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Why You Should Think Twice Before Putting a Sticker Page in Your Educational Game

"Learning is fun. We don't make it that way," is what Daren Carstens reminded attendees of the 2010 Dust or Magic AppCamp. "It's possible to wreck it," he continued, "It's possible to make it not fun. But learning itself really is fun."

When crafted well, games create an experience that can make the player go "Oh, wow!" They feel a balance of both competence and challenge, familiarity and wonder. When that occurs, engagement should naturally follow. But these days, it isn't uncommon to see extrinsic motivators being used in kids games. The player completes an activity, and is rewarded with a sticker, or other virtual item. But why? Can't we let kids just enjoy the game? If the game is good, wouldn't the child already be motivated to play it?

Some people believe that motivation is something we have to give a child. Take a look at this parent review of the iOS app First Words: Animals:

Good interface... My 23 month old loves it. My only suggestion would be to add a reward every five or so words. Like a sticker or show those animals playing or something like that. Just to break up the cycle and give motivation. Otherwise, great app.

If the child "loves it," why is it necessary to provide additional motivation? And what effect would that have? 

Extrinsic motivation’s effect on behavior has been studied for decades. Chris Hecker discussed this at length in his 2010 GDC presentation, "Achievements Considered Harmful?" Video of the talk is behind a pay wall, but you can read a summary and see slides on his blog. Hecker cited meta-analysis that reviewed hundreds of these studies. (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999) The findings they agreed on were:

  • Expected rewards decrease a person's intrinsic motivation.  
  • Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases intrinsic motivation.  

Preschool children in particular have been the subject of several studies. Turns out, you can wreck a child's love for drawing, if you tell him you'll give him money for each drawing he completes. Suddenly it becomes all about the money, and when that incentive is gone, what is the point? 

What about those sticker reward pages we see in kids apps and web games? Sure, preschoolers love stickers, and virtual stickers are no exception. But when you offer a reward for doing a task, you send a message that the task isn't worth doing for its own sake. You've created a situation where the reason to do the task is to receive the reward. The focus has been shifted away from any joy or satisfaction that might have been in the activity itself. 

It isn't enough to say "Well, some kids like the stickers. If a player doesn't like the sticker, that kid can ignore it." You've established the dynamic of the whole interaction. Educational games that hook players with real learning and real discovery don't need no stinkin' badges, to borrow a phrase from Jane McGonigal. Your sticker still draws attention away from the inherent satisfaction of the activity.

Of course, extrinsic motivation isn't always a bad thing. It can provide incentive for dull, but necessary tasks. If the goal of a program is to get players to do the chore of memorizing vocabulary words or multiplication facts, or perhaps to practice forming a letter of the alphabet, then sticker rewards or achievement badges might be highly effective. But these aren't really learning games. They're mastery or practice games. It's rare to see something accomplished in these types of games that hasn't been done before, or couldn't be done more efficiently with traditional classroom supplies, like index cards.
If you're designing a game that incorporates stickers or achievement badges, take a close look at the second bullet point above and see if they could be made more effective by placing them in unexpected places, or writing them to be directly relevant to the subject matter at hand.

In designing educational games, we should create experiences that bring out the natural fun of learning, and carve away anything that stands in the way of that. This is why design is difficult. It's all about determining where that balance of player confidence and challenge lies.

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Photo credit: Paul Mayne. Shared via Creative Commons license.

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Reader Comments (4)

I totally agree but I am stumped with a question-
After playing a game from beginning to end, getting "stickers" for achievements extends the gameplay-
Example: Plants Vs. Zombies
I loved the game and played it in a couple of days- the achievements (Of the kind-Play a whole level without doing XX) took me over a month to complete and was more fun than the game itself.

Example 2- Tiny Wings - In this case, Without the achievements, the game is almost not a game at all!


August 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterandre breitman

Alfie Kohn wrote a book detailing this very subject, referencing a multitude of studies showing that extrinsic motivators kill intrinsic motivation almost 100% of the time, The book is titled Punished by Rewards, I recommend it if you're interested in the subject.

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeroy O

Thanks, Andre! You raise a great point that it is entirely subjective to the player, and the particular experience that has been designed. Achievements like the ones you mentioned in Plants vs Zombies can add challenge to the game that the player never would have thought to undertake otherwise. I think the star collection methods in Cut the Rope, Casey's Contraptions, Gesundheit, and Contre Jour are other examples of this.
I have to respectfully disagree with you on Tiny Wings though. I rather enjoy that game, especially right before bed when I'm trying to wind down. I still find it challenging, and I do occasionally realize with satisfaction that I've kept the bird going longer than I've ever managed to before.

Thanks, Leroy! Chris Hecker referenced that book by Alfie Kohn as well. Interesting stuff.

August 31, 2011 | Registered CommenterTraci Lawson

I totally agree, our (SmartyShortz) lessons are followed by a reinforcing game but I would never consider a reward program for users. Even in my own home, my kids ask if they can get rewarded for good grades, I just tell them the reward is that feeling they have inside them and I have inside me when they show me CALLED: SATISFACTION AND PRIDE- heard of it? It's highly UNDERRATED!!

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersmartyshortz

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