In a single month of the game Minecraft being released for Xbox 360, players clocked a combined one billion hours. That’s 114,000 years of combined play time from 6 million gamers of all ages in a single month. Mind you, these are not a billion mindless hours of zombie blasting shenanigans; these are hours of active engagement, hours filled with construction, creativity, competition, exploration, socialization and discovery that often break the magic circle of the game world and turn into reality.

Here’s a riddle: How does one get an eight-year-old child to read through a 200-page book on logic gates and circuitry? The answer is simple: Make them responsible for managing the Redstone circuits on a Minecraft server! For those new to the particulars of Minecraft, Redstone is the material in the game which allows you to construct working circuitry that is analogous to real electronics. Some industrious individuals have even gone as far as to construct entire working CPUs within Minecraft!

This phenomenon is not anomalous either.

So what is so special about Minecraft that engages people and motivates to learn? Minecraft is an open and accessible sandbox system. There are no predefined goals. Players automatically create their own goals and learn the game systems and dynamics through play, exploration and application. More importantly, however, is that it is an enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding game.

We want our students to be engaged and truly motivated. Engagement and motivation lead to better and more efficient learning experiences, and the more motivated the student is, the less likely they are to quit.

One of the strategies of achieving this is through Gamification. But how? Well the idea is simple: apply game mechanics and dynamics to non-game domains in order to increase user engagement and motivation. Make something that is not normally considered fun, fun!

A classic application of this is adding rewards for actions (e.g. You answered 10 questions correctly! Here’s a gold star!). The language learning system Duolingo is an excellent embodiment of this premise with its use of Lingots, a virtual currency used to reward correct interactions.

Systems like this tend to be very shallow, though, as they rely on the brain’s hunger for rewards. If the user is not finding intrinsic motivation in the core of the activity, the extrinsic motivators are not enough to stand on their own. You can’t just add badges and call it a day.

The element of compulsion may also be manipulated destructively. The reward schedules and feedback systems in compulsion-based games like Candy Crush, are based on psychological principles rooted in operant conditioning. In this case, gamification is “How can we make this system more addictive?”. It is, in essence, motivation hijacking.

We are thinking about gamification incorrectly if this is how we plan to incorporate it into learning. We need to go back to the problem we are trying to solve in the first place in order to harness the way in which games innately engage and motivate students.

Games have many core attributes that help facilitate this. They are essentially curated systems of goals, rules and continuous feedback. They lay out a series of interesting challenges that often enable progression through an overarching narrative. The dynamic and reflective nature of games allow them to adapt to a player’s skill level and mastery of the game system which help keep players in the “zone” and prevent them from getting too frustrated or bored. Games also allow safe failure and exploration of systems often required in order to gain the knowledge to succeed in these systems.

I personally believe that it is possible to to cultivate motivation in a healthy way within the learner by using games as a framework.

Motivation is about fulfilling needs. For example, when you are hungry, you are motivated to seek food. People have ingrained needs which differ from person to person based on their state (e.g. the hunger example) and artificial needs imposed upon them (e.g. A need to finish your vegetables to get ice-cream). Gamification may be thought of as the generation of artificial needs to create motivation. Motivation, when strong enough and prioritized then leads to behaviour towards fulfilling the need.

Fun (or enjoyment of games) may be thought of as moments when motivations are fulfilled or something is gained. Examples of this may include learning moments or sparks (Aha!) when everything fits together, progress towards a goal or emotional and social fulfillment. Some game designers go as far as to define games purely as a series of learning moments and applications of those learning moments.

Games may then be thought of as curated environments and systems in which fun may occur. It is because of this that we may look towards games and game elements as a means of providing the motivation students need.

We need to understand that it is not the game mechanics and systems themselves that we should focus on, it’s the cognitive science and behavioral psychology behind these systems. Instead of augmenting learning systems with points and reward schedules, we must design our learning experiences from the ground up with the purpose of providing intrinsic motivation and engagement as part of the experience, using games as a guide. This idea of augmenting learning design with the psychology and art of game design is called “Gameful [Learning] Design” (a term shamefully stolen from Dr Kevin Bell of Northeastern University).

As Dr Richard N. Van Eck said in an Educause article on gamification in October of 2015: “Many educators mistake the trees for the forest and focus solely on surface-level design features such as leaderboards, experience points, and badges, without regard for the contextual interplay of player, game, and narrative. According to the noted game researcher Ian Bogost, such superficial focus confuses the magical magnetism of games for simplistic compulsion meted out toward extrinsic incentives. Superficial gamification relies on extrinsic motivators for those who are not necessarily already motivated to engage with a content or task, rather than activating intrinsic motivation as many digital games do. Extrinsic motivators lead to weak effects that dissipate over time once the motivators are withdrawn, making them a poor substitute for existing teaching practices. This may partially explain the positive but short-term effects of many empirical studies of gamification.”

Ultimately it comes down to good design, and good design is hard! However, with the power of modern technology and delivery mechanisms we are in the perfect position to power this paradigm shift.

The online Habitable Worlds course is an interesting case study of gameful design. It is not content that has been gamified with badges and points, and it is not a game which is being retrofitted into education. It is a learning experience designed to be gameful, with students moving through exploratory simulations and a project in which they must use the skills and knowledge they pick up during the course to answer the overarching narrative question, “Are we alone in the universe?”.

I’m optimistic that a paradigm shift on how we think about gamification and gameful design will lead to the next-generation of amazing, engaging and intrinsically motivating learning experiences. Instead of systems that simply dole out rewards for actions, we will have learning experiences that are fulfilling in and of themselves. We have already seen the beginning of this, and who knows? Maybe the next billion-hour experience will be an educational one!