8 lessons learned from video games to increase motivation and engagement

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By Alexandre Chenette teacher and educational advisor at the RÉCIT National Service, field of personal development

The two most important observations made as teachers, by switching to distance learning, are the fundamental importance of the teacher-student bond and the major issue of motivation and commitment. Some students who were motivated in class prefer to play video games when they are at home. Others are just not motivated in class either, and their learning suffers. 

How is it that the same student can be motivated to persevere when he fails in a video game when a setback in class causes him to give up? What can the progress of the last decade in the field of video games teach us as educators? 

The time has come for the world of education to consider how research in game design, combined with recent discoveries in the psychology of human motivation, can help us transform education. Ten years after the popularization of the term gamification, I suggest today that you move on to playfulness.

A new playful world

From the cradle we have a propensity for play. Homo Ludens. Role-playing games, board games, video games: games are extremely popular and varied, but they are also a great way to internalize motivation, stimulate commitment, perseverance and surpass oneself. They carry meaning, develop autonomy, a feeling of competence, promote creativity but also collaboration.

Video games are currently the fastest growing form of gaming. Whether we are a player or not, it is now part of our life, of our culture. From their rudimentary beginnings in the 1970s (remember Pong?), video games have continued to reinvent and diversify. 

Besides, while it's sometimes easier to talk about video games, there are actually dozens of completely different types of games, which often have very little in common. Today, certain video games have the power to transport us to parallel universes that are rich, alive and deeply immersive. They can be social, collaborative, serious and creative. Video games have grown from a marginal pastime to the world's most popular form of entertainment. In 2020, the video game industry was worth US $ 179.7 billion, well beyond the combined film and music industries. 

According to Jane McGonigal, researcher and game designer, the average person will have spent about 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, which is roughly equivalent to the time spent in class from the fifth year of primary to the end of secondary.

Play and learning have traditionally been carried out in an essentially parallel manner, but the boundaries between these two realities are gradually tending to be reduced by the work of thousands of passionate educators from all corners of the planet. 

A decade of gamification

It has now been 10 years since the term gamification was popularized. Translated into French by gamification, it is in fact the use of mechanisms traditionally associated with video games in contexts other than those of gaming (commerce, health, social networks, web platforms, etc.). The gamification (gamification) promised to increase engagement and retention of target customers. Famous specialists in corporate gamification such as Brian burke even claimed that it had nothing to do with pleasure, only with motivation to change behavior.

Thus, in the early 2010s, a number of companies in various fields took an interest in this new fashion trend. They tried to capitalize on this buzzword by investing in gamification projects, naively believing that by adding points and levels to repetitive and demotivating tasks, this panacea would make it possible to attract and retain more new customers. This misunderstanding of the phenomenon led to some successes, but also inevitably ended in many failures and disappointments. So that the term gamification (gamification) came to take on, for some, a rather negative connotation, associated with attempts to manipulate human behavior. 

Human points

In fact, fun is a major aspect of the gaming experience, and the motivation generated by a video game in gamers is immeasurably deeper. It is by definition fundamentally intrinsic: we play our favorite game for the game in itself and the pleasure it gives us, not for the points and levels we gain, these being only a part. tiny and secondary experience.  

Perceiving the tendency and the generalized incomprehension in the face of gamification, the specialist Yu-Kai Chou, a leading figure in the field, now invites you to turn away from flashy reward mechanisms (game-centered design) to focus more on the human by examining in more detail the real motivators that are unique to them (human-centered design). Its model, called octalysis, presents the eight main drivers of human motivation.

“If you ask a player why a game is fun, they won't say it's because there are points. He will say that it is because there is challenge, because it makes him use his creativity, because it makes him more than he was yesterday. " 

Yu-Kai Chou

And in education?

This refreshing new perspective is particularly interesting for education since the aims are not growth and profit, but the development and empowerment of future citizens. The importance of "the human" (the pedagogue-learner relationship, theteacher effect, sense of self-efficacy, socio-emotional skills, etc.) is crucial for student learning.

With this in mind, like Margarida Romero and Eric Sanchez (Learn while playing, 2020), I suggest that henceforth in education we abandon the connoted term of gamification, too often associated with retention mechanisms and extrinsic motivation, for that of gamification. For me, gamicisation is about making learning fun rather than integrating game mechanisms. Ultimately, it seeks to stimulate students' intrinsic motivation, which is less superficial and more lasting. She is interested in real human motivators rather than resorting to operant conditioning ploys. In addition, playfulness puts pleasure back into the equation. 

But as a teacher, one can legitimately ask how to play with his class, his teaching, his students' learning? How can this new information on video game successes help motivate young people? To answer these questions, here are the 8 main motivators as well as tips to help make your teaching practice fun.

1. Epic meaning and vocation

The first motivator occurs when a person feels challenged, personally called to accomplish something greater than themselves, with potentially epic consequences. In video games, we are frequently asked to save the world or stop a disaster. In society, many people today are no longer satisfied with just a good salary, they want their job to lead them to participate in something important and meaningful.

Teaching tip - Invent scenarios

Fitting your learning activities into engaging scenarios and scenarios can help the student become more immersed in them. Do you traditionally organize a class debate? This year the class is in a bunker during a zombie apocalypse and the survival of humanity depends on your joint decisions! Do you work on the environment and sustainable development? This year, a hurricane caused by climate change destroyed the city and each team is responsible for proposing a project to rebuild it in an ecological and sustainable way! Do you get the idea?

2. Development and achievement

We are motivated when we feel like we are improving, achieving goals, overcoming challenges and accomplishing ourselves. Several video games have understood this well by first offering simple challenges, accessible successes, then a difficulty curve that follows the player's progress. 

Teaching tip - Break down into realistic challenges

In education, a student's sense of self-efficacy is crucial. By breaking down the task into small accessible challenges (or quests), we allow the student to experience several successes and thereby stimulate this feeling.

In fact, the biggest misconception about motivation is believing that the more motivated we are, the better we are. However, research shows us the opposite: it is actually success that drives motivation.

“There are a lot of studies that show that it's not really motivation that causes success, but rather the reverse, that is, success that causes motivation. "

Steve Masson, neuroeducational researcher, UQAM

3. Creative autonomy and feedback

This motivation is stimulated when we can experiment and let our imaginations run wild. That's why creative games like Minecraft and Roblox are some of the most popular games on the planet.

As we can read in the News, “In July 2020, no less than 150 million players got connected [Editor's note: to Roblox]. As an indication, at the height of its popularity in August 2018, the shooting game Fortnite had for its part reached 78.3 million players in one month. Roblox is said to be played by two-thirds of Americans aged 9 to 12, boys and girls ”

The freedom offered by video games often allows the player to think through and experiment with different approaches or creative strategies. The automated feedback of the game allows him to adapt accordingly (trial-and-error) and thus stimulates his perseverance.

Teaching Tip - Offer Choices

Providing students with choices gives them a sense of freedom and empowerment. If they are invited to choose the subject, the tool, the approach, the mode of presentation of their project, if their creativity is encouraged, they are more likely to invest body and soul in it. In fact, believing that we have a choice, even if it turns out to be of little consequence, is in itself an important motivator and commitment.

4. Ownership and possession

Several studies in psychology prove that we place more value on what we have (endowment effect). When a person feels they own something, they naturally want to improve it. This is also why some free video games have become among the most lucrative in the world by selling accessories and costumes allowing players to customize their avatars, even if they are only purely aesthetic elements that have no impact on the player's performance.

Teaching tip - Give a personal creative space 

Provide each student with an individual place of expression. The tasks accomplished in this space will be of more value to him. For example, as an individual portfolio, each student could submit their work via their own Google site (or other) that they can customize as they wish. Many students will want to exceed expectations and improve their site, sometimes even beyond the end of the school year for the most motivated. A site can also be used from year to year. 

5. Social influence and connection

This dynamic includes all the social aspects that motivate users, such as camaraderie, mentoring, collaboration, but also competition, lust and the need for social acceptance. In a game, seeing a friend reach a certain skill level or possess something amazing can motivate us to advance to that level or to redouble our efforts. 

Teaching tip - Turning the classroom into a shared adventure

While competition can be effective in certain types of games, it is preferable in education to focus on its collaborative aspect. The platform Classcraft is a tool I have used to stimulate camaraderie, caring, and collaboration in my own classroom. This Quebec company makes it possible to transform a course into a great common adventure of the role-playing type, with avatars and quests. Teams help each other and overcome challenges together. Personally, I have seen some really positive results.

6. Rarity and impatience

Some items in video games are extremely rare, causing some players to go out of their way to get them. Plus, the mere fact that something isn't immediately available fuels lust. Properly dosed, the waiting period can help stimulate interest.

Teaching Tip - Create the Expectation

By portraying things that are coming to your course that are not yet accessible, by quietly offering little clues, short epic trailers to introduce the unit to come, or a currently inaccessible quest that may eventually be be unlocked, you create a hype that encourages students to look forward to the next period or module. Expectation and hope will also tend to make them place more value on the desired activity when the time comes.

7. Unpredictability and curiosity

Our brain is energy efficient, so it tends to take familiar paths and lose focus when we perform routine tasks. Surprise helps rekindle attention and rekindle interest. The elements of chance and luck are an important aspect of board games and role-playing games. In video games, surprise attacks, twists in the storyline, and various random events fuel immersion and engagement. 

Teaching tip - Integrate chance

To promote learning, it is important to have a clear framework, explicit instructions and consistency. But sometimes when an activity starts to run out of steam, you can surprise students by adding a little twist to rekindle their interest. In small doses, unpredictability can help keep their brains alert and motivated. Adding random events, surprises and chance breaks the monotony and renews engagement in the activity. However, it is essential that you only use this trick sparingly and in moderation. Surprise should not become the norm but remain the exception, so as not to have the opposite effect. Unpredictability can also be a source of anxiety and confusion.

8. Fear of loss and avoidance

The last motivator is negative. We hate to lose or miss something. Commonly known as FOMO (fear of missing out), the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that might not happen again can motivate us to take action. In some video games, this motivator can be boosted by costumes, quests, or props for an avatar, which are only available for a limited time.

Teaching tip - Create a must-see immersive experience

Thanks to word of mouth among students, your lesson can quickly become the must-see if you take care to provide a solid and inviting immersive experience for your students. This can involve a playful attitude, a neat atmosphere, a concern for cohesion in the theme of a unit (aesthetics, music, fonts, etc.). The devil is in the details. When students absolutely do not want to miss your lesson, this motivator is involved (in addition to all the others).

Tips for making learning fun

  • Don't be afraid: playing games doesn't mean starting all over again!

Gamification should not be seen as a mountain or extra work. It's not about starting over. It starts with an attitude, that of wanting to make learning more fun. We can playful our existing activities by modifying small things, breaking up, changing our approach to make the experience more interesting, stimulating, more trippy for everyone. Then, when it's time to create new activities, we keep these discoveries about motivation and human psychology in mind to develop in a fun and enjoyable approach.

  • Learning always comes first

Gamification should never come at the expense of learning, but on the contrary serve to improve it. Thanks to educational research, we now know what is effective for learning, so make sure you first master and apply the principles of explicit teaching. Learning is the main thing, fun makes everything more enjoyable for everyone. When they experience successes and the lessons are fun, the students develop an intrinsic motivation to learn and to surpass themselves. Learning for the sake of learning is much more lasting and profound than learning for the exam or grade.

“Learning is the main thing, fun makes everything more enjoyable for everyone. "

Alexandre chenette
  • It doesn't mean "create games"

It is important to understand that gamicization does not involve creating games for the classroom, but rather adopting a playful attitude. While the majority of people love to gamble, there are different types of gamers who don't seek the same gaming experiences (see Bartle's typology). For example, personally I don't like escape games, because I feel like giving up at the first hint. If the escape game is my only alternative to learn, I risk becoming demotivated. Consider offering another way for those who don't want to gamble.

  • Pay attention to the ratio of time invested and educational value

Your time is precious and gamicization shouldn't be time consuming. Taking an entire weekend to create a complex escape game that, in the end, will only take 20 minutes to do in class with questionable educational value doesn't seem profitable to you. In this scenario, the ratio of time invested by the teacher to the learning of the student is really low, which is not the goal of effective teaching. (I am however sure that there are excellent escape games with a high educational content, developed by passionate and exciting educators!)

  • Both from a distance and in the presence

The beauty of gamification is that it can be experienced both online and in person. Motivation and commitment being the biggest challenges of distance learning for the last 40 years (B. Poellhuber), gamification can be all the more interesting in an online context. A platform like allows the creation of scenarios, quests, interactive learning activities, easily shareable and consultable by the students. Gamicization also goes well with a flipped classroom approach.

  • Have fun

Make sure you find fun on your own when creating fun learning activities. Ask yourself the question "Would I have fun doing what I ask my students?" ". If the answer is no, it may be necessary to see how to do otherwise. Since the teacher effect is the most important thing in education (Hattie, J. 2016), a happy, fun teacher creates a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere. Pleasure and passion are contagious.

In the end, everyone wins

Over time, the line between pleasure and work becomes more and more blurred for me. The digital age has allowed more people to turn their passions into careers. It's a safe bet that the trend will continue in the coming years. When students are happy to learn, succeed, and develop a relationship with their teacher who in turn has fun, everyone wins. And this leads to a welcoming atmosphere, less classroom management, a place (physical or virtual) where everyone wants to meet and develop.

“We have less and less need to divide our day between what we MUST do and what we WANT to do. Soon all people will have to do is spend their day playing and growing. "

You-Kai Chou