Games reward player success in many ways. Gabe Zicherman in his article Cash is for SAPS asserts that these rewards can be thought of in four categories: Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. As it turns out, not all rewards have the same effect on players. Some are more powerful immediately but wane quickly. Others creep steadily but are much more powerful motivators in the long run. In fact, these four category just so happen to be organized, in that order, along a spectrum of motivational power from Intrinsic to Extrinsic. Let’s take a look, in reverse order, at each one in turn and also how it might apply to an educational setting.
Stuff refers to material things offered in response to positive player behavior. In a video game, stuff might be a cool new hat for a character to wear or money so that the player could buy something in a shop. In a classroom, “stuff” might be a pizza party or a small toy from a treasure box. We have all given stuff to our students and chances are they liked it. Chances are also that it did not have a long lasting effect on student behavior. Stuff activates our extrinsic motivation centers. Extrinsic effects are powerful at first but quickly wear off. The more stuff we get, the more stuff we want. In addition, the next reward needs to be bigger and better than the last or else the motivational effect can actually be diminished. The first pizza party is awesome but the third one is expected. Stuff can be effective for a quick motivational boost but is not the best strategy for long term engagement.
Power is the term given to any ability in a game which allows players actions to affect their environment, including other players around them. In a video game it might be increased speed or even a new magic spell. In a classroom, power might mean the ability to choose their own groups or being able to award points to classmates for good behavior. Really anything that grants them agency compared to their usually subordinate status. Power is a bit more important to a player because its ramifications last longer than Stuff. However, when rewarding students power, remember what we all learned from the Spiderman comics “with great power there must also come–great responsibility”
Access is how a game grants players the ability to expand their horizons in a game. Video games often do this by opening up access to a whole new level or map or vehicle. Interestingly enough, usually access granted in games allows the player to pursue greater challenges. Access is motivating to players because it provides new opportunities to explore and challenge themselves. In a classroom, students might be granted access to moving along to the next chapter in a book, or the next set of math facts, or access to the 3D printer. These things are especially motivating. Access really boils down to freedom. It is the freedom to grow.
Status is a representation of player accomplishment. In many video games status takes the form of experience points, badges, levels, or rankings. Regardless of the form it takes, status in games is always quantifiable, highly visible, and cumulative over the duration of the game. It lets a player know how far they have come, how far they have left to go until their next milestone, and even how they stack up against other players. Of the four categories discussed here, status is the most powerful reward that can be given, yet is the reward that is most often avoided in the classroom. Perhaps that is because status is a differentiator, and in education, there is a tendency to treat everyone as equal. The concern here is that educators often have difficulty celebrating the achievements of certain students for fear that it will make others feel bad. However, the danger of rewarding status in the classroom comes, not from the celebration of status but, from outright comparison or competition of students with different backgrounds and ability levels. However the solution is simple, individually celebrate everyone’s status accomplishments all the time. Gamification done well, celebrates the achievements of individual students while avoiding broad comparisons of performance across standardized assessments. This is a tricky thing to accomplish but, with tools up one’s sleeve like differentiated learning maps, collaborative leaderboards, and a thoughtful badging system, it can be done.
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation- Looking at all four of these categories, stuff is the most extrinsic motivator while status is the most intrinsic motivator. There is a common misconception that status is extrinsically motivating because the students are working to get the points, that the points actually count as stuff. However, status truly is an intrinsically motivating reward because those points are worth absolutely nothing outside of the game context. They are any valuable to the student who watches them accumulate as they achieve their goals. Some teachers have created shops where students can buy things like homework passes with the points they have earned. In my post Top 10 Gamification Fails, I hint at the dangers of allowing students to trade their status for stuff and deeply examine this issue further in Status: The Ticket to Intrinsic Motivation
A well designed game or gamified lesson utilizes all four of these reward categories to activate the full spectrum of motivational elements. Games are an excellent model for how to reward the successes of our students in class. However, let’s not forget that rewarding success is far less powerful than celebrating failure. More on that topic in my next article(coming soon) 4 Ways to Celebrate Failure.
Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.