding of how much they don’t know and how fun that can be.

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  12. I agree with EK about marks and degree being same stuff as points and badges..gamification is just trying to put it in a more compelling and exciting way but the pattern DO X GET Y is quite old and very few people are complaining about it. I’m not an expert and this is just my opinion but, I think that the school system uses these kind of motivational tricks hoping that in the meantime teachers will be so good to transfer to the kids the love and curiosity for learning stuff despite of any other incentive. So, this is why I see gamification only as a different way of doing the same thing. As a computer engineer I’m interested in applying game mechanics to motivate people to be better citizens. Do you think it could work?
    Finally, I would love if Kathy could write down a couple of references about where to find some good sources to keep on this research.
    Thanks a lot 🙂

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  14. Some very interesting points here! As a teacher, I’m always looking to expand my teaching approaches and tools. There’s another blog talking about gamification and teaching, perhaps you’ve seen it I thought you might be interested

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