school game

The Psychology of Gamified Education

The aims of placing game elements in a non-game environment might be driving engagement (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011; Kapp, 2012; Zichermann & Linder, 2013), motivating action, promoting learning, solving problems (Kapp, 2012), or aiding behaviour management (Muntean, 2011). Several psychological theories have been applied to gamification to explain how it is possible to achieve these aims by utilising game elements (Kapp, 2012). This section will summarise how gamification can benefit from motivational theories in an educational context.

Operant Conditioning

With the use of rewards and punishment, Skinner (referred to by Kapp, 2012; Werbach & Hunter, 2012) conditioned animals to perform actions and found that different behaviour patterns could be established with different reinforcement schedules. Skinner’s reinforcement schedules can be used in game design to promote long-term player engagement (Kapp, 2012). If certain points, badges or other rewards are supplied on a variable basis, students in the gamified learning environment will be more likely to perform those actions in the future. In the variable reward schedule “a prize or reward [is] delivered on some nonpredictable basis, such as the payoff of a slot machine” (Werbach & Hunter, 2012, p. 133). The effectiveness of the variable reward schedule can be attributed to the neuro-scientific finding according to which “uncertain rewards release more dopamine than predictable rewards” (Kapp, 2012, p. 102).

Self-Determination Theory

Behaviourism, the theory which includes operant conditioning, focussed exclusively on extrinsic rewards as motivational tools. The self-determination theory (SDT), a cognitivist approach, however, claims that intrinsic motivation, i.e. motivation which stems from one’s inborn appreciation for something, is more powerful (Werbach & Hunter, 2012). Ryan & Deci (2000), the formulators of SDT, identify three innate needs, which, when fulfilled, give room for intrinsic motivation. These needs are (1) autonomy, i.e. feeling in control, (2) competence, i.e. a feeling of mastery and the need for challenge, and (3) relatedness, i.e. being connected to others. Ryan, Rigby and Przybylski (2006) applied SDT to computer games and concluded that game enjoyment and intentions for future play were closely connected with experiencing autonomy, competence and relatedness throughout gameplay. Consequently, gamification systems should be built in a way that they satisfy these three needs. A feeling of mastery can be evoked by the feedback points and levels provision, the need for autonomy might be met by offering a great number of choices, and relatedness might be established by embedding options for sharing achievements on social networks such as Facebook (Werbach & Hunter, 2012) or by leaderboards displaying the names of people who have interacted with the system (Kapp, 2012).

Extrinsic versus Intrinsic Motivators

When inherently interesting tasks are rewarded with extrinsic motivators, the original intrinsic motivation is likely to be substituted with an extrinsic one (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999). This phenomenon has been observed by various psychologists and has been labelled as overjustification, corruption effect, cognitive evaluation or crowding-out effect (Frey & Jegen, 2001). The crowding-out effect should be taken into consideration when gamification systems are devised so that intrinsic motivation remains unextinguished (Werbach & Hunter, 2012).

This does not mean, however, that extrinsic rewards are to be ruled out, as supplying them for dull, repetitive tasks is absolutely ideal (Werbach & Hunter, 2012). Another argument supporting the use of extrinsic reward structures is that intrinsic motivation is not the opposite of extrinsic motivation, and the two usually coexist, even within the same reward structure (Kapp, 2012). For instance, points, which are usually considered extrinsic motivators, can also provide feedback about students’ level of mastery and thereby strengthen their feeling of competence and generate intrinsic motivation (Kapp, 2012). Gamified systems should, therefore, feature both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators (Kapp, 2012; Werbach & Hunter, 2012), and their designers should pay special attention not to devise non-informative or functionally superfluous rewards (Kapp, 2012).

Reward Types and Intrinsic Motivation

Deci, Koestner and Ryan (1999) differentiated between tangible and verbal rewards; expected and unexpected rewards; task-noncontingent, engagement-contingent, completion-contingent and performance-contingent rewards. Task non-contingent rewards, such as salary, are not connected to specific tasks nor to performance. Engagement-contingent rewards are provided “for engaging in a task, independent of whether the task is completed or done well” (p. 640), while completion-contingent rewards are obtained when the task is completed, whereas performance-contingent rewards are bound to performing well in a task. Deci, Koestner and Ryan’s (1999) summary of meta-analyses revealed that unexpected tangible rewards do not tend to undermine intrinsic motivation, and that verbal rewards could increase both free-choice behaviour and self-reported interest, the latter enhancement not applying to children but college students only. All the other types of rewards had a negative effect on intrinsic motivation, with the exception of performance-contingent rewards, which undermined free-choice behaviour but did not tend to decrease self-reported interest.

The Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) added another factor, and distinguished controlling verbal rewards such as “Good, you're doing as you should” from informational ones, e.g. “I haven't been able to use most of the data I've gotten so far, but you're doing really well, and if you keep it up I'll be able to use yours” (Ryan, 1982, p. 452), the former undermining, the latter enhancing intrinsic motivation. Rewards can be designed in an informational fashion by

(1) “minimizing the use of authoritarian style and pressuring locution”, (2) “acknowledging good performance but not using rewards to try to strengthen or control the behaviour”, (3) “providing choice about how to do the tasks”, (4) “emphasizing the interesting or challenging aspects of the tasks” (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999, pp. 656-657).

From the perspective of gamification, the fundamental weakness of the studies on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is that they had increased focus on tangible rewards, which gamification practitioners are less likely to offer (Kapp, 2012).

The SAPS Framework

Gamification systems can provide a wider variety of rewards, which cannot be conveniently categorised as tangible nor as verbal rewards. Zichermann and Cunningham’s (2011) SAPS framework might better address the problem of classifying rewards in gamification. The SAPS framework groups rewards under four categories, arranged in an ascending order of price and a descending order of desirability.

The first category is that of status, which expresses “the relative position of an individual in relation to others, especially in a social group” (p. 10). Examples of status reward structures include badges, levels and leaderboards. Rewards which fall into the second category, access, open up exclusive opportunities, for instance more affording time constraints in case of a specific task (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011; Zichermann & Linder, 2013). Power rewards, the third category, give the player “a modicum of control over other players in the game” (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011, p. 12). The most expensive reward structure in the framework is called ‘stuff’, which refers to the use of tangible rewards such as giveaways, freebies, gift cards or cash (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011; Zichermann & Linder, 2013). Not only is ‘stuff’ the least cost-effective reward type, but also the least engaging one, as the incentive it provides only exists until the reward is redeemed (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011).

Flow Theory

Another motivational theory gamification can benefit from is the flow theory. Its formulator, Csíkszentmihályi (1990) observed that games were capable of focusing attention and producing a state of flow. He also noted that tasks which resembled games brought more enjoyment due to the immediate feedback, the clear goals, the challenges and the variety they operated with. Gamification designers should therefore pay attention to the feedback their systems provide and establish the conditions necessary for users to enter into a state of flow (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011; Kapp, 2012; Werbach & Hunter, 2012).

Flow is a mental state in which the subject is so fully engaged in the activity that their concern for self disappears and they lose their sense of time (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). Flow is only experienced “when a person’s skill is just right to cope with the demands of a situation” (Csíkszentmihályi, 1988, p. 32), otherwise the activity will result in boredom or anxiety.

Further Implications

Kapp (2012) applied twelve motivational and learning theories to gamification and synthesized the implications that can be drawn from them. The chart in which Kapp summarises the impacts of the theories he addresses can be found in Kapp, 2012, p. 74


In conclusion, gamifying the ESL classroom is a complex and thoughtful process, which means more than extending the assessment system by adding points, badges and leaderboards. If the underlying dynamics and motivational aspects are not given serious consideration, the harm caused by gamification can outweigh the benefits. A poorly designed gamification system is likely to undermine intrinsic motivation, whereas a well-designed one is able to engage students in the long term. Behaviourist experiments, the self-determination theory, the cognitive evaluation theory, the flow theory, other frameworks (see Appendix 2) and previous research ventures can inform language teachers who aim to create engaging, gameful experiences for their students. By implementing the variable reward schedule, offering a great deal of choices and informational rewards, defining clear goals, providing immediate feedback, embedding social sharing options and weaving stories into the system, one might expect positive outcomes.


  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1988) "The Flow Experience and Human Psychology," in Csíkszentmihályi, M. and Csíkszentmihályi, I.S. (Eds.), Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15-35.
  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological bulletin, 125(6), 627.
  • Kapp, K. M. (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.
  • Muntean, C. I. (2011). Raising Engagement in E-Learning Through Gamification. In Proc. 6th International Conference on Virtual Learning ICVL (pp. 323-329). Retrieved, March 1, 2015, from http://icvl.eu/2011/disc/icvl/documente/pdf/met/ICVL_ModelsAndMethodologies_paper42.pdf
  • Ryan, R. M. (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of personality and social psychology, 43(3), 450.
  • Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
  • Ryan, R.M., Rigby, C.S., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 347–364.
  • Werbach, K., & Hunter, D. (2012). For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. Philadelphia: Wharton Digital Press.
  • Zichermann, G., & Cunningham, C. (2011). Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media.
  • Zichermann, G., & Linder, J. (2013). The Gamification Revolution: How Leaders Leverage Game Mechanics to Crush the Competition. McGraw-Hill.

Referencing this article (APA)

Németh, T. (2015). English Knight: Gamifying the EFL Classroom (Unpublished master’s thesis). Pázmány Péter Katolikus Egyetem Bölcsészet- és Társadalomtudományi Kar, Piliscsaba, Hungary. Retrieved from https://ludus.hu/gamification/