Developing a Theory of Gamified Learning: Linking Serious Games and Gamification of Learningby R. N. Landers

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DOI: 10.1177/1046878114563660


Developing a Theory of Gamified Learning:

Linking Serious Games and

Gamification of Learning

Richard N. Landers1


Background and Aim. Gamification has been defined as the use of characteristics commonly associated with video games in non-game contexts. In this article, I reframe this definition in terms of the game attribute taxonomy presented by Bedwell and colleagues. This linking is done with the goal of aligning the research literatures of serious games and gamification. A psychological theory of gamified learning is developed and explored.

Conclusion. In the theory of gamified learning, gamification is defined as the use of game attributes, as defined by the Bedwell taxonomy, outside the context of a game with the purpose of affecting learning-related behaviors or attitudes.

These behaviors/attitudes, in turn, influence learning by one or two processes: by strengthening the relationship between instructional design quality and outcomes (a moderating process) and/or by influencing learning directly (a mediating process). This is contrasted with a serious games approach in which manipulation of game attributes is typically intended to affect learning without this type of behavioral mediator/moderator. Examples of each game attribute category as it might be applied in gamification are provided, along with specific recommendations for the rigorous, scientific study of gamification.

Keywords attitudes, behavior, game attribute taxonomy, game attributes, game element taxonomy, game elements, gamification, gamified learning, learning, learning outcomes, mediation, model, moderation, psychology, serious games, simulation/ gaming, taxonomy, theory, training 1Old Dominion University, USA

Corresponding Author:

Richard N. Landers, Old Dominion University, 250 Mills Godwin Building, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA.

Email: 563660 SAGXXX10.1177/1046878114563660Simulation & GamingLanders research-article2015 at UNIV OF WISCONSIN-MADISON on February 1, 2015sag.sagepub.comDownloaded from 2 Simulation & Gaming

Gamification, defined as “the use of video game elements in non-gaming systems to improve user experience and user engagement” (Deterding, Sicart, Nacke, O’Hara, &

Dixon, 2011, p. 1), has become a popular technique used across a variety of contexts to motivate people to engage in particular targeted behaviors. This popularity has been growing rapidly, with one writer going so far as to say that gamification is “coming soon to your bank, your gym, your job, your government and your gynaecologist” (Robertson, 2010). Research firm Gartner predicted that by 2014, over 70% of Fortune

Global 2000 organizations would have adopted gamification in some way (Goasduff & Pettey, 2011), but that 80% of those efforts would ultimately fail to meet business objectives due to suboptimal design (Pettey & van der Meulen, 2012). Currently, the most public face of gamification is service marketing, where it is commonly used as a tool to influence customer behavior (for an overview of gamification in marketing, see

Huotari & Hamari, 2011).

In education and employee training, the use of individual game elements, defined here as any feature or mechanic commonly found in games (Deterding et al., 2011), is becoming increasingly popular. For example, one course at Indiana University was gamified by converting many common course metrics and activities to gamelike versions. Students started at Level 1, which corresponded to a grade of F, and earned experience points by participating in class activities that would allow them to reach higher levels and thus attain higher grades. Students earned points by completing quests (i.e., giving presentations), fighting monsters (i.e., completing quizzes and exams) and crafting (i.e., completing projects). The faculty member responsible for this approach anecdotally reported an improved reaction from students as a result of this change (Tay, 2010). Using current recommendations for gamifying classrooms provided by Sheldon (2012), Nicholson (2013) gamified a course at Syracuse

University by adding narrative elements and achievements to recognize target learner behaviors, which he characterized as a mix of successes and failures. As an example from industry, one organization has awarded virtual points and badges to increase employee compliance with mandates to complete online training programs (Brousell, 2013). Its success is not yet known.

With growing popularity and yet mixed success in both industry and in teaching, research is needed to explore the specific processes by which gamification is intended to improve learning (Landers, Bauer, Callan, & Armstrong, 2015). Without a theoretical model linking the specific approaches taken by instructional designers to gamify learning with the outcomes of those efforts, it will never be clear why these techniques influence outcomes as they do. This gap limits the generalizability of gamification research and provides misleading recommendations to gamification practitioners.

Research designs comparing gamified versus non-gamified learning contexts suggest that any gamification of learning, regardless of the specific game elements used, will produce desirable outcomes for learners. This is as unlikely to be true for gamification as it is for serious games. The effect of incorporating game elements into instructional efforts is likely to vary in both proximal and distal learning outcomes, depending upon the specific game elements used and the contexts in which they are used. More specifically, we contend that the addition of the most common game elements associated with at UNIV OF WISCONSIN-MADISON on February 1, 2015sag.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Landers 3 gamification (e.g., points, levels, badges) may help in some learning contexts, but harm in others. Current theoretical models do not provide a mechanism by which to explore why this might occur for these or any other game elements.