Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 3: Rewarding Effort


In my last two posts, I covered two aspects of turning your class into a game: creating the experience and designing experience systems. In this post, I’m going to cover the third aspect: rewarding effort. In games, all effort is rewarded and failure is not punished. In fact, failure is built into games. No one ever plays Mario Kart or Assassin’s Creed without failing–multiple times. This, as has been pointed out by several GBL advocates, is one amongst several reasons why games get learning right and schooling gets learning wrong (or, at least, has poorly designed it). In addition to de-stigmatizing failure, games reward every effort on the part of the player. Every effort. No matter how small. No matter if the effort leads to ultimate success or abysmal failure. Not only do games reward all effort, but, as James Paul Gee points out in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, they reward effort based on the amplification of input principle. In this design principle, a little input results in a lot of output. By rewarding the player with mega-feedback and mega-output, the game encourages them to put forth even more effort in the hopes of receiving ever larger and larger returns. Again, this stands in stark contrast to how schooling responds to effort. So, how can we apply these principles to the classroom? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in this post, though this is an aspect of games-based learning that I have only recently begun experimenting with myself, so what I’ll offer are some basic principles, as gleaned from well-designed games, and a few ideas based on things I have done or plan to do in my classes.

One way that games reward effort is, of course, with points (XP). This is usually the first thing that people think of when they think of GBL and gamification: giving players/students points for doing things. But points are only one way in which games reward player effort. They also reward effort via achievements. Achievements can be almost anything that has value within the game: tools, clothing/armor, virtual money, powers, bonus content, advantages over other players/NPC’s, etc. In general, there are two types of achievements in games: measurement achievements and completion achievements. Completion achievements are earned simply for completing a task, while measurement achievements are awarded based on the degree and/or proficiency to which the task is completed and are evaluative in nature. A good example is the star rating system in Angry Birds, in which the number of stars you receive for destroying the pigs’ structure in each level depends on how well you did so (evaluating aim, accuracy, speed, and number of projectiles you used). In The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Karl Kapp recommends awarding completion achievements for boring tasks and measurement achievements for challenging and interesting ones.


Achievements can be expected or unexpected. Expected achievements, according to Kapp, encourage goal-setting and self-evaluation, as players seek to earn achievements that they know are available. Unexpected achievements, on the other hand, encourage exploration and creative gameplay; as a player discovers an unexpected achievement, they become curious about other achievements that might be hidden in the game and actively seek them out. A good example of unexpected achievements are Easter eggs, which I discussed in a previous post. Kapp recommends using unexpected achievements sparingly, but I’m not sure that I agree with him. I think that using both expected and unexpected achievements as much as possible will allow you to target and encourage both types of behavior, and unexpected achievements will offer more challenges for those students who crave them.

There are four general types of achievements in games: status (badges, character classes, etc.), access (to places and items that other players don’t have access to), powers (extra abilities and advantages), and loot. There are several types of loot, including money, goods, bonuses, and time. Money can be used to purchase apparel and tools/weapons for your character or items within the game world. Awarding players money encourages autonomy, creativity, and problem-solving, as they must consider what items to purchase based on both their current and future needs. For example, in the game that I designed for my argumentation and debate class this past Spring based on classical Greek institutio rhetorica (schools of rhetoric), teams of students earned (virtual) gold for participating in in-class activities; they could then use this gold to purchase “favors” from their patroness (me) such as the ability to select which side they debated in an upcoming debate or what order their debate would be held in. In the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game that my English 102 students played, they earned money for completing writing assignments and for helping out their guild members with their “cases”; the players could then use this money to purchase virtual investigative tools for their character. The number and cost of the tools their character owned determined their character’s status within the world of the game in terms of renown within their field.

Goods are a second type of loot. The investigative tools that my students purchased in “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” is one example. Goods can be used to personalize and/or strengthen a character or allow the player to play “smarter.” In my upcoming FYC game, players will earn potions for various efforts (peer review, attendance, commenting on peers’ blog posts, etc.); there are three different colored potions, each earned for a different type of effort, some completion-based and some measurement-based. The potions can be combined to attain various kinds of powers, which give the players advantages within the game (extended deadlines, bonus XP, skipping tasks, etc.), with each power requiring a unique combination of potions–the more advantageous the power, the more complex the potion combination required. And once a potion has been used to attain a power, it is used up, so, with some potions scarcer than others, the students will have to think carefully about which powers are most needed at the moment and which might be needed later on. So, like money, goods encourage creativity and problem solving, as well as goal-setting.

Bonuses are also effective ways to reward effort, whether in the form of bonus points or items, because they often allow players to catch up with other players or recover from an especially debilitating failure. A good example of this is found in Mario Kart, where the best weapons are often dropped at times when and in places where the players at the back of the race can pick them up. Students who start a class late (either literally due to late registration or figuratively because they chose to ignore early assignments due to lack of interest or competing commitments) or who get behind later in the term may become demotivated if they feel that it’s impossible for them to catch up with everyone else or make enough progress to pass to class. Having bonuses that allow these students to get back on track may help keep some of them from giving up. I’m attempting to address these students in two ways in my upcoming FYC class game. For one, a couple of the powers that can be attained by combining potions include earning double and triple XP on quests and the ability to skip certain tasks. I have also designed a couple of bonus quests that students can complete, adding the bonus XP earned for doing so to their current quest XP in order to help them level up to the next quest (one of the rules of the game is that players have to earn at least 50% of the total possible XP for a quest in order to move on to the next quest). Like bonuses, time can be used as a way to gain advantages over other players or over the game, again allowing players who get behind a chance to redeem themselves by either slowing down or speeding up the game for themselves or for others.

Whatever types of achievements you design to enhance the experience of your players/learners, have what game designers term a trophy room–a place where students can (re)view and relive their glory, whether virtually or physically. And try to tie achievements to activities that are rewarding in and of themselves. Too often, teachers believe the lie that we have to purchase student effort by assigning (subtractive) points to everything. This practice creates a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein students begin to buy into the idea that only things with points attached to them are worth doing. And that is ultimately the message we send when we attach rewards to some things and not to others (these things are worth doing, these are not), even though we scream about how lazy students are because they won’t read the assigned textbook or essay (but we haven’t designed any explicit reward system for doing the reading, while everything else is replete with punitive, external motivators). Within well designed games, rewarding effort is not about attaching extrinsic carrots to everything. An excellent example of this is the “student in peril” component of the Lego Harry Potter franchise. In each level, there is a student hidden somewhere; if you manage to find that student, the game rewards you by playing special music, having the student dance around while other students cheer, and providing you with a celebratory announcement. That’s it. No points. No extra powers. If you happen to rescue all of the students in peril (there are 50), then you earn the status of having rescued all of the students in peril. There’s no real extrinsic value in doing so. Yet, I have dedicated more hours than I really wish to think about trying to locate and rescue all of the students in peril, even replaying levels I’ve completed in order to do so. Why? Because it is a challenge (the students aren’t easy to locate, so it takes effort and skill to do so) and it feels good knowing that I have the potential to overcome this challenge the more I engage in the process (once you’ve located one student in peril, the chances are good you’ll be able to locate another and then another). And the fact that I’m not getting anything out of it actually makes it even more motivating, strangely enough (although Daniel Pink has proven this is actually not that strange).


An achievement is just that–a) a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage, or skill; and b) the process or fact of doing that something successfully. In order to be most effective and to encourage intrinsic motivation, achievements need to be part and parcel of an experience in which the effort, courage, and skill required to do something successfully and the process and fact of doing it successfully are the rewards most valued, both by the teacher and the students. If you think about it, I am, in fact, receiving something for rescuing the students in peril in Lego Harry Potter: positive acknowledgment and feedback from the game (reward for effort) as I engage in the process of locating them and the pride and self-confidence that comes with doing so successfully. Points are not the only, or even the most powerful, form of rewards available to teachers. Positive feedback, acknowledgement, pride, and self-confidence are all types of achievements that belong in any classroom, whether it’s been designed as a game or not.

What do you think? How can achievements be used most effectively in the classroom? What kinds of achievements work best in the classroom? How can we best balance extrinsic and intrinsic rewards? These are questions that I am considering as I begin the process of integrating achievements into my classes and, I believe, some of the most important ones to consider as we turn our classrooms into game spaces.


2 thoughts on “Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 3: Rewarding Effort”

  1. Tanya, I think your comment about having non-tangible rewards is particularly useful in the academic setting. Too many of our traditional structures are focused on extrinsic rewards _at_the_expense_of_the_intrinsic_. This has been a great reinforcer for me to build in more solely intrinsic elements in my game(s).

    I think achievements in a course-game are most effective when they are divorced entirely from the grading structure of the course. Anything that is tied to grades, from my experience, is dragged down by the weight of baggage that comes with the grading & evaluation system the players have so much prior experience with. This coming year I am working on building a game that has many fewer and more tenuous ties to the grading structures.

    I do want to avoid swinging the pendulum back too far in the other direction, too, though. Extrinsic rewards have a place, especially for reluctant players and those with little experience. I think they can help draw in players that might not otherwise engage with a game. I’m just starting to learn World of Warcraft (arguably one of the most well designed learning environments ever) and watching the interplay between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards as I begin at novice level and then grow in experience is intriguing. I’m sure there are many lessons still to be learned about balancing the two. (A quote I loved comes to mind here, which I’m afraid I don’t remember exactly, but the essence is that balance is not a static point but a dance that is constantly engaged in.)

    1. Matthew, I agree completely.

      I try to create as many rewards as possible that don’t directly impact the students’ final grade. It’s difficult to convince students to not focus on grades when a final grade is a requirement. One thing that I experimented with that was fairly successful was the use of character classes and portfolios. The portfolios functioned as a type of student-created “trophy room” where they collected their successes and even their epic failures if they turned out to be especially fruitful learning experiences. There were no grades used at all during the term. The students focused on accumulating XP and achievements and leveling up. At the end of the term, they used their portfolio to assign themselves to a specific character class based that class’s criteria. Each class was ultimately tied to a final grade in the course. The number of achievements was not necessarily as important as the type of achievements students earned, so achievements became a way for students to focus on developing, demonstrating, and being rewarded for specific skill sets. The more skill sets they developed, the higher their final grade. I think this was an effective way to balance the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and refocus students away from “making the grade” and towards learning, making progress, and developing those skills that were deficits at the start of the course.

      I think, too, that it’s important to redefine extrinsic rewards to include things other than just grades. There are tons of potential extrinsic rewards that are untapped; we just have to figure out what motivates our students and work from there.

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