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Why Gamification Fails in Education - And
How to Make it Successful
Introducing 9 Gamification Heuristics based on Self-
Rob van Roy and Bieke Zaman1
Abstract Gamification, a design technique that uses the motivational elements of
games in other contexts, is increasingly looked at as a possible solution to the
dropping levels of motivation observed in learners. However, previous research
has presented mixed results as to the demonstration of whether gamification in ed-
ucation works or not. To better evaluate the potential of gamification, we argue
that it is important to first focus on how gamification works. This chapter contrib-
utes to this discussion by asking three research questions, starting by specifying
“What is gamification?” (Q1), to then revealing “How does gamification work?”
(Q2). Looking at gamification from the perspective of Self-Determination Theory,
we show that various types of motivation guide people’s behaviour differently,
and point to the importance of basic psychological need satisfaction. Furthermore,
the answers to our first two research questions will explain why adding game ele-
ments as external, meaningless regulations is likely to cause detrimental effects on
learners’ intrinsic motivation. Finally, by cumulating these theory-informed in-
sights, we address our last research question “How can gamification design be im-
proved?” (Q3), and define 9 Gamification Heuristics that account for (the inter-
play between) design, context and user characteristics. As such, this chapter forms
a guide for researchers, educators, designers and software developers in fostering
a promising future generation of gamified systems that resonates our plea for theo-
In the last decade, there has been a remarkable upsurge of the use of badges, lead-
erboards, challenges and other game elements in a variety of software, apps and
websites. This phenomenon is referred to as gamification, a design technique that
sets out to implement the compelling elements of games in other systems. Well-
R. van Roy (*) • B. Zaman
Mintlab, KU Leuven - imec
This is the authors’ post-print version.
To cite this article: van Roy, R., & Zaman, B. (2017). Why Gamification Fails in
Education and How to Make it Successful: Introducing Nine Gamification
Heuristics Based on Self-Determination Theory. In Ma, M., & Oikonomou, A.
(eds.), Serious Games and Edutainment Applications, Volume II (pp. 485 – 509).
Chan, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.
known examples of gamified systems are the sport app Nike+ RunningTM, the pro-
fessional social networking site LinkedIn®, the navigation app Waze®, the online
learning platform Khan Academy®, and the language-learning app Duolingo®.
In this chapter, we focus on gamification in an educational context. We will
explain that for the research field to mature, we should first achieve a deeper un-
derstanding of how the interaction with a gamified system may unfold in educa-
tion, before we can address the question whether gamification works. Sophisticat-
ed theoretical underpinnings concerning gamification’s direct influence on
learners’ motivation can help in gaining this much-needed understanding. This
chapter aims at providing such theoretical insights, and extends this knowledge by
formulating concrete design guidelines that are likely to bring forth advanced and
effective implementations of gamification in educational contexts.
This chapter is structured around the following three main research questions:
Q1 What is gamification?
Q2 How does gamification work?
Q3 How can gamification design be improved?
In the first section of this chapter, we answer the first research question (Q1) by
defining gamification, and discussing its potential in an educational context. Then,
we rely on Self-Determination Theory to explain the psychological processes un-
derlying motivation and gamification, hereby addressing the second research ques-
tion (Q2). The last section deals with the third research question (Q3), and dis-
cusses how our theoretical findings yield concrete design implications. More
particularly, we end this chapter by introducing nine theory-based Gamification
Q1 What is Gamification?
In academia, gamification is generally defined as “the use of game design ele-
ments in non-game contexts” (Deterding et al. 2011, p. 9). Notwithstanding the
consensus in definition, the operationalization of what exactly constitutes a gami-
fied system remains a challenging endeavour. For instance, the definition does not
specify the number and characteristics of the game design elements that have to be
implemented in a system to label it gamified. It does also not put forward distinc-
tive criteria to determine when a system stops to be a gamified one, and when it is
to be conceptualized as a full-fledged game instead.
Nowadays, gamification seems to be a buzzword, as something new and inno-
vative to explore. However, the idea of gamification is not new. Looking beyond
the recent booming of the academic and industrial discourses surrounding gamifi-
cation (for an overview of the events leading to this boom, see Deterding 2015a, p.
30 and onwards), shows us that the practice of gamifying our lives is not new. It
originated from the popularity of both offline and online games. People from vari-
ous ages all over the world spend hours playing games without being forced to do
so. For example, a recent survey concluded that about half the active European
population plays video games, and this for on average more that seven hours a
week (Interactive Software Federation of Europe 2016). This illustrates that games
are inherently fun, motivating users to keep playing without any external pressure
(Burguillo 2010; C.-H. Su and Cheng 2015). For years, practitioners and research-
ers have been experimenting with identifying what it is that makes games motivat-
ing, trying to use this knowledge to restructure other activities to make them as
motivating (for example, see the early work of Thomas Malone; Malone 1980,
1981, 1982). For instance, already from a non-digital era onwards, teachers have
been rewarding children with stickers (badges in gaming jargon) when they per-
formed well at school (Blohm and Leimeister 2013). However, it is only since the
recent digitalization that the interest in gamification boomed in a variety of indus-
trial and academic contexts (for an overview, see Hamari et al. 2014; or Seaborn
and Fels 2015). Especially in education, gamification techniques are being wel-
comed as a promising strategy to enhance motivation (Ramirez and Squire 2015)
which is found to be one of the most important determinants of educational suc-
cess (Abramovich et al. 2013; Buckley and Doyle 2014; Taylor et al. 2014). Gam-
ification is then thought of as presenting a potential solution to the dropping levels
of learners’ motivation (Busse and Walter 2013; Darby et al. 2013; Lepper et al.
2005; Pan and Gauvain 2012).
Research investigating the potential of gamification in educational contexts
shows a scattered picture (see for example de Sousa Borges et al. 2014; or
Dicheva et al. 2015). Some studies have reported on positive effects of gamifica-
tion on leaners’ performance (e.g., in terms of better grades; see for example C.-H.
Su and Cheng 2015) and study behaviour (e.g., in terms of the effort put into
finishing assignments; see for example Barata et al. 2013). Others have found that
the addition of badges to an online learning tool drove learners to contribute more,
and to be more engaged compared to a situation in which no badges could be col-
lected (Denny 2013). Other studies have pointed to mixed results (see for example
de-Marcos et al. 2014), including instances in which no significant difference be-
tween a gamified and a non-gamified learning context could be observed. Alt-
hough Hakulinen and colleagues (2013) found small differences in learning be-
haviour between learners who were rewarded with badges for doing exercises and
those who were not, they did not find any difference in the grades obtained. Yet
other studies revealed that the implementation of gamification in education might
even yield undesirable effects. To illustrate, in some studies it was found that stu-
dents performed worse in a situation with badges, trophies, challenges, a leader-
board and levels compared to peers who weren’t exposed to these game elements
(de-Marcos et al. 2014; Domínguez et al. 2013). Non-gamified activities were also
found to be more motivating compared to the gamified ones (Domínguez et al.
In an attempt to clarify these inconclusive results, some authors have argued
that the desirable motivational effects are temporary in nature, and that they can be
ascribed to a novelty effect caused by adding digital and/or game elements in an
educational context (Attali and Arieli-Attali 2015; Hanus and Fox 2015; Koivisto
and Hamari 2014). Others have posited that the undesirable effects are rather a re-
sult of flawed design (Domínguez et al. 2013; Rojas et al. 2013). By simply add-
ing points and leaderboards to a system, it is then argued, gamification is reduced
to a meaningless pointification with no or aversive effects. Likewise, Domínguez
and colleagues (2013) have pointed to flawed designs and the absence of a “sound
pedagogy” (p. 9) as the origin of undesirable results.
In order to contribute to this discussion and better understand the various ways
in which gamification can and cannot work, we argue that it is of utmost im-
portance to first understand how this design technique is likely to work. To date,
most gamification researchers have been concerned with a demonstration of
whether the implementation of gamification yields the desired study behaviour
and performance effects (Hamari et al. 2014). In doing so, however, they have
been turning a blind eye to motivation as a prerequisite influencing a learner’s per-
formance. As a consequence, we are still lacking the explanatory insights on how
and under which conditions gamification can work (Deterding et al. 2011; Richter
et al. 2015).
Q2 How does Gamification Work?
Insights into the psychological concept of motivation will help us to better under-
stand how gamification works. In this context, the perspective of Self-
Determination Theory (SDT; Deci and Ryan 2004), a research-based theory that
has found general acceptance in motivational research both within and beyond the
domain of education (Reeve 2004), is particularly instructive. SDT provides in-
sights in the psychological processes underlying gamification (Deterding 2015b;
Seaborn and Fels 2015), because it sheds a multi-dimensional light on people’s
motivations, which is explanatory for the variety in corresponding behavioural
outcomes (Ryan and Deci 2000a).
Intrinsic, Extrinsic, and Amotivation
Motivation describes the psychological processes that direct and energize behav-
iour (Reeve 2004). It is motivation that steers people’s actions; as such being one
of the essential driving factors of the effort learners put into study activities. The
basic premise of SDT is that it is not the amount of motivation, but the particular
nature of distinct motivational types that holds the most predictive and explanato-
ry power as to how people behave (Deci and Ryan 2008a). In explicating the SDT
principles, Deci and Ryan distinguish three main types of motivational states,
namely intrinsically motivated, extrinsically motivated and amotivated states
(Deci and Ryan 2004). Figure 1 visualizes how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
form two poles of a spectrum, with on one side motivation caused by intrinsic
regulations, and on the other side motivation caused by external regulations; these
two types of motivation are distinct from amotivation, for which there are no regu-
Fig. 1 The different types of motivation (based on Deci & Ryan, 2004, p. 16).
Amotivated signifies the characteristic of people who have no intention to per-
form a particular behaviour (Deci and Ryan 2004; Otis et al. 2005; Vansteenkiste
et al. 2009). In an educational setting, this would imply that learners are not driven
to execute an educational activity; they are unmotivated. Conversely, intrinsically
and extrinsically motivated people do experience a certain drive to perform the ac-
tion in question. The difference between the latter two types of motivation can be
ascribed to their origin.
On the one hand, intrinsic motivation is derived from intrinsic regulations that
originate from pleasure and interest found in the activity (Deci and Ryan 2004;
Otis et al. 2005; Vansteenkiste et al. 2009). In an educational context, this happens
when learners enjoy the engagement in an educational activity for no other reasons
that for themselves. Because intrinsic motivation is fully autonomous, it is seen as
the ideal motivational type to drive actions (Vansteenkiste et al. 2009). On the
other hand, extrinsic motivation is derived from extrinsic regulations that are not
related to the activity concerned (Deci and Ryan 2004; Otis et al. 2005;
Vansteenkiste et al. 2009). These regulations are external cues that form an out-
side pressure controlling someone to conduct a desired behaviour. Examples of
such external cues are punishments, rewards, feelings of shame, and anticipated
The Internalization Processes of Extrinsic Regulations
SDT postulates that people who experience pressure from external regulations – or
in short, who are extrinsically motivated – are very likely to feel an innate need to
internalize these regulations and make them a part of themselves (Deci and Ryan
2004). If and to which extent the internalization of these regulations takes place,
depends on the degree to which their psychological needs are supported (see fur-
ther). The more successful the process of internalization, the more extrinsic regu-
lations echo the characteristics of intrinsic motivation, and thus the more some-
one’s motivation moves towards intrinsic motivation on the continuum (see Figure
In SDT, three distinct subtypes of extrinsic motivation2 are put forward, de-
pending on the successfulness of the internalization process (Deci and Ryan
2008a). As a first subtype, external regulations mark a situation in which no inter-
nalization takes place (Buckley and Doyle 2014; Deci and Ryan 2004;
Vansteenkiste et al. 2006). In an educational context, this is the case when a learn-
er does not concur with the reasons for doing the activity, and only conducts the
expected behaviour in order to avoid punishment or get rewarded (Vansteenkiste
et al. 2009). Introjected regulations, as a second subtype of extrinsic motivation,
are characterised by a small amount of internalisation (Deci and Ryan 2008a). In
the latter situation, extrinsic cues are somewhat accepted, but not yet considered to
be part of the learner’s self (Buckley and Doyle 2014; Deci and Ryan 2004;
Vansteenkiste et al. 2006). People are thought to be driven by introjected regula-
tions when they perform an activity to avoid shame or prove competence
(Vansteenkiste et al. 2009). The last subtype of extrinsic motivation refers to situa-
tions in which external regulations are accepted and deemed as personally im-
portant, hereby becoming identified regulations (Buckley and Doyle 2014; Deci
and Ryan 2004; Vansteenkiste et al. 2006). This happens when people endorse an
activity, but rather than performing it for the activity itself, they act because of the
desirability of the outcomes (Vansteenkiste et al. 2009). Although identified regu-
lations resemble intrinsic regulations, they are still extrinsic in nature as the reason
for performing it lies beyond the activity (Kyndt et al. 2011; Vansteenkiste et al.
In the hypothetical example presented in Box 1, we learn about a situation in
which four colleagues are all about to start learning a foreign language. Alicia is
intrinsically motivated. Even though Ben, Charlie and Daisy are extrinsically mo-
tivated, various regulations are at stake that will eventually guide their behaviour
in a different way.
Box 1: Meet Alicia, Ben, Charlie and Daisy, four colleagues who are driven by
intrinsic, identified, introjected and external regulations, respectively.
Meet Alicia, Ben, Charlie and Daisy. They are all about the same age, live in San
Francisco, California, and work as client representatives at a flourishing start-up.
2 Originally, Deci & Ryan (2004) defined four different types of extrinsic moti-
vation, but in later years, various academics have combined identified and inte-
grated types of regulations because of their resemblance (e.g. Vansteenkiste et al.
The four colleagues all speak English, French and German fluently. Because of
the rise in European clients, and in particular Spanish customers, they decide to
start following evening classes to learn how to speak Spanish. But what drove
them to take this decision? Depending on the reasons they hold, they are motivat-
ed in qualitatively different ways. Let’s take a look at their motives.
Alicia - Intrinsic regulations. Alicia really likes learning new languages, learn-
ing new vocabulary by heart, getting into grammar rules, and grasping how a lan-
guage developed over the years. Because Alicia’s primary motive to learn Spanish
is the joy she experiences while doing so, she is thought to be driven by intrinsic
regulations, and feels autonomously motivated.
Ben - Identified regulations. Ben is looking for a new job, and is considering to
apply for an interesting position of a colleague who is about to retire. One of the
job requirements is to speak Spanish. To make sure he will be considered for this
job, he decides to learn Spanish. Although Ben endorses learning Spanish, he pri-
marily starts studying it in order to achieve his personal, valued goal of enhancing
his career. Therefore, Ben derives his autonomous motivation mostly from identi-
Charlie - Introjected regulations. In the office, the atmosphere among the four
colleagues is often competitive. When Charlie finds out that Alicia, Ben and Daisy
are going to take Spanish classes, he decides to do the same, convinced that this is
a great opportunity for him to show off his language skills. Charlie’s main motiva-
tion for following the course is not learning Spanish as such, but merely enhancing
his self-esteem. Therefore, he is motivated by introjected regulations, and experi-
ences controlled motivation.
Daisy - External regulations. The government has enacted a law which states
that every California-based enterprise should have at least four employees who
speak Spanish. The CEO decides that Daisy should learn Spanish too, promising
her a substantial promotion if she does so successfully in about two months. Daisy
starts taking the course because she is promised a reward. She is therefore driven
by external regulations, and thus by controlled motivation.
Autonomous Motivation Outperforming Controlled Motivation
The fine-grained SDT-insights regarding people’s motivational (sub)types and
the internalization processes of extrinsic regulations, prevent us from considering
motivation as a homogeneous construct. Moreover, as is illustrated in the example
in Box 2, these theoretical insights help us to better understand and predict peo-
ple’s behaviour according to their position on the continuum between intrinsic and
extrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci 2000a). Finally, it presents us with infor-
mation to judge the desirability of a particular type of motivation.
Research has shown that people who are primarily motivated by external and
introjected regulations behave in similar ways. This behaviour is different from
the behaviour of people who are mainly driven by identified and intrinsic regula-
tions. Therefore, external and introjected regulations are often categorized togeth-
er based on the shared characteristic of being regulations for controlled motiva-
tion. Identified and intrinsic regulations, then, are grouped together as both pre-
senting prerequisites for autonomous motivation (Kyndt et al. 2015; Vansteenkiste
et al. 2009). These two categories of controlled versus autonomous types of moti-
vations are illustrated in Figure 1 and in Box 1.
Compared to controlled motivation, autonomous motivation is linked to more
psychological well-being, persistence and better performance in different contexts
(Deci and Ryan 2008a; Peng et al. 2012). Contrarily, controlled motivation is
found to be more likely to quickly vanish when the external control is removed
(Richter et al. 2015). This is not the case for identified regulations that are inter-
nalised; they are not dependent on the existence of particular external cues.
These insights have brought SDT researchers to conclude that autonomous mo-
tivation is the desired type of motivation (Deci and Ryan 2008a; Vansteenkiste et
al. 2009), whereas controlled motivation, as the unstable determinant of behav-
iour, is considered as the least desired type of motivation. This explains why in an
educational context, autonomous types of motivation have a more long-lasting
positive effect on learning outcomes, grades and participation frequency (Hanus
and Fox 2015; Kyndt et al. 2011; Liu et al. 2012), compared to controlled motiva-
tion. It further helps us understand why increased levels of controlled motivation
are likely to go hand in hand with a decrease in learners’ accomplishments (Kyndt
et al. 2011), and why learners who are driven by controlled motivation are likely
to lose their motivation and become amotivated when external regulations are re-
moved (Richter et al. 2015). Concrete examples of these complex dynamics be-
tween learners’ motivations and their study behaviour are provided in Box 2.
Box 2: The take-over – How controlled versus autonomous types of motivation
steer people’s behaviour in a qualitatively different way.
Four weeks after Alicia, Ben, Charlie and Daisy started following the Spanish
course, the company is taken over by a large multinational. Alicia, Ben, Charlie
and Daisy will soon be transferred to different offices all over the USA. As several
of the new colleagues already speak Spanish fluently, there is no need for them to
learn this language anymore.
Charlie & Daisy – Controlled motivation. Both Charlie and Daisy lose their
motivation to complete the Spanish course, due to the removal of the external con-
trol. Daisy’s promotion has been withdrawn, and she decides to stop taking the
classes altogether. Charlie doubts what to do, knowing that he will see his former
colleagues less often. He decides to take up the course again when there are new
opportunities to show off his Spanish skills.
Ben – Autonomous motivation (Identified regulations). For Ben, the direct ex-
ternal motivator to learn Spanish is removed because he can no longer apply for
the vacancy at his old office. Nevertheless, he is still one of the most motivated
students in class. Ben values studying Spanish primarily to enhance his career, and
is therefore still driven by identified regulations to complete the course.
Alicia – Autonomous motivation (Intrinsic regulations). Alicia was very moti-
vated to learn Spanish from the start, and truly enjoys studying it. The reorganiza-
tion does not change the fact that she enjoys learning new languages. Therefore,
the intrinsic regulations Alicia holds are not affected by the take-over.
Basic Psychological Needs Co-Shaping Motivations
The condition “essential […] to experience growth, mastery, integrity and well-
being” (Ryan and La Guardia 2000, p. 149), SDT argues, is that psychological
needs are satisfied. With every person having an innate drive to flourish (Deci and
Ryan 2008a; Gunnell et al. 2013), activities fulfilling these needs are thought of as
particularly sparking autonomous types of motivation. The three psychological
needs put forward in SDT are autonomy (related to volition), competence (related
to the perception of being able to successfully complete a task), and relatedness
(i.e., the feeling of belonging to a group of people) (Deci and Ryan 2004). These
psychological needs are found to hold universal merit, deeply nested in people
across different cultures and ages (Ryan et al. 1997; Ryan and Deci 2000a), but
the way in which these needs are supported is culture specific (Deci and Ryan
2008a). Moreover, these psychological needs shape the particular manifestations
of people’s motivations. For instance, research shows that people tend to internal-
ize external regulations quicker and more thorough when they come from friends
or family, a phenomenon caused by the feeling of relatedness (Ryan and Deci
In general, in the case of need fulfilment, internalization processes are likely to
occur, resulting in enduring motivation. Contrarily, activities and contexts experi-
enced as thwarting psychological needs are likely to diminish initial levels of au-
tonomous motivation (Deci and Ryan 2008a; Kyndt et al. 2015; Vansteenkiste et
al. 2009). In Box 3, we exemplify how these basic psychological needs are related
to the different types of motivation. It demonstrates how the degree to which peo-
ple perceive a particular activity and its surroundings as contributing to satisfying
their basic psychological needs, determines how the internalization processes of
external regulations will unfold (Deci and Ryan 2008a), and consequently whether
the motivation to pursue the activity in question can be conceptualized as autono-
mous or controlled in nature (Deci and Ryan 2008a; Kyndt et al. 2015;
Vansteenkiste et al. 2009).
Box 3: The six-week turning point - Exemplifying how basic psychological
needs co-shape people’s motivations.
Six weeks after the start of the course, Alicia and Charlie are still actively partici-
pating in class. Charlie considered quitting, but soon realized that by improving
his Spanish skills, he can also show them off to his new colleagues. Alicia is still
genuinely interested in learning Spanish.
Alicia – Intrinsic regulations and the need for competence. As the course con-
tinues, Alicia finds it more and more difficult to complete the assignments and to
keep up with the pace of the classes. Because she was very motivated to learn
Spanish when she signed up for the course, she chose to start at the advanced level
instead of taking the introductory course. Although she was able to quickly catch
up with the basics on her own, she now finds herself in the position that her
classmates are speaking Spanish significantly better. Alicia starts to doubt her lan-
guage skills, and as such her feeling of competence is thwarted. Her initial enjoy-
ment decreases, she loses her autonomous motivation, and starts to think about
quitting the course.
Charlie – Introjected regulations and the need for relatedness. Although Char-
lie’s initial motivation to take the Spanish course was the opportunity to brag
about his newly acquired language skills, he eventually starts to enjoy the classes
because of the teamwork involved. This way, his main reason for going to class
has gradually shifted from mere ego boosting towards the enjoyment of studying
in a group. Consequently, his feelings of belongingness and relatedness towards
his classmates make him more autonomously motivated than before.
A Self-Determination Theory-Perspective on (Gamified)
Motivation in Education
Gamified systems that provide learners with feelings of autonomy, competence
and relatedness are likely to foster autonomous motivation (Mekler et al. in press),
hereby both causing and explaining enjoyable, motivating and engaging experi-
ences (Deci and Ryan 2008b; Peng et al. 2012). For the same reason, it has been
concluded that any “future intervention effort that intends to capitalise on the mo-
tivational pull of video games should purposely include game futures that have the
potential to increase need satisfaction” (Peng et al. 2012, p. 192). Unfortunately,
the state of the art of gamification systems implemented in educational contexts
has presented very little to no evidence of supporting learners’ basic psychological
needs. The design practice of gamified systems shows a general overreliance on
external motivating regulations. Many designs only include decontextualized
points and badges, which are easy and straightforward to implement in practice.
Moreover, most gamification research goes out from some sort of gut feeling of
the researcher neglecting motivational theory (Seaborn and Fels 2015). Research-
ers who do address motivational theory (in most cases SDT), do so in a popular-
ized, simplified way (Deterding 2015b; Seaborn and Fels 2015).
By considering this common practice of designing gamification as an imple-
mentation of external regulation, SDT helps us to understand the often undesirable
side effects. Based on SDT, we know that when students are introduced to exter-
nal forces as a way to steer their study behaviour, they are more likely to feel less
autonomous as a learner, and perform study activities primarily to receive the
promised external rewards. Additionally, in such a situation, the controlled moti-
vation may also undermine any pre-existing autonomous motivation. Learners
may then start ascribing their motivation to the added external regulations, which
reduces or even removes any initial, intrinsic drive (Cameron et al. 2005; Filsecker
and Hickey 2014). Consequently, feelings of autonomy may further descend,
hereby even diminishing any intrinsic motivation left, so that eventually the learn-
er’s motivation changes from intrinsic to controlled motivation (Glover 2013;
Tohidi and Jabbari 2012).
The latter fundamental motivational process in which initial intrinsic motiva-
tion is overruled by external regulations has been described in research as the
Overjustification, Undermining or Corruption Effect (Lepper et al. 1973; Lepper
and Henderlong 2000; Weibel et al. 2010), and is demonstrated in Box 4.
Box 4: Supplementary exercises - Unfolding the process of overjustification
when intrinsic motivation is overruled by external regulations.
Alicia – Intrinsic regulations being overruled by external regulations. After
catching up with her fellow students, Alicia is asked to participate in a nationwide
contest designed for students learning foreign languages, which awards the winner
a cash prize of $ 10,000. In order to stand a chance to win the prize, Alicia’s
teacher tells her to practice her skills a lot, supplying her with supplementary ex-
ercises. Initially, Alicia likes making the exercises, but after a couple of days she
starts feeling washed out. She starts to experience the once-in-a-lifetime chance to
win $ 10,000 as the main motivator to keep going, replacing her initial intrinsic
motivation of enjoying to learn a new language. The cash prize starts to serve as
the controlling force, driving Alicia’s study behaviour. The reason for learning a
new language has shifted from a mere interest in the activity to the external con-
trol caused by the potential promised reward.
Exclusively relying on the implementation of external regulations in gamifica-
tion design isn’t always causing a problematic motivational scenario, though (Deci
and Ryan 2008a; Hidi 2015). When motivational cues that are originally external
in nature appeal to the psychological needs of the actor, the external regulations
will be thoroughly internalized resulting in autonomous motivation (Deci and
Ryan 2008a). The latter process also explains why an absence of an overjustifica-
tion effect is happening in scenarios where external regulations successfully sup-
port people in their basic psychological needs. As such, it can be inferred that ex-
ternal regulations, and by extension the typical gamification implementations, do
have the potential to intensify feelings of autonomous motivation on the condition
that people perceive them as appealing to their psychological needs. In an educa-
tional context, such need support is linked to various positive educational conse-
quences, like improved grades and better understanding of the course materials
(Deci and Ryan 2015; Mekler et al. in press; Ryan and Deci 2009).
Q3 How can Gamification Design be Improved?
Based on SDT, we argue that gamification can motivate learners in a qualitative
good way when it supports the three basic psychological needs innate to everyone,
as such echoing earlier statements of Peng and Mekler and their colleagues
(Mekler et al. in press; Peng et al. 2012). Acknowledging that this is a relatively
vague design guideline, we will reflect on the concrete design implications of our
theoretical insights by introducing 9 theory-based Gamification Heuristics. This
way, we answer the third research question on how to improve gamification de-
sign from the perspective of the system characteristics of a gamified system, as
well as the situational factors that co-shape the effects of gamification, being user
(in this case the learner) and context characteristics.
Supporting Basic Psychological Needs
In this section, we will first provide a more in-depth understanding of the three
basic psychological needs, and zoom in on their interplay. Then, we will consider
how game elements can be selected in order to support learners in their psycholog-
ical needs. During this discussion, we present evidence from both video game and
Need for Autonomy
The need for autonomy refers to feelings of volition (Deci and Ryan 2004). When
feeling autonomous, the learner perceives no demanding external constraints or
pressure. Performing the activity then goes out from the perception of a free
choice and complies with the learner’s sense of self. Perceived autonomy is an
important antecedent for autonomous motivation. In educational contexts, teachers
and parents who provide children with choices and support them in their initiatives
are found to positively stimulate the autonomous motivation to engage in learning
behaviour, more than teachers and parents who are strict and controlling (Jang et
al. 2009; Rigby and Ryan 2011).
The implications for the design of gamified systems in education are that learn-
ers’ need for autonomy is to be accounted for at design time. To illustrate, when a
gamified system provides a variety of meaningful, learning supporting challenges
ready to be handpicked by the learner, this system is likely to support autonomy.
However, if the challenges form an obligatory part of the course, learners will ra-
ther feel externally controlled by the obligation to complete the challenges, and as
a result may start feeling anxious and losing autonomous motivation. Therefore,
the first heuristic we propose is:
#1 Avoid obligatory uses
Avoid forcing the user to use (a part of) the gamified system in order not to
give them the feeling of being controlled.
Providing options to choose from is often thought of as supporting people’s need
for autonomy too. Previous research has confirmed that a moderate amount of
choice is likely to incite the perception of being autonomously motivated (Deci
and Ryan 2008a; Deterding 2015b; Peng et al. 2012; Rigby and Ryan 2011). Peo-
ple can also feel autonomous when there is no choice situation, though. Rigby and
Ryan (2011) point to examples in which people are only presented with a single
option, and still feel autonomous. If the single available option is one complying
with the user’s internal values, then it presents people with a meaningful and val-
ued perspective. For example, when a teacher instructs students to write an essay
on a specific topic that aligns with their interests, they can still feel autonomous,
even though they were not provided with a choice. Therefore, when the specific
context inhibits the complete removal of the feeling of obligation (for example in
formal education), action should be undertaken to make the activity’s alignment
with the user’s interests and needs explicit.
Conversely, too many choices can yield negative effects, known as the Paradox
of Choice (Schwartz 2009). The reasoning then goes that when someone is pre-
sented with many different, but equivalent options to choose from, they are likely
to feel anxious to make a decision, feeling uncomfortable because they experience
loss with respect to the options that could not be selected, fearing to miss out
(Ryan and Deci 2006). Reutskaja and Hogarth (2009) experimentally demonstrat-
ed that people’s satisfaction with a task follows an inverted U-shaped function of
the amount of choices provided. In a context of gamification in education, these
insights stipulate not to provide learners with an endless stream of options to
choose from, as such placing them in dilemmas. Rather, the gamified system
should be conceptualized in such a way that it presents at least one option that is
meaningful and valuable to the future learners. Therefore, the second heuristic
reads as follows:
#2 Provide a moderate amount of meaningful options
Find the sweet spot between supporting users’ autonomy by providing them
with at least one option that is meaningful and complies with their values,
while avoiding placing them in a dilemma by offering too many options.
Need for Competence
The need for competence refers to our desire to feel that we can successfully
achieve a goal, being the master of the activity in question (Deci and Ryan 2004).
The perception of competence leads to autonomous motivation. In educational
contexts, learners who experience competence are found to be more persistent and
have better study results than learners who feel incompetent (Rigby and Ryan
2011). The design implications for gamified systems in education are not just a
matter of making the activity as simple as possible. In order to optimally motivate
learners, tasks should be designed in such a way that they just fall outside the
learners’ comfort zone while still being perceived as attainable. Malone talks in
this respect about tasks with “an appropriate difficulty level” (Malone 1980, p.
163, 1981, p. 358). This way, learners are challenged to persevere in improving
themselves (Peng et al. 2012); given the “room to grow” (Rigby and Ryan 2011,
p. 16). This principle of ensuring that a task is not too easy – causing boredom –
but also not too hard – causing anxiety – is well-known in game research, meticu-
lously described in the Flow Theory (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). This advice is inte-
grated in our third heuristic:
#3 Set challenging, but manageable goals
In order to support the user’s feelings of competence, create tasks that pose a
significant challenge while remaining perceived as feasible to fulfil.
Another way of fostering feelings of competence is by providing constructive and
meaningful feedback (Niemiec and Ryan 2009). In gamification design, this typi-
cally takes the form of badges. Compared to traditional grading in educational set-
tings, these badges can provide more information and yield more motivational
power (U.S. Department of Education 2013). More particularly, well-designed
badges can give both outcome and progress feedback. Moreover, badges are not
limited to evaluating strict cognitive outcomes, and can more broadly and explicit-
ly relate to the competences at stake (e.g. “You can now make a call in Spanish!”),
as opposed to grades (e.g., “You obtained an A-grade for this task") or other types
of meaningless, non-informative feedback (see also Hanus and Fox 2015).
However, some types of feedback can also cause undesirable effects. These in-
clude feedback mechanisms that only focus on performance and less on compe-
tence, which is likely to be perceived as controlling, as such undermining autono-
mous motivation (Reeve 2004). Additionally, all types of negative feedback have
been found to erode feelings of competence too, hindering learners’ autonomous
motivation (Deci and Ryan 2004, 2008a).
The insights presented above imply that in gamified systems, it is advised to
approach learners with positive competence-related feedback, as stipulated in the
#4 Provide positive, competence-related feedback
Support feelings of competence by integrating feedback mechanisms that posi-
tively inform learners about their progress in gaining competences, and avoid
Need for Relatedness
When people feel they belong to a group, their need for relatedness is satisfied
(Deci and Ryan 2004). Being connected to others gives us a sense of value; it
makes us happier and lets us feel better about ourselves. The positive feelings
evoked by being part of a group are deepened when people share experiences
(Rigby and Ryan 2011); and loosing a beloved one is found to be one of the hard-
est things to process psychologically (Rigby and Ryan 2011).
In an educational context, learners who work together, sharing experiences and
a common goal, have stronger bonds, resulting in relatedness need satisfaction and
autonomous motivation. Carr and Walton (2014) found that giving students the
impression that they are working together – although actually they are not – al-
ready suffices to foster feelings of relatedness.
The need for relatedness also plays an important role in video games (Rigby
and Ryan 2011), and is often explicitly afforded for by design, e.g. by encouraging
players to team up while tackling a challenge (Peng et al. 2012). People who feel
related to others during gameplay, are more likely to enjoy the game experience,
feel more engaged, and have higher future play motivation, compared to gamers
who don’t feel connected to others during gameplay (Peng et al. 2012).
As relating an activity to others supports people’s feelings of relatedness, it fol-
lows that promising gamified systems are those that emphasize these links too.
Previous research has indeed shown that students who used a gamified system in
which social features were enabled, performed better on assessments compared to
those who used the gamified system without social features (de-Marcos et al.
2016). The insights mentioned above result in the definition of a fifth heuristic:
#5 Facilitate social interaction
Eliminate factors that hinder social interactions between users, and facilitate
them to interact and support their feelings of relatedness instead.
Interplay between Psychological Needs
Gamified systems that support one of the three basic psychological needs are like-
ly to provide autonomous motivation; systems that satisfy all three of them may
even be more successful in motivating users, as the value of satisfying each single
need adds up (Deci and Ryan 2004). One can take group work as an example
(Rigby and Ryan 2011). Gamified systems that encourage group work contribute
to feelings of belonging to a team (cf., need for relatedness), and lend itself well to
present complex challenges that benefit from gamers who join forces, therefore
letting the group’s skills flourish (cf., need for competence). Last, working in a
group typically implicates that new strategies can be used to attain the game’s
goals, hereby presenting gamers with more alternatives to choose from (cf., need
The fact that each single need adds up also implies, however, that in combina-
tion, one need fulfilment may equally lead to an impediment of another need ful-
filment. When unfolding in everyday situations, the three psychological needs are
indeed found to often clash (Ryan and Deci 2000b). For example, when a certain
group challenge doesn’t leave room for individual decisions and contributions, the
need for relatedness might be fulfilled at the expense of an individual’s need for
The implementations of badges as a gamification strategy should also be under-
stood as potentially pertaining to various psychological needs simultaneously. To
illustrate, successful motivational badges afford constructive, non-controlling
feedback (Deci and Ryan 2008a; Deterding 2014), and support the need for com-
petence by focusing on the achieved capabilities of the learner (see Heuristic #4).
The learner should, however, not possess all the necessary information about what
activities have to be undertaken in order to achieve them, so that by no means the
badges can be perceived as controlling. In general terms, gamified systems should
thus wary to not thwart one of the basic psychological needs, when trying to sup-
port another. This leads us to postulate our sixth heuristic:
#6 When supporting a particular psychological need, wary to not thwart
the other needs
When designing a specific element in order to support users in one of their
basic psychological needs, wary to not thwart one of the other needs.
Gamification systems are not implemented in a vacuum; they are to be situated
within the broader activity and context that is gamified, and the interaction with
them unfolds depending on the characteristics of the user. In this section, we will
provide more concrete design guidelines about how we can account for the way
gamification may unfold in a particular context of use, accounting for aspects of
the activity context, the implementation context and the user characteristics.
Integration of Gamification into the Activity Context
As for the integration of gamification in education, two fundamentally different
activity contexts come together. In games, motivating the player to keep playing
the game is central (Deterding 2015b; Gee 2008), whereas in education knowledge
acquisition is at heart. Therefore, it is beneficial to align the motivational goal of
games with the learning goals, as a way to profit from the motivational pull of
games in an educational context. A good gamified system should thus “both di-
rectly support end user activity (by ease of use) and facilitate it through enjoyment
and motivation” (Deterding 2015b, p. 304 author’s emphasis). When the align-
ment between both goals fails, the systems will resemble chocolate-covered broc-
coli (Deterding 2014; Lee and Hammer 2011; Linehan et al. 2011), that is an un-
motivating, unappealing activity at heart with only a fun, sweet holster. The de-
rived heuristic reads as follows:
#7 Align gamification with the goal of the activity in question
Alight the motivational pull of gamification with the goal of the activity, as
such tuning gamification to both facilitate motivation and goal achievement.
Implementation Context & Environment
Different authors have stipulated the significant impact contexts can have on the
effectiveness of gamification (Deterding 2014; Mekler et al. in press; Richards et
al. 2014). For instance, as people are generally socialized with the belief that play-
ing is inappropriate in certain contexts, like for example in class or in a bus, it fol-
lows then that the implementation of game elements in these contexts may cause
confusion and embarrassment (Deterding 2014; van Roy and Zaman 2015). More-
over, in a school context, the strong emphasis on formal evaluation and learning
task completion serves as a controlling force upon students that is only to be inten-
sified when external regulations are added through gamification (Mekler et al. in
A school environment is often very competitive, which may form a threat for
bonding with peers and consequently for the need for relatedness (Ryan and Deci
2000b; Ryan and La Guardia 2000). Conversely, competition that drives learners
to be on their top behaviour can also positively influence feelings of competence
and relatedness as everyone involved in the competition drives the others to im-
prove (Rigby and Ryan 2011). Furthermore, studies illustrate that how teachers
communicate with students can significantly impact the way in which learners
perceive the educational context as a whole (Cheon and Reeve 2015; De Meyer et
al. 2014; Haerens et al. 2015; see also Deci and Ryan 2008a). For example, Cheon
and colleagues found that students of teachers who followed an Autonomy-
Supportive Intervention Program (ASIP) in which they are taught to provide
meaningful rationales, acknowledge negative feelings, use non-controlling lan-
guage, offer choices and nurture inner motivational resources ((Y.-L. Su and
Reeve 2010, p. 162) experienced more autonomous motivation and less amotiva-
tion (Cheon and Reeve 2015). The same positive implications of a need-
supportive context on motivation and performance are reported in other domains
(Cheon et al. 2015; Katz et al. 2015; see also Y.-L. Su and Reeve 2010). These re-
sults prove that small interventions can transform a context from a controlling one
into a need-supportive one, in the end resulting in better learning performances.
Therefore, when implementing a need-supportive gamification system, one should
wary to do this in an equally need-supporting context. This leads us to the postula-
tion of our eighth gamification heuristic:
#8 Create a need-supporting context
In order to support the user’s basic psychological needs, the gamified system
should be implemented in a setting that is perceived as open and supporting as
opposed to controlling.
People’s individual characteristics affect how they experience the interaction with
technology. In game research, it is found that high competitive people who are
given the choice between a competitive and non-competitive version of the same
exergame, prefer the former version, whereas low competitive people are more
likely to pick the latter alternative (Song et al. 2013). People’s demographics have
been found to influence the experience with gamified systems, too (Mekler et al.
in press). Based on personal differences, Barata and colleagues (2015) defined a
user typology (consisting of Achievers, Disheartened, Late Awakeners and Un-
derachievers) of users who interacted with the same gamified course in different
ways. They conclude that gamification will be more effective when it accounts for
the unique ways in which these different types behave on the platform (Barata et
An educational gamified system can anticipate on this variety in personal char-
acteristics and the related behaviour by implementing flexible system choices,
supporting users in fine-tuning system properties according to their personal pref-
erences. The gamified system will then be more likely to satisfy people’s psycho-
logical needs, and provide meaningful motivational experiences to various types
of users (Barata et al. 2015; Hakulinen et al. 2013). This leads to the ninth and last
#9 Make the system flexible
To account for personal differences, the gamified system should be flexible and
adaptable in order to comply with the users’ personal needs and preferences.
Gamification is looked at as a possible solution for the observed dropping levels
of learners’ motivation. However, previous research has presented inconclusive
findings as to the demonstration of whether gamification works or not. In this
chapter, we contribute to this discussion and argue that the wrong types of ques-
tions have been focused on. Ra ther than asking if gamification works, we posit
that it is more instructive to first focus on how gamification may work. To pave
the way to an answer to this question, this chapter scrutinized the potential of
gamification in educational contexts from the perspective of Self-Determination
Theory (SDT). By doing so, we described the psychological processes underlying
the working of motivation and reached a better understanding of how gamification
can facilitate or hamper these processes. Based on the in-depth insights on how to
spark desirable types of motivation via gamification, we postulated 9 Gamification
Heuristics (see table 1). These heuristics aim for affording autonomous as opposed
to controlled types of motivations, and account for the importance of basic psy-
chological needs fulfilment.
Acknowledging the importance of user characteristics (cf. Heuristic #9) in ad-
dition to system properties (cf. Heuristics #1-7) and contextual demands (cf. Heu-
ristic #8), we have shown that the phenomenon of gamification should be under-
stood holistically. This is in accordance with Hassenzahl and Tractinsky’s view
(2006) that in general, user experiences with technologies are shaped by three pil-
lars, including system, context, and user. Similarly, our heuristics should also be
understood holistically. For instance, Heuristic #3 points to the design rule of cre-
ating challenging, but manageable goals in a gamified system; however, whether
and how eventually users will experience these goals as motivating depends on
their skills and the context in which these goals are being implemented. Therefore,
just like we can only design for user experience and not design the user experience
itself, designing a gamified system is also about designing for motivational expe-
riences, and not about designing the motivational experiences themselves
(Seaborn and Fels 2015).
Although this chapter focused on an educational context, the Gamification
Heuristics are based on fundamental SDT-insights, as such holding merit in other
contexts as well. In this way, this chapter forms a first step towards a better under-
standing of how gamification works and arms researchers, educators, designers
and software developers with well-informed rules of thumb to build desirable
gamified systems. Acknowledging that our theory-based heuristics may benefit
from empirical validation and refinement, we call upon future researchers to put
them into practice and further extend our knowledge of gamification.
We would like to thank Sebastian Deterding, Lisa Lambrechts and the reviewers
for their useful feedback and guidance during the preparation of this chapter.
Table 1: Overview of the 9 theory-based Gamification Heuristics and the challenges they address.
#1 Avoid obligatory uses
Avoid forcing the user to use (a part of) the gamified system in order not to give them the feeling of being
#2 Provide a moderate amount of meaningful options
Find the sweet spot between supporting users’ autonomy by providing them with at least one option that is
meaningful and complies with their values, while avoiding placing them in a dilemma by offering too many
#3 Set challenging, but manageable goals
In order to support the user’s feelings of competence, create tasks that pose a significant challenge while
remaining perceived as feasible to fulfil.
#4 Provide positive, competence-related feedback
Support feelings of competence by integrating feedback mechanisms that positively inform learners about
their progress in gaining competences, and avoid negative feedback.
Support leaner’s re-
#5 Facilitate social interaction
Eliminate factors that hinder social interactions between users, and facilitate them to interact and support
their feelings of relatedness instead.
#6 When supporting a particular psychological need, wary to not thwart the other needs
When designing a specific element in order to support users in one of their basic psychological needs, wary
to not thwart one of the other needs.
Integration of gami-
fication into the ac-
#7 Align gamification with the goal of the activity in question
Alight the motivational pull of gamification with the goal of the activity, as such tuning gamification to
both facilitate motivation and goal achievement.
Table 1: Overview of the 9 theory-based Gamification Heuristics and the challenges they address (cont.).
#8 Create a need-supporting context
In order to support the user’s basic psychological needs, the gamified system should be implemented in a
setting that is perceived as open and supporting as opposed to controlling.
#9 Make the system flexible
To account for personal differences, the gamified system should be flexible and adaptable in order to com-
ply with the users’ personal needs and preferences.
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