Does gamification play Pavlov with learners? DOs & DON’Ts

By Donald Clark

The massive success of online games led many to suggest that games and gamification, could be used to turbo-charge online learning. Take a little magic dust from gaming, sprinkle generously and we’ll all find it more fun, be more motivated and learn to love learning. But there’s pros and cons here, as it can both help and hinder learning. If gamification is simply scoring, bonuses and badges, the 21st century version of Pavlov’s dogs, that would be a disappointment. The simple stimuli, scores and rewards may keep learners going forward but it can be a distractive, disappointing and shallow form of engagement, skating across the surface of content. It may also demand more cognitive effort for not much gain. The danger is in takinglearning abck to the behaviourist era, with simple Pavlovian conditioned responses, or S-O-R theory. The learning game still has far too much behaviourist theory. Most obviously through learning objectives.

On the other hand, many proven, evidence-based pieces of learning theory seem to be congruent with games techniques, such as chunking, constructive failure, practice, doing and performance. I’ve given a detailed analsis of a real example here – Angry Birds.

Learning is gamelike

All teaching and learning is a bit of a game – gamification just makes it more obvious. It’s often said that we tend to blame the players not the game in education. Students quickly learn how to play the ‘game’; minimise attendance at lectures, get a hold of past-exam papers, cram for the exam.

There’s also a sense in which social media is also game-like. Twitter’s really one long never-ending ‘game’ with plays (Tweets), rewards (Favourites & Retweets), wins (Followers). Similarly with Facebook, where the race for friends, comments and likes has a game-like feel.Going back to check your comments, notifications and likes can be as addictive as any game.The huge success of social media, measured in the billions who use it daily, even hourly, may be down to its gamelike addictive qualities.

What’s in a game?

Wittgenstein saw the word ‘game’ as an example of a word that defies definition, with a spread of related meanings, that resemble one another, like family relations. In fact, he saw all use of language as ‘language games’ in the sense of being involved in a way of speaking within a context – idle chat, teaching, scientific discourse, flirting and so on. So let’s not play the dictionary definition game but at the the DOs and DON’Ts.


  1. Distract

Games can distract from true learning. In learning, often contemplation, steady progress and cognitive calm are required – not the cognitive distraction of cheap gamification. In this sense needless gamification can hinder learning. As Merrill said, “there’s too much ‘-tainment’ and not enough ‘edu-‘ in edutainment products”. Game players can be less interested in learning, knowledge, content… and get obsessed with simply winning. That’s a real danger. You see this in leaderboards, where a few at the top get obsessed and battle it out for days, while the rest get demoralized, as they know they’ll never get to the top. This can lead to regular resets on leaderboards to thwart the obsessives.

I built a bar-quiz kiosk for product knowledge (for a bank), which was incredibly popular but encouraged fierce rivalry between teams at different locations around the country. It worked abut a side –effect was that this encouraged competitive, rather than collaborative behavior.

  1. Disappoint

Poor efforts at games and gamification can disappoint. The problem with games is that although they seem exciting and fun, are actually fiendishly difficult to design and make. It’s easy to try, not so easy to succeed. So I’ve seen lots of half-baked, condescending or childish attempts at gamification with cheap cartoons, crass special effects and dire sound effects. If it doesn’t work, seems condescending or superfluous, it may be worse than nothing at all and can demotivate learners. The lesson here is that learning need not always be ‘fun’. It sometimes needs to be taken slowly, seriously with intense focus and persistence, not pimped up like a teenager’s car.

  1. Put off

‘Game’ is a pejorative word for some. Not all older learners appreciate the idea of games in learning and may find it faddish, even condescending. Games of a certain type may also exclude girls. It may be difficult to get gamified learning experiences accepted by the people who have to implement them or older, more conservative, audiences.

  1. Overload

Gamification may well introduce extra cognitive effort that may outweigh any planned advantage. It may result, not in cognitive gain but cognitive overload. This can be counterproductive and can hinder rather than help learning. Don’t imagine that games techniques can be inserted into learning experiences without extra cognitive effort. Multitasking is a myth.

  1. Assume

To assume that a game or gamification is always good for learning is a mistake. There are plenty of instances where games and gaming would be superfluous, even inappropriate. I’m not sure I appreciate games in sensitive medical subjects such as chronic diseases. In academia many would regard gamification as a cheapening of their subject.

  1. Over-spend

Let’s not forget the expense. Games and gamification usually involve extra costs, such as design, writing, coding and testing. The extra time and expense must be justified by gains in speed of learning , impact or retention.


  1. Control progress

Games and gamification are very clear in terms of self-awareness of progress. There’s tasks, levels and clear points where achievement is recognized and rewarded. Levels is a good example. High-end games with levels force the gamer to stay within a competence level until they prove they are competent at that level and can move on. This is comparable to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Personally, I think that games developers know far more about this than Vygotsky. Within that level you are subjected to repeated failure, unless you show clear competence or make fast progress. This is so different from most one-size-fits-all online learning.

  1. Chunk

Games are sensitive to chunking, whether its short video, levels. This breaks learning down into manageable and meaningful tasks. This can be short videos, certainly shorter than the 6 minutes recommended by data from large scale video based courses, sprints (see Duolingo) and the all-important levels.

  1. Allow failure

Games thrive on failure. You lose, die but live to play again. This catastrophic failure often results in you being thrown back to the start or at least back to a certain point, to come at the task again. This has two powerful learning effects 1) you repeat the experience which is no bad thing in learning; 2) you are motivated to avoid failure the second time around as the consequences are severe. Both combine to push the learner towards competence.

I have used these in gamified soft-skilled simulations in subjects like interviewing skills and conflict resolution.

  1. Learn by doing

Games are rarely about digesting large amounts of ‘knowledge’. They come into their own in domains where you have to learn processes, procedures or real-world tasks and competences. Scenario-based learning is a great candidate for games techniques. It is here that levels of competence, learning from failure and learning, as well as assessing competences, comes into its own.

  1. Practice

Games are largely about repeat cycles. You do something, fail, go back and do it again. There’s much more opportunity for repeated practice therefore reinforcement in long-terms memory, better retention and recall. This is what games are all about but learning rarely faces up to the truth, that it, above all, requires repeated practice, hence the massive inefficiency of sheep-dip training and lectures.

  1. Time

Military simulation sometimes introduce progressively faster expected completion times. Faster than they would be expected in the real world. That is because it instills better levels of competence. Timers often create a slightly more intense expectation and raise attention and focus in learners, which may, for certain tasks be useful. They can push towards automaticity in recall, as there’s a world of difference between a competence that is measured by immediate action and recall and one that takes some time to recall. I’ve seen this work well in drill and practice tasks, recognition of aircraft and so on.

  1. Make game and learning congruent

This is perhaps the best rule of all. The game must be congruent or as close in rules and structure of the learning experience. If they feel like two separate layers, it will all have been in vain. I once produced an interactive version of The Joy of Sex book. We included a Mr & Mrs game, where, as a couple, you were asked questions separately, then compared your answers. It was fun and it lived up to its intended purpose, to allow couples to have some informative (at times edgy) fun in their relationship.


I like the light touch gamification in Duolingo – sprints, adaptive and spaced practice but not so keen on all the bonus symbols. When gamification is congruent with good principles in learning theory, it has the power to increase the effectiveness of the learning.  I’d call it ‘gamish’ as I’m fond of the chunking, repeats and mastery but less keen on superficial scores, bonuses and badges. That’s not to say they don’t have a place but they often seem like a superfluous layer of complexity.

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