The Psychology of Serious Games & Gamification Explored

Designing Digitally


You know something is becoming culturally significant when scholarly research and analysis start to be conducted on the subject. From cell phone usage and social media to counter-cultural trends like Punk Rock & Rap or the advent of the single parent home – trends, fashions, genres and movements that have a lasting impact on society eventually are chronicled, analyzed and dissected by the academic world in an attempt to understand their origins and impacts.

Three recent books (2009 – 2011) turn a microscope’s gaze on the eLearning in general and serious games and gamification in particular, and we’re excited about it! You see, for a company whose bread and butter is eLearning development, scientific and scholarly inquiry into what makes our deliverables ‘tick’ for our users is important - not only as a vindication for our industry but also for the insights these studies can provide. We are, after all, pretty fond of learning ourselves.

Casual Social Games as Serious Games: The Psychology of Gamification in Undergraduate Education and Employee Training is a thick tome exploring prety-much what the title of the books describes. Experiments using “casual” games for education during testing procedures are highlighted and noted, with results clearly detailed.

Quoting from the book’s abstract, “The extant research literatures surrounding online social media, learning-by-testing, and goal-setting theory are then integrated in order to provide a scientific rationale for gameification. The resulting integrative theory of gameification in learning suggests that students may learn more by completing tests than they do when studying, that students can be motivated to complete such tests by offering them social rewards in the form of carefully designed virtual badges, and that these badges should be offered in an online social context which students find meaningful in order to motivate them to action.”

Improving Learning and Motivation through Educational Games features a chapter titled, Understanding Serious Gaming: A Psychological Perspective.  A fascinating look at “the pleasure principle” that motivates all humans in one way or another, enjoyment is presented as a core element in both entertainment and learning.

Again quoting from its abstract, “Taking a psychological perspective, it focuses on the effects of the game rather than the game itself. Emphasis is put on the experience of enjoyment as a core element of a successful entertainment gaming experience, which, in turn, is a prerequisite for a successful learning experience.”

Lastly, Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects takes an overview of serious gaming, with a focus on impact and outcomes more than the games themselves. Quoting from the book’s description, “Contributors investigate the psychological mechanisms that take place not only during gaming, but also in game selection, persistent play, and gaming impact. The work in this collection focuses on the desirable outcomes of digital game play. The editors distinguish between three possible effects -- learning, development, and change -- covering a broad range of serious games’ potential impact.”

All three of these publications are exciting developments in the world of eLearning, not only because of the significance of scholarly attention on our subject matter but also because of the resulting understanding and “verdicts” on the legitimacy of serious games and gamification for the future. Check these books out if you’re so inclined!