Gamification as Responsible Experience Design

Disrupting the New Norm and Fostering a Hero’s Journey

Sylvester is a Reader in Game Science at Coventry University with more than 10 years research experience in simulation, serious games and gamification combined. His research interests include gameful, playful, persuasive and pervasive designs that transform ordinary tasks into extraordinary experiences.



Within the domain of educational technology, new pedagogical approaches and technologies have been “disrupting” the status quo of teaching and learning practices, which have in turn become mainstream and then been accepted as the “new” norm. In recent years, digital platforms, ranging from e-learning and simulation platforms to digital games and mobile applications aiming to enhance engagement, have provided alternative means and options for the way learning content is delivered and consumed. However, there is danger that a learner’s focus is further fragmented by these “disruptions.” Furthermore, dependence on different online and digital platforms for facilitating learning could lead to disconnections between learners’ engagement with the different sources and disparities between the virtual/digital and real knowledge, capabilities, confidence and self-awareness (Warburton, 2009; Arnab et al., 2011).

To foster seamless learning process, the ultimate learning environment will have to provide a smooth learner experience, with options to both consume and create content (E-Learning Guild, 2014) in formal/informal settings and digital/physical spaces. There is a need to move from random and disconnected engagement with seemingly innovative practices and technologies to a more devised, designed, manipulated and seamless experience. With these perspectives, how can we then disrupt this new norm of disconnected focus and allow a more contextualised, seamless and engaging learning experience to be designed? One solution could be to understand engagement and motivation from the perspective of play.

 Learning experience inspired by playful and gameful design

Learning experience is what puts new innovations, disruptions and changes in context. A more contextualised experience is key to situating engagement and interactions with existing and future technologies and practices in a seamless and connected way. This aligns with context-based learning, which has been identified as an innovative pedagogy with the impact timescale of 2-5 years (Sharples et al., 2015).

One approach that can foster context and engagement that is based on intrinsic motivations is play. Playing is an exploratory and experiential means for incrementally, iteratively and continuously updating our understanding and interpretation of the various concepts, objects, people, emotions and the mapping between these variables (Pramling & Johansson, 2006; Broadhead et al., 2010). It is a complex process that is difficult to decode and measure. We are, however, in a world where almost everything is measured. Within the context of education for instance, measures and assessments are key to ensuring that the learning process leads to the desired learning outcomes and some forms of certification or recognition.

With these perspectives, for play to be included in learning to increase motivation intrinsically, it will have to be more structured and “formal”, adhering to the play-learn rules and associated measures. How do we design this playful and gameful experience without making it too restricting and to allow the feedback cycle to be as natural as possible so that it may add to the “play” experience? However, we must keep in mind that “Games are a particular manifestation of play, not its totality. They happen to be a good starting point for an investigation of play because the formality of their rules makes the machinery of play easier to observe and analyse” (Upton, 2015 p.11).

Hence, games are a means by which play can be observed in an objective way, leading to purposeful and meaningful engagement. The ability of games to immerse and motivate (McGonigal, 2011; Rooney, 2012; Arnab et al., 2013) and foster cognitive gain, awareness, and behavioural change has encouraged more game-based approaches to be implemented in education. The focus on bespoke games may however restrict the autonomy and hybridity of play that is needed to bridge digital and physical learning experiences, as well as formal and informal contexts/spaces.

Gamification as a tool for experience design

Inspired by the autonomy and relatedness of play and the formality of games as a tool to facilitate, observe and measure learning, there has been an increasing use of games techniques in non-game contexts. This practice, known as gamification (Deterding et al., 2015), has demonstrated potential impact in improving engagement, nurturing attitudes and behaviours, and facilitating learning in a wide range of subjects and contexts (see studies carried out by Hamari et al., 2014). It takes the principle and techniques of what it is that makes games so engaging, decodes the mechanics and elements that make them work and then applies these in activities that activate psychological motivators, which in turn drive desired behaviours (Arnab, 2015).

Using gamification as a tool for experience design introduces the use of narratives, game mechanics, and social dynamics in ordinary activities that collectively map out a learner’s journey from discovery through to mastery of the task at hand (Chou, 2015). The design of the journey should include the way learners will engage with the learning process and the associated learning objects. The potential of gamification extends to many contexts but can be especially helpful in a learning environment.

Progressions and mastery in this sense are evolving within an exploratory narrative, leading to the notion of personalised learning, mimicking Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (Campbell, 2008), where a learning journey can be encapsulated within a contextualised narrative to ensure meaning and purpose. Clear rules, associated (personalised) challenges and subsequent actionable feedback are required at each stage of the journey to trigger certain actions and reactions and nurture desired attitudes and behaviours as a learner levels up in his/her learning journey, fostering a sense of autonomy, agency and relevance in their experience.

Gamification as a tool provides a hero’s journey within which learners can carry out investigations and learn from successes as well as failures towards mastery. Within this journey, the design should also include a sense of surprises- positive coincidences. “Designed serendipity” might seem an oxymoron depending on what our role is in the learning ecosystem. As a designer, the “Easter eggs” and hidden surprises of learning will allow serendipity to be embedded in the process, aligning with the need to promote exploratory and incidental learning. This aligns with incidental learning, where it is “learning that is unplanned and may be unintentional. It can happen at anytime in any place: at home, while working, or on the move” (Sharple et al., 2015, p. 17). Learners will discover additional knowledge, experience, and insights, which will enrich the learning experience.

Responsible gamification

As gamification rises in popularity, educational institutions may feel pressured to start applying it to their processes (both learners and employee facing) and may do this without a thorough understanding of what it entails or how to proceed. Gamification as experience design can be used/misused as a tool to modulate certain behaviour, which may be desirable from the commercial perspective or even for increasing productivity when it comes to employee-facing applications. Critics have asserted that the use of the basic form of competitive gamification, personified by points, badges and leaderboards (PBL) is a form of exploitation for commercial benefits (Walz & Deterding, 2015; Bogost, 2011).

Meaningful gamification has also often been debated (Zicherman and Cunningham, 2011; Nicholson, 2012). Reid (2011) argues that the basic PBL approach only replicates an outdated grading system that focuses the learner on passing an examination rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation and development of a learner’s understanding. Whilst PBL are certainly useful for communicating progress, status and mastery throughout the gamified process, the functionality of PBL do not contribute to the core make-up of more meaningful gamification that fosters challenge, curiosity, meaningful choice and emotional connection to motivate and engage. However, intrinsic motivation and positive habit may be nurtured through sustained engagement (Arnab, 2015) encouraged by the use of PBL attached with meaning.

As argued in the previous section, it is essential to go beyond these basic features and rely on a concrete acknowledgement of the motivational model of the user, taking into account concepts such as situational relevance and situated motivational affordance (Beersma et al., 2003; Star, 2015). Whilst this approach to gamification is still widely adopted, proponents of higher-level gamification that consists of the use of narratives, challenge, meaningful choice, and creative exploration are voicing the need to expand beyond the use of PBL “standard” to explore the intrinsic values that gamification can offer.

When designing user experiences, we should not focus on short-term gratification and immediate gain (see Arnab et al., 2015). Designing a gamified experience for learning should invest in a longer-term goal to avoid gamification being used as a gimmick. A more thoughtful, affective and humane experience design will ensure engaged learners in the long run. One of the key findings from our recent study indicates “a great emphasis on avoiding de-humanising the target users by using trivial mechanics in hope of engaging them as a common entity by performing player profiling instead and emphasizing motivations and emotions in order to establish an engaging user experience” (Arnab et al. 2015, p. 9). In essence, Human-Focused Design (as opposed to function-focused design) considers feelings, insecurities, and reasons why people would engage with or disengage with certain activities, and therefore optimizes for their feelings, motivations, and engagement (Chou, 2015). This is a practice that the game design community has embraced (Isbister & Schaffer, 2008) but which has not always found its way in gamification projects (Deterding et al., 2011).

With a human or user-centred approach, there is a potential for learners to be co-designers of the gamified experience, whether it would be digital gamification or gamification as a meta-game acting as a narrative for encapsulating learning activities. It would be empowering for learners to also be designers of the experience of others, referring back to the context of a “Hero’s journey”. As part of an initiative to promote “gaming literacy” (see Zimmerman, 2009) the GameChangers programme emphasises game design thinking as key to creative problem solving and opening up opportunities for learners to design their own playful and gameful learning experience. Design thinking has crossed over to learning, where it is a “way of finding human needs and creating new solutions using the tools and mindsets of design practitioners” (Kelley & Kelley, 2013, p. 24-25), and this has the potential to raise awareness of the positive values of gamification and foster a more responsible gamification approach.


Gamification as a means to disrupt the new norm can help re-contextualise teaching and learning in the sense that the learning process can be encapsulated within a narrative that is engaging and relevant to learners as individuals. Gamification as a tool for experience design will focus on learners and their development in the process. Gaming literacy should be part of key knowledge and practice, to facilitate effective exploitation of games and gamification for educational purposes.

The failures in the use of gamification were typically found to be most profound where no game designers or user experience experts were involved in the design or where the user’s motivational model was no better than Skinner’s behaviourist view. Success, however, seems to rely on a concrete acknowledgement of the motivational model of the user (Star, 2015). Furthermore, a vast majority of the research measures efficacy through bespoke qualitative self-measure of motivation rather than a coherent and comparable quantitative measure of improved outputs.

Gamification as an experience design technique is a powerful disruptive tool. Using it wisely creates a positive environment, defines space and context, and creates a non-linear progression towards mastery. In the wrong hands, it may lead to negative manipulation and gamified “dictatorship.” Therefore, it is essential for such a tool to be used carefully and in the context of teaching and learning, where learners are included in the design of the intended experience.




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