Unlock Behaviour Change with Games-based Learning

Different coloured paper boat

Games-based learning and gamification of learning can have many aims. One of the biggest and most challenging is surely behavioural change. How can a game-based experience affect the long-term behaviour of the player?

Focus on intrinsic over extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation comes from reward, tangible or otherwise. Intrinsic motivation comes from interest in or enjoyment of the activity itself. When we award points and set people in competition, we’re focusing on extrinsic motivation. When we make something fun in its own right, we’re focusing on intrinsic motivation.

By definition, extrinsic motivation relies on the presence of triggers and incentives. When we remove the rewards, the behaviour can stop or fade. And extrinsic motivation can actually replace any intrinsic motivation that exists. In other words, when we start rewarding behaviour, we risk moving that person beyond enjoyment, and nudge them towards reliance on reward alone for motivation.

The big problem for learning designers is that extrinsic motivation is much easier to design into game experiences than intrinsic. It’s much more tangible. But by taking the easy option, we risk losing our chance at making behaviour change deep and lasting.

We can look to frameworks such as Yu-Kai Chou’s Octalysis Framework or Nicole Lazarro’s Four Types of Fun for inspiration to bring out intrinsic motivation, but the first step may be simply resisting the crutch of extrinsic motivators such as points, badges and competition.

Give learners freedom to try and fail, and feedback when they do

Karl Kapp identifies three interlinked ways to design behaviour change into learning games:

  • Freedom for players to do what they want in an open environment
  • Freedom to fail
  • Rapid feedback for success or failure

And in fact, these three are the basis for most of the more profound, non-book learning we do in life. We live our lives. We make mistakes and have successes. The sharper the feedback, the more we tend to change our behaviour.

The Gamification of Learning by Karl Kapp is available on Amazon

This isn’t easy to design into games. It’s much easier to design a very specific, restricted path, or to focus on information to be learned, rewarding correct answers. But again, resisting the easy option is leaning into the effective one.

Boost ability, desire and triggers

BJ Fogg identifies three elements that need to be present to prompt behaviours:

  • The person must be motivated — they must want to do it, for whatever reason
  • The person must be able — they must find it within their power, or easy enough
  • A timely trigger or prompt must coincide with in-the-moment ability and motivation.

A gamified system that will be at work over a period of time can control for these while it’s in effect. But changing behaviour in a way that outlasts a game-based intervention is more difficult. One answer is to design the experience to boost these three factors when they’re next relevant. For example:

  • Focusing on upskilling somebody to make them more able
  • Helping them internalise reasons to carry out the behaviour, and so motivating them for when the time comes
  • Helping them recognise or create triggers in everyday life.

Games-based behaviour change in action

A good way to illustrate some of these principles is to look at some case studies of games or gamified experiences that have succeeded in creating behaviour change.

Zombies, Run!

Lego Zombie

Zombies, Run! encourages running, and specific running behaviours like intervals, by adding a ‘game layer’ to the running experience. A narration track tells runners via headphones about targets and instructions within the game world. The most basic of these is essentially: ‘zombies sighted, run fast now’, but further levels of subtlety and complexity immerse the player more deeply.

This works well with Fogg’s three principles. The runner is able to do what’s asked, and the game layer gives the motivation and a timely trigger. By making the story and game immersive and thoughtful, the experience focuses on intrinsic fun as well as in-game reward. And the game offers plenty of choices — demands are set from the player’s running goals — and provides feedback during and between runs.

There’s no doubt that Zombies, Run! structures runner behaviour. It could be argued that it does so only while in-game. But it has the potential to be a long-term or permanent running partner, so this may matter less. And if the app is used long enough to move the behaviour from occasional to habitual, removing it may well leave the habit intact.


Culturallye is a classroom game designed to make people change behaviours around cultures and cultural differences. It sets up separate ‘tables’, each of which play a dice-based game — in silence — with a number of rules. They don’t know that each table is playing by different rules. When some players are switched to a new table, awkwardness and challenge ensue when they don’t do things the same way as the table they’ve joined.

The game allows people to make their own mistakes, and solve them in their own way, just as Karl Kapp suggests. Instant feedback through people’s reactions, and freedom to resolve issues in a range of ways, make this a learning experience that translates well to navigating the rules of the real world. It doesn’t provide extrinsic rewards, but is a fun game in itself, that provokes thought and has moments of surprise and high engagement.

As a game designed to change longer-term behaviour, its relationship to Fogg’s ideas are more complex. But by helping people to recognise the complexities of the issue and how it can affect them personally, it helps:

  • their ability to take more culturally sensitive actions
  • their motivation to want to change the status quo
  • the chance that they will recognise or create triggers for doing so.


Superbetter is a phenomenally successful game focused on resilience-friendly behaviour change. The prototype of the game helped its designer Jane McGonigal to make life-saving behaviour changes in her recovery from a serious brain injury, and the game has helped many people change resilience-based behaviours in everyday life.

Superbetter by Jane McGonigal is available on Amazon

It encourages players to set their own goals, challenges and other important factors, but within a game frame:

  • Smaller and bigger desired steps and actions are quests and epic wins
  • Your social network are allies
  • Useful habits and resources are power-ups
  • Challenges and obstacles are bad guys

This isn’t a simple game of ‘call something by another name’. McGonigal develops each of these elements in a way that draws on behavioural change research, while giving the player the freedom to map these concepts to their own goals and life however they see fit.

Superbetter’s success in changing behaviours could stem from how well it follows Kapps’ three points, by allowing so much freedom and instant feedback. Its structure also balances extrinsic reward with intrinsic fun, encouraging players to make the game enjoyable and find fun in challenges, self-set goals and helpful tools, as well as through a strong social element.

It may showcase Fogg’s three factors most strongly of all, though. The ‘game frame’ builds from smaller to tougher challenges, and builds player resources, and the journey gives players the ability to do more and more challenging things. The framing specifics have plenty of motivation hooks, playing on deeply resonant themes of bad guys and power-ups that spring from popular culture around games and films. And the structure of the game provides triggers for action in the way quests and tasks are time-linked, and in the social element via allies.

Change behaviours by using all three

These three ideas can be used as frameworks for design, as lenses for viewing design decisions, and as checks on the effectiveness of design:

  • Focus on intrinsic over extrinsic motivation
  • Give learners freedom to try and fail, and feedback when they do
  • Enhance ability, desire and triggers.
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Learning Designer at Untold Play
Terry Pearce is a bespoke learning designer, who focuses on game-based learning and gamification in designing learning experiences. He’s the founder of Untold Play, where he’s committed to putting the power of play to work in learning. In his 20-year career in L&D, his learning design has won awards from Reed Learning, the Healthcare People Management Association and The NHS London Modernisation Agency.

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