The Game of Life – How Experiential Learning and Gameful Design Can, and Do, Intersect

The Game of Life – How Experiential Learning and Gameful Design Can, and Do, Intersect

How Experiential Learning and Gameful Design Can, and Do, Intersect. Kevin Bell talked about this at the GamiCon21V -> The virtual Gamification in Learning conference.

The featured image of this post is the Miro-board I did while watching the talk.

He brought great examples and some theories behind what intrinsic motivation is made of, what experiential learning is, and how that can be connected. One example that stuck was for a philosophy class. So let’s begin with this case study! And move back to the background after that.

In the following I’ll refer to persons, students, learners or whatever as players.

In the shoes of Socrates. Case study of the intersection

Imagine the following two scenarios:


You’re sitting in philosophy class. Hearing and reading about different philosophers and their works.

If you’re lucky you have some discussions, maybe a paper to write and ad the end of the semester you’re writing an exam.

Sitting in philosophy class. Probably asleep or near sleep.


You‘re in ancient Greece. Roaming the realm of philosophers! (All roles played by instructors and past-students.)

Intersection of Gamification and Experiential Learning

Facing false-guided students of philosophy (Picture 6) is your final quest/project. Guiding the mislead student back to the righteous path using what you’ve learnt and Socratic questioning let’s you pass the final quest!

So which scenario would you prefer? One or two?

Combating the Chocolate-Covered Broccoli

I like brocolli, but the term Chocolate-Covered Broccolli is how you find it often in the wild, so I go with this 😀

Chocolate-Covered Broccoli

The message though is clear. Adding nice, tasty stuff to a shitty experience does not make the experience itself better.

So if the whole thing is crappy, using game dynamics, extrinsic rewards, etc. won’t make it better. That’s why the experience and learning/actions themselves should be good, to begin with. Making the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Don’t get me wrong, adding nice visuals, designs, extrinsic rewards, etc is not bad, but they should not be used to only cover up the bad experience below.

So that’s why we’re striving for making the experience intrinsically motivating to begin with! Therefore we’ll dive deeper into this in the next section.

Intrinsic Motivation

So what are the factors that make an experience intrinsically motivating? Of course, this is depending on the person itself, some like gold others like soccer, others like chess more. These are all intrinsically motivating nevertheless.


Having clear attainable (that does not mean easy) goals is a big factor in intrinsic motivation. Best they come along with a clear reward structure as well.


Rules are restricting decisions, counterintuitively making the experience more interesting! Giving kids a ball saying run from one side of the field to the other will not motivate them long. But give them the rules of soccer at hand and they can do this for hours!

Instant Corrective Feedback

Crucial for good experience design is feedback. Instant and corrective feedback should be strived for. That way the player is always knowing how they are performing and has the chance to learn from his actions (delayed feedback gives less room for learning).

Interesting Challenges

The challenges faced, the quests the player undertakes should be in relation to his skills. Not being super hard and not super easy. If the player would be like, oh I have a 50/50 chance of completing the challenge, that’s the right level of challenge!

Experiences of Competence

Give the player the chance to feel rewarded and their successes along the way! They want to feel that they are moving forward, feeling success and development.

Experiential Learning

After we’ve got a quick overview of intrinsic motivation let’s take a look at experiential learning!

Simply put experiential learning means learning by doing.

A more sophisticated approach to that is deviding experiential learning into four phases.

  1. Concrete Experience: The concrete experience the player engages in.
  2. Reflective Observation: After the experience, the player reflects on it, identifies connections, inconsistencies, and/or alignment between what they experienced and what they knew prior to that.
  3. Conceptual Thinking / Abstraction: This step is about conceptualizing, abstracting what they learned. Modifying or creating new ideas/concepts in their head. The players draw conclusions from this and make new hypotheses about the topics.
  4. Active Experimentation: And after this, the fourth phase is about exactly these hypotheses. Experimenting with their hypotheses in new experiences to test their validity.

Putting it together

Okay, we came this far, so let’s put it together. At the top, I already provided you with an interesting case-study about this!

But let’s walk through another example! This one was done by Dr. Gardner Campbell and his team at Virginia Common­wealth University (VCU).

So as the UCI World Championship Bicycle Race was in town in 2016, together with other faculties and staff they offered 26 mini-courses for students. These courses looked at the race from different perspectives, psychology, physiology, marketing, anthropology of crowds, and so on.

The students conducted research directly in the field and really saw the meaning behind their actions. This fostered the experiential learning of the students and created huge engagement and drive for the students.

In the future, we have more and more opportunities to use technology to even enhance experiential learning. For doctors, engineers, astronauts, and all kinds of professions where high impact, low probability situations cannot be trained well, but could so through an immersive and real simulation, that can be combined with gameful elements to further drive the value and learnings of the experience up to another level.

Creating your own narrative

One last thing I learned from the talk by Kevin was the concept of letting players create their own narratives, their own stories.

So instead of giving them a fixed setting, that they might not be able to relate to well, give them the ability to create that on their own!

The philosophy class mentioned at the beginning is a good example. How and why the players travel the lands of the philosophers is completely up to them. Whether they are Doctor Who travelling through space and time or just stumbled upon a stick and went back to consciousness in ancient Greece etc. that’s up to the fantasy of the player. Creating a stronger bond and relation with the experience and therefore enhancing the motivation and learnings in the end.

Key Takeaways

Finally, let us summarize what my key takeaways from Kevin Bell’s talk were.

  • If you have a shitty experience, covering it up with chocolate (visuals, gameful design, rewards) won’t make it a better experience
  • Intrinsic motivation is fostered by
    • Clear, attainable Goals
    • Rules that restrict decisions
    • Instant corrective feedback
    • Interesting challenges that relate to the skill level
    • Experience of competence
  • Experiential learning is all about learning by doing, divided into 4 phases:
    1. Concrete Experience
    2. Reflective Observation
    3. Conceptualizing / Abstracting
    4. Active Experimentation
  • Let players create their own narrative their own story.

I hope you enjoyed this post and a big shoutout to Kevin Bell for this awesome talk at the GamiCon21V! It was a pleasure going through it, reviewing it and really getting these insights and takeaways out of it!

So until next time, my heroes. I’m out!

Stay heroic!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *