Privileges as Rewards

You have been playing a game for so long, and after a couple of levels, you are unlock a new skill. In the past, you were able to run, jump and duck. Now, after achieving a certain level of mastery in these actions, you are able to fly. This kind of mechanic, or reward is what gamification expert Gabe Zichermann calls ‘privilege.’ Some time ago, I went to a lecture at the University of Sydney on badges in education. The research seems to suggest, time and time again that extrinsic rewards dampen intrinsic motivation. Since badges are essentially an extrinsic reward, the speaker talked about this issue, stating that he didn’t think motivation was ever purely extrinsic or intrinsic. He put forward this scenario: – suppose a child is really into painting. Without much prompting she will spend her time before and after school immersed in this very activity. Suppose we tell this child, if you can paint ten pictures, then I will give you a special award. Yes, her intrinsic motivation will most likely dwindle, and painting will no longer be about painting, rather, it will now be about earning the special award… but what if we rewarded her with something that was related to painting, like a new set of paint brushes? And what if the reward was a privilege? For instance, if the reward was attending a painting workshop, or art classes, wouldn’t these things enhance her intrinsic motivation? I think privileges, in educational contexts are great rewards, and as teachers we ought to utilise them.

In my own teaching, I have thought about how I could reward my students with privileges. Right now, I am designing a text-based adventure game where you play as a secret spy agent who must find out information about a musical suspect (who happens to be a composer). You are a given a bunch of clues, and from these clues, you must find out the name of the composer, as well as their birth date, place of birth and the names of some of their major musical works. When you finish one adventure game, you can play another, inevitably unlocking another ‘privilege.’ If you play six of these adventure games, you can join the secret and exclusive spy-agent-club, which involves attending parties where you can show off your knowledge by playing fun and competitive music trivia games. After you have attended a few secret-spy-agent meetings, you have the power to design and/or help design a text-based adventure game. You’re probably noticing by now, that the privileges that I have instilled have some level of relevance to the topic area and task – it doesn’t distract, or get you out of the game space, it enhances and builds on already existing intrinsic interest. For much of the time, in education, our privileges involve letting the seniors roam around outside the school campus, or we give out passes to sit in certain areas, etc. The privileges in these instances are rewards for good behaviour, which is not a bad thing. However, I think it would be ideal to also give out privileges that enhance the learning experience, privileges that make students feel more and more curious and eager to participate and immerse themselves in the topic area.

I’d like to extend the discussion by asking: how have you incorporated privileges into your own teaching?

Leaderboards, the good, the bad and ugly: What happens when status is the reward

The majority do not benefit from being somewhere on the leaderboard. A small minority of people really benefit from being on the leaderboard, and these people are the ones who are at the top. It is human to compare but in educational contexts, I’m sure that many of us can agree that it is not healthy or helpful to create an environment where students feel like they have to battle against each other through their academic work. Leaderboards will just make the person at the bottom feel helpless at their situation. I would imagine that being at the bottom would be an overwhelming place to be, because the likelihood and possibility catching up looks like too much work. Conversely, the person at the top (who is likely to suffer from some form of pathological perfectionism) would probably want to work hard to keep their status and position. Their motivation is about being better than everybody else, and no longer about chasing their passion, curiosity or interest. Having said that, I do think that in certain contexts, leaderboards are not entirely dangerous, and they can actually be a good thing. Leaderboards work in games, and this is because competition, in these circumstances is presented in a way that is fun, healthy and compelling. Team sports are a good examples of where leaderboards can be effectively applied – although there is often a distinct winner and a loser, being part of a team places the attention onto the collective identity of the group, and not on a single individual.

In a similar vein, I think leaderboards can be fun and helpful in the classroom setting under particular circumstances. For instance, we can emulate the team sports approach by putting a leaderboard into school work that requires teamwork, by having groups ‘battle’ against each other. In the case of music education, this could manifest itself in a classroom battle-of-the-bands competition, or a group rap battle. In these circumstances, a leaderboard can enhance the goal-directedness of the activity and it can also compel the group to work together outside their class hours.

Leaderboards could probably also work in ‘non-serious’ work, that is formative assessments that are dressed up to look like games. For instance, in the piano studio that I work in, the majority of my primary school-aged students enjoy playing the game Staff Wars. I assign it for homework, and everybody in the studio knows that my record is 98 notes in the treble clef. I am at the top of the leaderboard, and since this learning game is dressed up in a way that doesn’t look ‘serious,’ nobody seems too phased at my (ridiculously high) score. I think it’s problematic to have leaderboards exist for ‘serious’ summative assessments. What do you think? What are your experiences with leaderboards?

The four kinds of rewards in games, and their relevance in education

A couple of months ago I completed a Gamification MOOC on Coursera. Through this course, I came across Gabe Zichermann’s theory on the four kinds of rewards in games, and gamified systems. What are these rewards? In no particular order they are:

  1. Status – Being at the top of a leaderboard, or having an impressive player history
  2. Privilege – Unlocking levels in order to gain special powers, ones that you had never used before
  3. Tangible – Non-virtual items – money and/or overseas holidays are great examples of this
  4. Non-Tangible – Rewards that only exist in the virtual realm, points and badges are great examples of this

Mind you, these categories are by no means mutually independent because some of these rewards can co-exist with each other. For instance, non-tangible rewards such as badges are items that other players can see, so they can also be status symbols. When I look at these categorisations, I can’t help but wonder how these rewards may stimulate (or dampen) ones intrinsic motivation. In this blog series, I will look at plusses and minuses on all four kinds of rewards in educational contexts.

Rewards in Gamification: What the real research says – Part IV

In the last couple of posts, I wrote about how I gamified an aspect of my life, and failed (or rather, not failed, but found that gamification was not the magical antidote that fixed everything). In this post, I will write about what the real scientific research says about gamification in educational contexts. When I first became acquainted with the word ‘gamification’ I was young, hopeful and fairly naïve. In those days, I thought that gamification was the way of the future, and that gamifying every aspect of my life would fix everything related to (finding) motivation. Imagine waking up to a day that is full of challenges, quests and rewards. If every day was a game, how AWESOME would life be?

For a time, that innocent, trusting attitude was something that I wholeheartedly held… that was until I read this article. If you were too lazy (much like I am) to click on the hyperlink, the article is written by Michael D. Hanus and Jesse Fox and it is titled: Assessing the effects of gamification in the classroom: A longitudinal study on intrinsic motivation, social comparison, satisfaction, effort, and academic performance. In the space of a sixteen week semester, the participants (who were undergraduate level university students) were split into two groups – the control group and the experimental group. The experimental group received a gamified curriculum that consisted of game mechanics which included a leader board, badges and coins. The other (control) group received the same curriculum without the gamified elements.

So how did these mechanics actually work? Let me break it down for you:

Leaderboard, Badges and Coins

22 badges were created for the gamified group, these badges were not that different to the badges you can acquire on foursquare. The badges were made with the intention to incentivise student engagement. For instance, the bookworm badge was awarded if the student exceeded the maximum amount of sources required for the term essay. There was another badge rewarded for turning in an assignment in early, before the due date. Coins were awarded for easier, less challenging tasks such as class participation and sharing interesting links, articles or ideas. The students were required to earn badges, but coins were entirely optional. If enough coins were accumulated, the students were able to purchase things like extensions on the term paper. The coins and badges were virtual items that were displayed on a virtual leaderboard through the university learning management system.


The results in this study, were not that much different to the results of my highly unscientific, n=1 experiment. In this particular article, certain components of gamification (namely: a leader board, coins and badges) negatively affected the students’ level of intrinsic motivation. Although it is human to compare, it isn’t always healthy to do so, especially inside an academic environment. The questionnaires seemed to reveal that the leaderboard led to a higher level of social comparison. Furthermore, two exams were given over the course of the semester, one mid-term exam, and another final exam. Initially, the gamified group appeared to do better in the mid-term exam but the final exam scores of the gamified group were lower to the scores of the control group.

  What did I learn from all of this?!

Before I read this article, I was a devout worshipper of everything that had to do with the term ‘gamification.’ Then, once I finished reading this article, my faith in gamification was shaken. I say this because results revealed that under certain conditions, gamification can actually do more harm than good. Does that mean I have totally abandoned the practice of gamification in my everyday life? No. In the discussion, the study did acknowledge that it really only dealt with the ‘pointification’ aspects (i.e. badges, coins, points, et al) of gamification. Other aspects (e.g. narrative, avatars, quests, customization or immediate feedback) were not included, so the gamified curriculum is by no means indicative of all gamified learning systems.

To me, the take home lesson was to question things a little more – rather than just adding points, coins, badges and leaderboards to everything, and then blindly believing that it would (or should) improve my own motivation or (heaven forbid) the motivation of my students, the more important question to ask myself is: why? Why gamify when there is a system that already (seems to) work? Why gamify when there is a system that already exists? And also the other question I thought I ought to ask myself is: How? How should I design and implement this gamified learning system? Which game mechanics should I utilise? And how will these mechanics effect my motivation, effort and/or interest?

The other thing I took away from this article was the fact that the results seemed to show that the gamified group scored highly in the mid-term exam, but poorly in the final exam. The discussion section explained that gamification hasn’t been around for so long, so there is a certain level of novelty that comes with receiving a gamified curriculum. Like many things, the novelty wears off after some time. Since I conducted a highly unscientific experiment on myself, I can relate to this and speak about it somewhat viscerally. When I gamified my own studies, I did read more journal articles in the space of a single fortnight. Before the experiment, I read more books, and this was mostly because I naturally enjoyed and preferred books to journal articles. I was able to also finish two assignments way before they were due. I even blogged a little more, and freewriting became a daily habit! However, by the end of the two weeks, I felt like I had enough. The thought of staring at another article related to Skinner, Bandura and Self-Determination Theory made my stomach turn. Yes, for me, the novelty did wear off but I don’t think it was necessarily a bad thing. What do I mean by this? Think of arcade games – they don’t last for very long, and yet, in spite of this, we want more. We want more because we are given a very, very brief burst of fun and intensity. In these instances, brevity is key. If we were to gamify a curriculum with coins and badges, perhaps we ought to do it on a short-term basis, using gamification as a tool, or a means to an end. Make a particular gamification program happen during a very special time in the term, and only let it last for no longer than two weeks. The time limit should (hopefully) induce some level of adrenaline, pressure and excitement.  Just an idea … my two cents, please comment on what your experiences have been. Or what you think 🙂

Results of the Gamification Experiment – Part III

Thank you all for interacting with my blog and voting!

This post contains the results of the highly biased, non-scientific, n=1 experiment. 

   Before the experiment, I would read (on average) ten journal articles in a single fortnight. During the self-gamification-experiment (which happened over two weeks), I read twenty journal articles, but made little progress on book reading. I also gave myself points for blogging, freewriting and assignment completion – over the course of the two gamified-study-weeks, I finished two assignments (weeks before they were even due) and published two blog entries. Furthermore, I committed myself to free-writing (i.e. writing my stream of consciousness) and I managed to get into this habit on a daily basis (generating about 3000 words). So did this gamification experiment lead me to read more? If you voted ‘not sure’ you were right, because the answer is: yes and no, I mean I didn’t manage to finish a book in the space of a fortnight, BUT I did manage to double my journal article reading. Mind you, I will also add that I prefer reading books over journal articles, it is easier to motivate myself to go and read a book than to read a journal article. If I was to refine the gamification-experiment, I would have given myself lots of points (i.e. 10-20points) for finishing a book, or alternatively, I would have made 30 pages of book reading, equal the same amount of points as a typical journal article.

What did this whole experiment do to my intrinsic motivation?

In the first week, I was HIGHLY motivated to get at least sixty points by the end of the week. The thought of reading another article related to game-based learning and gamification excited me. And knowing that I could receive points that added up to something enhanced my already existing intrinsic motivation on the subject area. The end of the week involved dinner at a fancy restaurant with a friend. It felt really good to feel on top of it all – finishing assignments weeks before they are due was a good feeling, it was a feeling I wish I had come across earlier, in my undergraduate years. HOWEVER, I will say that by the end of the gamified-study experiment, the words ‘Skinner,’ ‘Bandura’ and ‘self-determination theory’ started to become the bane of my existence. It all started to get a little repetitive, and reading very intensely on the same topic area made me feel like I ate too much candy. After the two week period, I spent a whole entire day in bed, indulging in fiction, in fact the book I read was a trashy novel that had nothing to do with game-based learning or gamification. So in short, gamification worked on a short-term basis, I know that it wouldn’t have worked longitudinally. I should also add that I have implemented a very, very poorly designed gamified learning system (all I did was stick points onto everything, in gamification we call this ‘pointification’), and my gamified learning system is not at all indicative of all gamified learning systems.

In the next blog post, I will write about what the (real science-y) literature actually says about gamified learning systems and rewards.

The gamified rewards experiment – Part II

This is part II of the blog series on rewards in gamification and game-based systems.

Since I am still in my youthful years, I went out and experimented! And no it was not on alcohol, cigarettes or harmful substances. Rather, it was a self-gamification experiment. I designed and implemented a very simple gamified system that involved adding points to everything that I did (everything that I did that was related to the completion of the two degrees that I am currently enrolled in). Mind you, before I give you the low-down on the method of the unscientific, n=1 study, I should give you some context:

  • I am researching on an area that I am already very interested in, so mustering up the motivation to actually read the literature related to my research is not difficult
  • There are certain coursework readings that I do not enjoy reading all that much

The system that I employed was a very simple, point based system: journal article = 3 points, blog post = 4 points, book chapter = 4 points, 2000w assignment = 5 points. All the points added up to dollars, by the end of the week, I was able to redeem these points by going out to dinner somewhere fancy with a friend.

Before I go and reveal the results to this experiment, I would love to know what you are all hypothesizing. Go ahead and vote:

Through the gamification experiment, did I read:

Game Mechanics – Rewards & Motivation Part I

I started writing about rewards in game systems, then I found that I generated lots of words … so this will be the first part of a blog series on rewards and motivation in games-based systems and gamification.

When I started teaching, I taught piano privately in a music studio. In the early days, I found that teaching technique was hard. It wasn’t the actual act of assigning scales that was the tricky bit but it was finding a way to motivate my students to do scales (and to be aware, and use good technique) that was hard. Being new to the art (or game) of teaching, I said to one of my students ‘if you play your scales with curved fingers this week, I will get you a book on mermaids.’ Yes, that’s right I bribed this little girl. Afterwards, I found myself plagued with guilt – questioning, did I just bribe this girl? Or was that incentive?

I consulted my mother, a person who worked in childcare for a number of years. After scolding me for a brief moment, telling me that bribing kids only works in the short term, she told me to calm down, and to stop feeling so bad – I was new to this, and people who work with children have made far greater mistakes. I spent the rest of the evening on Google, looking up the terms ‘incentive,’ ‘bribe’ and ‘blackmail.

When I feel guilty, I research, it’s cathartic. Having answers on how-not-screw-up-next-time makes me feel like I am absolving my teaching sins.

Deadly teaching sins aside, in much of my research on motivation, I have found that motivation is often defined very concisely under two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from within – I’m doing these technical exercises because I love technique.  Extrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from other, external sources – I’m doing these technical exercises because my teacher promised that she’ll give me a book on mermaids. In an ideal world, teachers would nurture a students’ intrinsic motivation, and provide opportunities for students to follow their own interests. The literature (Ryan & Deci, 2000) seems to indicate that the two are not mutually independent and that they can co-exist. In fact, self-determination theory puts these two kinds of motivation on a continuum. Further to this, the research has revealed that extrinsic rewards dampen intrinsic motivation. How can this be so? Take for example the scenario of a child really, really liking Lego. His mornings before school are consumed with Lego playing, and his afternoons after school are consumed with more Lego playing. This boy his highly intrinsically motivated. One day, his father decides to tell him that he will give him $50 if he could build a Lego house. Soon, playing with Lego is no longer about play, but about money. His intrinsic motivation has turned to extrinsic motivation.

I am putting it rather simplistically – It is far more nuanced than that because this young boy could possibly spend that $50 on more Lego. Having more Lego to choose from would inevitably deepen his love and interest for Lego. So if he spent the money on Lego, was his motivation intrinsic or extrinsic… or both? Furthermore, let us consider a different scenario: what if he wasn’t into Lego playing in the first place? What if his father’s incentive (or bribe) was what initiated him to develop an interest in Lego?

In the world of game-based learning and gamification, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are abundant. I have noticed, that gamification enthusiasts and advocates seem to love to emphasise time and again, that gamification IS NOT sticking badges, virtual trophies and points onto everything (Kapp, 2012). However, since the agreed definition of gamification is taking game components, and putting them into non-game related contexts, I would argue that sticking badges, points and trophies into non-game related contexts is gamification – it’s really just poorly applied gamification. I’m setting up a theoretical landscape for the issue of motivation and rewards, stay tuned for the next posts on the various kinds of rewards offered in gamification and serious game systems (and how they work, or don’t work in real life!)

Some awesome stuff you ought to read if you are curious: 

Kapp, Karl M. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. Immersive Technology Strategies.  San Fransisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2012.

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 (2000): 54-67.