Motivation in Game-Based Learning

This article is about intrinsic motivation and how game-based learning (GBL) activities are effective because they rely on and promote intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation.

Motivation in Games
From afar, games appear to be fun and exciting because of the bells and whistles going off when someone is playing. Watching someone play Candy Crush, you can’t help seeing and hearing all of the slot machine-like feedback the game is constantly providing. However, when you look closer into why people keep playing the game hour after hour, it’s not the points and dings themselves but rather how this feedback taps into the intrinsic motivation of players.

By themselves, the points and dings in Candy Crush are extrinsic motivators, rewards that come from an external source. However, what motivates people to keep playing the game is the sense of mastery they achieve as they progress to higher levels. The points and dings – and Candy Crush’s snaking level tree – all serve as feedback of this mastery instead of as simple extrinsic motivators. Mastering a game is one of the key intrinsic motivations that drives players to continue to progress through games.

Motivation Theories
There are many existing motivation theories, including Malone & Lepper’s taxonomy and John Keller’s ARCS model. Probably the most prominent one though is Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which is based on three main intrinsic motivators: Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Author Daniel Pink of the book Drive built on Self-Determination Theory to arrive at a more mainstream set of three intrinsic motivators: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

After examining these motivation theories and how they apply to game-based learning, we adopted the following intrinsic motivators to help us design and evaluate game-based learning programs: Social connection, Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery, or SPAM for short.

SPAM Motivation in Game-Based Learning
For any new game-based learning program, we evaluate if there are features that provide users with:

Social connection: Because many GBL programs are collaborative in nature, there are good opportunities to provide social connections through collaborative gameplay, mentoring, and/or reflection activities.

Purpose: Serious games and social impact games automatically provide players with a sense of purpose to care about something greater than themselves (i.e., higher-order purpose). Also, games can provide users with a sense of purpose by simply presenting an engaging narrative that drives users through to the conclusion of the story.

Autonomy: Unlike traditional pedagogy, learning games can provide players with opportunities to decide for themselves what they want to learn. Games can allow users to become more self-directed learners by providing multiple areas, levels, decision points, etc. for them to explore and revisit if desired.

Mastery: Learning games, just like entertainment games, provide users with a sense of mastery by providing feedback, such as progressing to a new level, when they have completed a learning task.

Designing a learning game is often a more challenging exercise than designing an entertainment-only game simply because a learning game has specific learning objectives that it has to cover while simultaneously being a fun and engaging game to play. A good way to assess if the learning game is fun and engaging is to ask yourself if any or all of the four SPAM motivators are present.

SPAMHopefully, this image can help you remember the four SPAM intrinsic motivators 🙂