Everyone Plays at the Library

Gamification in Libraries: A Word of Warning

Greetings! I’m Scott Nicholson, author of Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages, and an associate professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University. During the 2011-2012 academic year, I was on sabbatical as a visiting professor at MIT, where I worked with the GAMBIT game lab. When I returned to Syracuse, I started the Because Play Matters game lab, which focuses on the creation of transformative games and play for informal learning environments. “Transformative games” is a term coined by Jesse Schell for games designed to change people; these also are known as serious games or games for change.

One area that I have focused on since then is Gamification. Gamification is a new term for an old concept: using game design elements for a real-world context (Deterding et al., 2011). Libraries have been doing this for decades through summer reading programs where patrons track books read and then receive a reward. Many modern gamification applications are based upon the game design elements of role-playing games. Upon accomplishing something in the real world, players receive points. As players get enough points, they are reward by gaining levels or status on a leader board. Additional challenges can earn players achievements, and players are rewarded with badges that are publicly displayed. My term for this type of gamification is BLAP: Badges, Levels & Leaderboards, Achievements, and Points.

Most BLAP gamification applications are focused on changing behavior through giving rewards, much the way that Pavlov rewarded his lab animals through pellets of food. The danger of doing this creates a reward loop, where participants engage in the behavior for the reward. If the task is teaching a skill, such as learning to tie shoes, then the reward is no longer needed once the skill has been mastered. If reward is for a short-term behavioral change, such as selling a specific product, then it doesn’t matter if the reward is taken away.

Where reward-based gamification is a concern is when it is being used for long-term behavioral change, such as inspiring a love of reading. Kohn, in his book Punished by Rewards, explores problems with using rewards in this way. Deci and Ryan (2004), creators of Self-Determination Theory, found through many studies that the external motivation created by rewards replaces intrinsic motivation to engage with the real-world task, so if the rewards are removed, the motivation goes with them. The result of this is that using reward-based systems can result in a short-term engagement but, in the long-term, can create users that are less engaged than they were before the rewards were given.

Therefore, there is a real danger for libraries considering reward-based gamification to create lifelong library users.  As Zichermann and Cunningham say in one of the core books on BLAP gamification, “once you start giving someone a reward, you have to keep her in that reward loop forever” (2011, p. 27). Someone using a reward system will see a boost in the short term but risk a long-term crash when the rewards are removed. In fact, it was when I read this sentence that I decided to get involved with gamification to help libraries and other institutions avoid making a risky mistake.

All is not lost, however. In my next installation in this blog, I will present my concepts for meaningful gamification, which is designed to build internal motivation, which is valuable for long-term behavioral change. If you come back and read it, you’ll get a virtual gold star!


Deci, E. and Ryan, R. (2004). Handbook of Self-Determination Research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). “From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining “Gamification.”” Proceedings from MindTrek ’11. Tampere, Finland: ACM

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Zichermann, G. & Cunningham, C. (2011). Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps.  Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

About Scott Nicholson

Dr. Scott Nicholson, MLIS, is an associate professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, where he runs the Because Play Matters game lab. Before getting his PhD in Information Studies at the University of North Texas, he was a librarian at Texas Christian University. His research focuses on transformative games, play, and meaningful gamification for informal learning. Articles, presentations, and games by Dr. Nicholson can be found at http://becauseplaymatters.com . He is the author of Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages.

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