Just a Spoon Full of Sugar? Gamification and Education

Jane:                      "It is a game, isn't it, Mary Poppins?"

Mary Poppins:          "Well, it depends on your point of view. You see,

In every job that must be done,

There is an element of fun.

You find the fun, and snap!

The job's a game.

And every task you undertake

Becomes a piece of cake

A lark, a spree it's very clear to see

That a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down

The medicine go down

Medicine go down ..."


In the musical film "Mary Poppins" (1964) the nanny introduces the two kids – Jane and Michael Banks– to a technique how to transform a dreadful job into a joyful game. As she explains in her song "snap!", medicine tastes so much better with tons of sugar. One could argue, that this is what serious games and gamification are all about – designing a spoonful of sugar and adding it to the "serious" content.

The approach to use games for serious and educational purposes reaches back to the roots of institutional forms of play (Locke 1989; Rousseau 1762; Fröbel 1826; Montessori 1909). The term "Serious Game" was introduced by Clark Abt (1970) in the 70ies, but made popular by the "Serious Game Initiative", which coined it in 2002 (Wu 2008). Although we are lacking an established definition of "Serious Games", Clark's understanding of games aiming at “an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose” appears widely agreed on in a majority of studies and publications. From a game design perspective one could argue that these games are designed for a specific serious purpose beyond pure entertainment. This purpose can be described as the intention to design a playful environment that provides "serious" content, topics, narratives, rules and goals to foster a specific learning process. Serious games are intentionally designed to make the players engage with a particular matter to achieve a specific knowledge and to foster a change of their thinking and behavior.

In the following discussion, I will outline different specifics about this playful sugar and some reasons. I will explain recent insights into its power and potential for educational systems.

The 4 powers of Sugar: games for learning:

Every game begins with a challenge that motivates the gamer to put their knowledge and skills to the test. Games are designed to adapt to the abilities of the individual player and increase the level of difficulty at the right pace. By learning from their mistakes, players improve with every task they tackle. The challenge of the game allows players to fail in an enjoyable way while encouraging them to learn and improve.
A second potential benefit is the possibility to explore and test one’s own abilities within the realm of play. Because the decisions taken in the digital world of the game have no consequences in real life, players can experiment and try things out. They explore the virtual consequences of their own actions in a kind of simulation. There is hardly any equivalent for this in reality, as “game over” in real life tends to have very real consequences.
The third potential benefit is the chance to explore roles and identities. In a game the players slip into fictitious guises, pretend and can thus adopt new perspectives. Each new perspective opens up new challenges and stimulates learning processes that only become possible thanks to the identity assumed in the game.
The fourth and last benefit is the immediate feedback that allows players to put what they have learnt directly into practice in the game. The players find out whether their abilities are sufficient to meet the requirements. Their own progress in the game gives them the reassurance of having achieved and learnt something.

Types of Sugar: Definitions

Incentive Systems

An incentive is a form of motivation that influences an individual to perform a specific action. Incentives can be monetary or non-monetary rewards and can take a material or moral form. Incentive systems is the sum of specific incentives that provide the individual with rewards.

Bonification Schemes and Strategies

These are models of an incentive system that compensates a person or system for showing a specific behavior. Currently bonification strategies for consumers are still predominantly service-bound offering fixed reward schemes (i.e. price reductions for loyal customers, frequent flyer services). These incentives are characterized by the fact that these bonification rewards are not transferable to different services or even other people.


A game is a form of competitive or cooperative activity or sport played according to rules. Playing a game is the voluntary pursuit to overcome unnecessary obstacles in a satisfying way (Suits 1978, p.3). Games are governed by rules, goals and game mechanics. Juul (2003): "A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable."

Game Mechanics

Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek (2004) distinguish between mechanics (the rules of the game), the dynamics (the emergent behavior of these rules), and aesthetics (the user experience): "Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representations and algorithms (…) mechanics are the various actions, behaviors, and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context". Järvinen (2008) defines mechanics as "means to guide the player into particular behavior by constraining the space of possible plans to attain goals" (p. 254).


The term Gamification was coined in the early 2000’s, but gained public attention around 2010 when various enterprises used gamification tools for marketing reasons. The most complete and solid definition was proposed by Deterding, Dixon, Khaled and Nacke (2011, p.3) who define gamification as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts“. Gamification projects do not provide the user with a complete play experience, but use parts and elements of games and particular mechanics to reach a specific purpose through the “game”. Thereby, game mechanics are used to motivate individuals and groups to engage in a real world non-game activity (i.e. Nike+, Four Square)

Serious Game

“Serious games are purpose-driven playful environments intended to impact the players beyond the self-contained aim of the game.” (Mitgutsch & Alvarado 2012, p.2). While Gamification projects only take parts of games, serious games provide a whole set of mechanics, the dynamics (the emergent behavior of these mechanics), and aesthetics (the user experience) to reach a specific purpose beyond the game itself.

Games with a Purpose

A Game with a Purpose is a game, which is created to generate useful data as a by-product of play. Games with a Purpose normally employ pre-existing game genres (e.g, action, puzzle, word, simulation games) and embed a playful challenge in the most appropriate game action (cf. von Ahn 2006). It is not the primary goal of the game to impact the player, but to measure the player behavior and collect the data.

The ULTIMATE Sugar System - Gamification

While the usage of game mechanics in non-game context does not necessarily limit itself to specific outcomes, in a majority of cases real-life behavior is intended when using gamification mechanics. Zac Fitz-Walter (2012) concludes that the use of game elements in gamification is flexible and varies from project to project:

“In terms of a game element, this could potentially be anything from game aesthetics such as graphics and progress bars, to complete games with an overarching goal, rules, story, levels, quests and achievements all powered by real actions. Gamifying something entails adding any number of game elements, (…) to a non-game context to enhance the user experience or increase motivation and engagement. Overall gamification generally has the goal to make a more appealing product or create a more active and motivated user base.”

In recent years, various companies used gamification tools to impact the behavior of their customers. Gamification engages customers in a playful way - from the famous Nike+ application, motivating you to run more and share your routes, to Yahoo’s Fango mobile app, encouraging you to interact with TV shows via techniques like check-ins. Or for example Starbucks providing people prizes and badges for checking in at multiple locations with the Foursquare application. But gamification is not only used in business sectors, but also for education and as a training tool. Gamification can be used to motivate learners in the shape of a more personalized feedback form rather than grading (e.g. Ribbon Hero 2, Khan Academy, Gbanga Zooh, Duolingo, Class Dojo). The market for gamification is on the rise and different solutions and applications will be developed within the next few decades (study Gartner Foundation 2011).

While the usage of game elements in the business sector appears to be promising, numerous researchers criticize this form of gamification as a simplistic extension of existing ideas in marketing, like loyalty programs. It is argued, that this form of gamification is reducing the engaging power of games to behavioristic sales dynamics. As gamification researcher Sebastian Deterding (2011) argues, there needs to be more than a collection of game mechanics to offer an engaging experience to the user:

"Games are not fun because they're games, but when they are well-designed. "Just adding" something from games isn't a guarantee for fun. To make something fun, your need all the hard work of game design: iterating, prototyping, play testing, balancing - all preferably performed by real game designers.”

It is not the isolated game mechanic that makes the games engaging, it is the experience of freedom, self-efficacy and mastery while engaging with the challenges of the game. Mechanics are the core structures that in combination with the players’ motivation and the aesthetics of the game open up an engaging dynamic. If gamification focuses on the usage of game elements in a non-game context, it still has to be well designed and enriching for the user – otherwise the mechanics are meaningless. In addition to this issue, we still lack empirical data on the long-term effect of gamification approaches. As recent studies show (Hamari, Koivisto & Sarsa 2014), the extrinsic reward structure used in many gamification projects might even transform intrinsic motivation to an extrinsic level. Thereby, the long-term effect of some gamification applications might even have negative side effects. In consequence, the idea of Meaningful Gamification – as a more user-centred approach to gamification - appears promising. As Scot Nicholson (2012) argues, Meaningful Gamification means creating a gamification system that is meaningful to the user. Thereby, it is important to take the background of the user into consideration and to explore the systematic context into which the specific activity is placed. A significant challenge in creating this type of a broad system is developing a strategy to encompass a wide variety of user backgrounds, desires, and skillsets.

What the Spoonfull of Sugar can do?

The following takeaways can be drawn from from the different studies in the field (e.g. Hamari, Koivisto & Sarsa 2014):

  • Gamification is a useful tool to provoke behavior and aptitude change.
  • In particular gamification can enrich the users’ motivation and engagement, but also in exploring new possibilities and options.
  • When players engage within the game mechanics, behavior other than intended can occur due to the dynamics set in motion through the game.
  • Most gamification projects imply a social aspect and almost all of them are non-monetary incentive systems.
  • The nature of the gamified systems strongly impacts the effect of the gamification.
  • Therefore, it is key to get a good sense of the users’ motivation, but also of player styles and user types.
  • There is a great lack of data on the impact of game mechanics on player types.
  • The short-term effect of Gamification is shown in different studies, the long-term effect can only be reached via the intrinsic motivation of the user and within a meaningful context.

Sugar in our educational System

Some people say that schools have always been gamified systems – just pretty bad ones. Grades for example are useful tools for feedback on performances, but in many cases they are demotivating and in some cases kill the creative abilities of people by the pressure they cause. Many things can be said about the potential to use gamification within the educational setting. Here I will highlight some potentials that Gamification could provide to higher education:

A very big advantage of using Gamification within the field of higher education lies within its transparency. The rules, points, goals and achievements are transparent and viewable in a well-designed gamified system. The reward structure is well-balanced, motivating and never stretching too far. The system might not always reveal all information, but players appreciate that they have an overview about their progress. A great example is School 42 (https://www.42.us.org/) – a free coding university in Paris and Stanford – where students review their curriculum in form of a quest structure. Things like this can deeply transform the organizational aspect of institutions and the communications with the students.

A second potential is the self-regulatory power that gamification opens up for users. The learners are choosing their own goals and tasks and feel intrinsically motivated to perform well within the system. If the students feel in control of their learning and feel ownership over their learning process a feeling of self-efficacy can set in, that drives their motivation and leads to a feeling of satisfaction. Thereby, the regulation shift from an external control to an internal self-regulated approach.

One size fits all is often the result of an educational system that focuses on managing masses of students. When you teach a bigger group of students a specific topic, it is hard – or impossible – to reach each learner based on his or her individual skills. Therefore, an essential aspect of Gamificiation is the customization of the learning content and the usage of challenges based on the user's needs and potentials. In addition the learners can choose their own rhythm and speed and when and where they engage.

Finally, the gamified system can adapt to the different interests and skills based on different player styles and user types. While some learners are driven by points and achievements or value community and social engagement, and others prefer independency and freedom. In consequence, a state of the art gamified system is able to adapt to different player types and adjust its feedback and rewards in relation to the learner needs.

In summary, Gamification offers a unique potential for learning and higher education if its flexibility, transparency and engaging potential is used to create a benefit for the learners. If Gamification is reduced to a “spoonful of sugar” it only creates short time effects and no sustainable learning outcomes. When a meaningful gamification is intended, that serves the learners and supports an educational goal, the educational system beneath needs to transform with it. However, it will take more than a “snap” by Mary Poppins to fully use the potential and design an engaging solution to our educational challenges.

Further Reading:


  • Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nacke, L.E., Dixon, D. (2011): Gamification: Toward a Definition. In CHI 2011 Gamification Workshop Proceedings, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
  • Gartner Report (2011): Online: http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1629214
  • Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014):Does Gamification Work? – A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. In Proceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, USA, January 6-9, 2014
  • Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M.; Zubek, R., (2004): MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, In: Proceedings of the Challenges in Games AI Workshop, Nineteenth National Conference of Artificial Intelligence
  • Järvinen, A. (2008): Games without Frontiers. Theories and Methods for Game Studies and Design. Doctoral dissertation study for Media Culture.
  • Juul, J. (2005): Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
  • Mitgutsch, K. & Narda, A. (2012): Purposeful by Design. A Serious Game Design Assessment Model. FDG 2012, FDG ‘12 Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games. ACM New York, NY, USA 121-128
  • Nicholson, S. (2012): A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification. Paper Presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0 , Madison, WI
  • Pink, D. (2009): Drive. The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead
  • Suits, B. (1978):The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia, Broadview Press
  • von Ahn, L. (2006): "Games with a Purpose," Computer, vol. 39, no. 6, pp. 92-94, June 2006, doi: 10.1109/MC.2006.196
  • Zac Fitz-Walter (2012): Gamification thoughts on definition and design. Online: http://zefcan.com/2012/04/gamification-thoughts-on-definition-and-design/comment-page-1/#comment-188




Konstantin Mitgutsch is the founder of Playful Solutions, a Viennese agency that creates playful solutions for real world problems. Konstantin is also an Affiliate Researcher at the MIT Game Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He also serves as Gaming Director of the Red Bull Mind Gamers project, and explores novel forms of using game design as a tool for personal development with Superpower Discovery. Konstantin received his PhD in education science and media education at the University of Vienna education and has published books on purposeful game design, learning and technology.



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Thursday, 14 November 2019