Category Archives: gamification

A taxonomy of motivation and game design

Although I know many passionate and skillful teachers, I have to say that much of what I learned as a child, I learned in spite of school, not because of it, so this quote resonated a bit with me:

The will to learn is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its reward in its own exercise. The will to learn becomes a ‘problem’ only under specialized circumstances like those of a school, where a curriculum is set, students confined and a path fixed. The problem exists not so much in learning itself, but in the fact that what the school imposes often fails to enlist the natural energies that sustain spontaneous learning (Bruner, 1966, p. 127).

As noted by Bruner, intrinsic motivation means that people act even when they’re not driven by external rewards or an absence of punishments. It’s the kind of motivation that drives deep versus shallow learning (Biggs,1987, p.12). Sustaining intrinsic motivation is not a trivial task.

Making learning fun

In 1987, Thomas Malone and Mark Lepper published”Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivation.”  They  tried to craft a systematic framework for intrinsic motivation in order to understand how we might avoid the dampening effect that tends to happen in schools. Their theories, of course, are more broadly applicable to any instructional “system” (aka training programs, elearning modules, distance learning programs, etc).

Because Malone and Lepper observed, as many have, that games appear to strongly motivate players to engage in problem solving and critical thinking, they used the lens of games to conduct their research.

They compared eight different versions of a mathematical  game called “Darts.” In the original form of the game, players who solved math puzzles correctly would be able to pop balloons displayed on a screen.  Popping all the balloons in the shortest possible number of turns would result in a triumphant musical riff being played. The variant forms of the game included the same instructional content but differed in elements that might impact motivation  (e.g., graphics, music, rewards, etc). Malone and Lepper’s study subjects were 80 fifth graders. While you can certainly poke holes in the experimental system they used,  I think that the conclusions they drew are still worth exploring and aren’t restricted to the arena of games.

Based on their research and a bit of hypothesizing after the fact, Malone and Lepper divided motivating factors into individual (self-directed) and interpersonal factors.

Individual intrinsic motivation

Malone and Lepper described four individual motivating factors:

  • Challenge
  • Curiosity
  • Control
  • Fantasy

Learners prefer the right level of challenge. In order for an activity to be challenging in a good way, goal statements have to be clear and performance feedback has to be provided to engage and increase the learner’s confidence (i.e., it has to be constructive, clear, and encouraging). Proximal goals are better than distal goals. In other words, the statement that “You will feel better immediately” is much more motivating than in  the statement that  “In four  weeks, with continuous diet and exercise, you’ll feel better.” A mix of proximal and distal goals should be provided to keep learners immediately engaged with an eye on  a future “prize.” Additionally, goals have to be personally meaningful. Factors that influence perceptions of relevance include:

  • Whether achieving the goal allows the learner to do something she could not do before (the goal is “functionally useful”)
  • Whether the learner feels emotionally connected to the outcome (“fantasy relevance”)
  • Whether there’s social relevance (the goals trigger interpersonal motivators, described further below)

Goals are necessary but not sufficient for challenge. There has to be a level of uncertainty. After all, why engage in the activity, if the conclusion is already given? If you know you will triumph, you stop caring.

Techniques that can be used to vary certainty include:

  • Goals that vary in difficulty level
  • Hidden information
  • Randomness

Curiosity is the element of surprise. It can arise from the fascinating complexity of a subject we need to unravel or from elements that challenge our preconceived notions. Malone and Lepper distinguished between curiosity arising from bling,  (e.g., the novelty of technical trappings), which they called “sensory curiosity” and “cognitive curiosity” (that primal urge to organize our knowledge structures more efficiently). Although a slick interface will attract attention, learners will experience sustained engagement when exploring learning environments that help them to be more productive, a better information filter, a better creator, etc.

Malone and Lepper noted that  people  find games compelling because games give them a sense of control. In the game world, player decisions have consequences; winning isn’t dependent on completely random factors (although there can be an element of randomness as noted above). Similarly, empowering learning environments will be those in which options are dependent on the learner’s choices. Further, choices have to be tied to significant and meaningful outcomes. However, for control to be motivating, it has to be tied to a learner’s belief that she is capable of succeeding: too many choices and the learner is unable to distinguish between them and becomes frustrated.

Malone and Lepper defined a fantasy environment as “one that evokes mental images of physical or social situations not actually present” (p.241). The optimal learning environment might be ones in which learners can create their own fantasies (e.g., create imaginary characters, locations, objects).

They distinguished between fantasies that depend on the skill being learned (e.g., as in Hangman, where the hanged man appears as correct letters are not identified) and situations where the skill being learned and the fantasy depend on one another (e.g., as in a simulation or role playing game). They hypothesized that the latter fantasies are richer learning experiences, allowing learners to connect new learning to prior knowledge through their narrative structure. In addition, fantasies often address the emotional needs of learners, allowing them to experiment with new constructs in a low-risk environment.

 Interpersonal motivators

 Malone and Lepper described three  interpersonal motivating factors:

  • Cooperation
  • Competition
  • Recognition

Here again, Malone and Lepper distinguish between external and intrinsic motivating factors. They considered motivating cooperation through a group scoring system a weak  extrinsic motivator. In contrast, they believed that learners would be much more highly motivated if the success of independent tasks (highly desired) would be dependent on the efforts of group members.

Similarly, Malone and Lepper noted that exogenous competition (e.g., motivated by leaderboards, class rankings, etc.) is a far weaker motivating force than endogenous competition, where people with conflicting goals work on dependent tasks. This doesn’t necessarily translate to positive outcomes, which in my opinion requires that cooperation motivators are stronger than competition motivators.

In order for recognition to be a motivator, the results of a learner’s efforts have to be visible.  Malone and Lepper again describe differences between exogenous  and endogenous forms of recognition. They equated the former with honor rolls and the latter with situations in which the learners’ creative efforts are part of enduring artefacts (e.g., school newsletters, posters, wikis, blogs, etc.). Scenarios that foster endogenous recognition also foster additional learning as viewers of these artefacts will reflect on and learn from them.

In summarizing their ideas, Malone and Lepper noted that motivators are individual—what’s challenging or an interesting fantasy, will necessarily vary from person to person. Further, it will vary at different time points in a person’s “learning life.”  Optimal learning environments are those that can accommodate these individual differences and the varying states of a  learner’s growth.

Back to the present: Games and learning

Today, we see many worthwhile efforts to bring motivation back into instructional systems like schools and training programs and often games are invoked. We observe that children and adults are willing to spend hours at games that require problem-solving and critical thinking and we’d like to divert some of that love into learning efforts. This has led to some great results as well as to some less fortunate results—what Bruckman (1999) dubbed the “chocolate covered broccoli approach” where either game mechanics are tacked onto curriculum-based objectives or where learning objectives are crammed into games not designed to accommodate them. Often, as in some poorly thought-out gamification efforts, extrinsic motivators are slavishly used while intrinsic motivators are neglected or completely ignored.

Good learning games, in contrast, not only focus on intrinsic motivation, they attempt to achieve “intrinsic integration,”— the effective integration of a game idea with its learning content (Habgood, 2007, citing Kafai, 2001). How you achieve this intrinsic integration is still a debated topic (Habgood, 2007).

Habgood (2005), quoted below, proposed that well-designed learning games:

  1. Deliver  learning materials through the parts of the game that are the most fun to play, riding on the back of the flow experience  produced by the game and not interrupting or diminishing its impact;
  2. Embody the learning material within the structure of the gaming world and the player’s interactions with it, providing an external representation of the learning content through the game’s core mechanics. 

I think it’s less important to  pick either game mechanics (the underlying rules systems of the game) or fantasy as your driver since, arguably,  fantasy can be an integral component of the rules system of a game. But I think that Habgood’s rules of thumb are important: Don’t design a game with added-on learning components or a learning experience that’s gamified, design a learning game that’s  a learning experience because it’s a game and design a game that achieves specific learning goals because these are embedded in the mechanics of the game.  I’ll add that these mechanics can certainly include elements of fantasy and that Malone and Lepper’s taxonomy still offers a useful, but non-prescriptive checklist to gauge your engagement levels throughout your design process.


Biggs, J. B. (1987). Student approaches to learning and studying. Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Towards a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Czikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Play and intrinsic rewards. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15 (3), 41-63.

Habgood, M. P. J., Ainsworth, S., &  Benford, S. (2005). Endogenous fantasy and learning in digital games. Simulation and Gaming, 36(4), 483-498.

Habgood, M. P. J. (2007). The effective integration of digital games and learning content.  [Doctoral Dissertation]. University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Retrieved August 20, 2011 from

Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In R. E. Snow & M. J. Farr (Eds.), Aptitude, Learning and Instruction III:Conative and affective process analyses (pp. 223-253). Hilsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.