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Posted by on Dec 18, 2013

Autonomy, Uncertainty, Empowerment, Scarcity: Drivers for Mobile Learning Game-Based Activities

My colleague Pekka Ihanainen and I are working on a  few projects involving mobile learning field activities. The idea itself isn’t that original, but we are looking to systematically explore the potential of these activities for learning after successful workshops in Helsinki and Talinn, and, to some extent, Seoul. One such paper was recently accepted by the Networked Learning Conference and we will present on it in Edinburgh in April. We knew these field activities were striking a chord, but we are not sure how. The surface of something rich was scratched, but we want to probe further. So we are working on several projects to that effect. Amidst these field activities, we are employing several game-oriented activities as a means of driving the project and as a means of cohering the disparate elements involved in getting a fairly large group of learners to interact with their environment in so systematic a way.

So we tinker and toy and write and refine. Iterate again and again. A recent article that Pekka brought to my attention struck a chord with me and I wanted to draw it here into a post. After the learning theories and pedagogical approaches are in place, after learning objectives are articulated, opinions and needs are identified and sequenced, and so on, there is a need for good design. This is where commercial enterprises have an advantage as they have dedicated resources available strictly for design (and coding and implementation) that higher education in particular often does not. But I don’t see any reason why we as educators cannot be brought up to speed on design practices and theories in order to maximize the impact of these edtech projects that we all seem to be working on.

Qualifying the Psychology of Gamification

The source is Tapping into the Intangible: Qualifying the Psychology of Gamification from the Social Learning Blog. The post makes reference to many things, but the one most pertinent to my post here is Yu-Kai Chou‘s eight core drivers in gaming design. I thought all of these were particularly relevant to learning design in general, and especially so when one is trying to game learning for greater effect. So the eight drivers are:

  1. Meaning: the user feels that they were chosen to play the game, or that they’re contributing to something greater than themselves.
  2. Empowerment: the user becomes addicted to the creative process of figuring out a problem and trying different combinations to solve it.
  3. Social influence: social elements that drive people such as acceptance, competition, and social responses. It satisfies our natural impulse to feel connected and closer to people through events to which we can relate.
  4. Unpredictability: the desire to continue to find out just what happens.
  5. Avoidance: this drive is based upon the avoidance of something negative happening. As humans, we’re extremely risk averse, whether it’s the idea of losing work in the form of points or advantages gained through a system.
  6. Scarcity: the desire to have something but not being able to have it. It’s similar to games that have appointment dynamics, such as come back in two hours and gain bonus points, which makes users think about the game in the meantime.
  7. Ownership: the user feels like they own something, and because they own it, they want to make it better.
  8. Accomplishment: simply put, it’s the internal drive to overcome a challenge.

A few of these I wanted to flesh out in a bit more detail for my purposes, but they are all particularly relevant for learning design.


Ownership and autonomy are incredibly important and I believe this directly influences social influence or vice versa. Being perceived as being in control and connected simultaneously (however contradictory they might seem) is critical to this kind of design, especially in learning. We have always had the dynamic of students progressing at different paces and with different degrees of articulation and depth in their learning approaches. Ownership allows for this asynchronous mapping of different students to different speeds; designing occasional collaborative or individual reflective sessions into the autonomy stimulates the social influence as participants are forced to share their progress or their findings. All of it leads to empowerment, not only in the achievement of certain activities in the learning game itself, but also in the social capital that it provides the learner. The student is seen as being successful through the transparency of their efforts. This needs to be designed into the game; this constant oscillation between individual and social activities. We need to keep those both in an uncertain tension. Also, autonomy is critical for learning games as they are. These need to be able to run without an instructional presence, if necessary. I want to design in the possibility (or likelihood) of autonomous self-governing learning groups extending the rules, the objectives, the impact, and the evolution of their own learning.

Empowerment, meaning, and accomplishment are all, in some way linked to unpredictability, scarcity, and avoidance. I firmly believe that the game needs to have the possibility of failure embedded in it, however likely or explicit. It is through these authentic challenges (authentic=possibility of failure) that we are likely to see the greatest investment in the game (assuming the resiliency of the individual is there to overcome mistakes and past failures). Learning is much like this as well, especially the type of learning that Pekka and I routinely explore. The unpredictability in our activities directly stems from the ambiguity of the learning objectives in the field activity. They will be defined and negotiated constantly by both the individual and the group in the field. It is not the easiest thing in the world to scrape meaning from mere space. The individual or the group will fill in the details as they go, assuming an objective is in place.

My mind keeps returning to the only problem I have with games as learning activities. It inherently emphasizes the result (the meeting of an objective) at the expense of a process. Perhaps I am not familiar enough with games to know of any examples that emphasize process over result. But how does one game a learning activity where the real goal is the redefinition or evolution of self, practice, or process? I am merely asking questions that will become reality as I begin to move some of these mobile learning field activities into actual games or actual applications or both. I stray a bit from Chou’s point. I find these drivers incredibly useful as it will inform the learning design in its infancy and as a sort of quality control and assurance of output. If my learning activity fails to include these eight drivers, then I am sacrificing some potential impact.


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