Many of us associate social media with a waste of time, a set of technology that is washing away the new generation by sharing memes and watching Tik Toks. A competitive entertainment market and COVID lockdowns make us futile when we try to enforce students to avoid distractions while learning online. Every day, 57% of students use their now learning-device for diving into social media and 26.6% use it to play videogames (Garcia and Weiss). Many of the addictive core drives that engage students with technology can be extracted from the “Octalysis Framework” in the Actionable Gamification book (Chou). What if these systems are the answer to our education problem? How can educational technology use core drives to improve student engagement?

The first core drive to explore is Accomplishment the drive fueled by growth or accomplishing a goal (Chou, 92). To define this drive we will be exploring Duolingo which is an app that teaches languages. Some of the accomplishment systems shown in the app are milestones, leaderboards, trophies. The accomplishment systems provide a type of entitlement that other players can see and demonstrate particular proficiency with a specific learning outcome. Based on a study from Research Gate, the engagement with Duolingo increased thanks to the graphic display of learning milestones; the different levels of goals helped particularly to new learners, those who weren’t completely motivated. The same research also suggests that similar non-educational apps had a better engagement performance using badges, showing off the penalization of using educational content (Huynh et al.). Badges are trendy these days. LinkedIn integrates a badging system, allowing the user to complete quizzes to earn special badge next to a resume’s programming language. We can anticipate accomplishment features to become the cornerstone of many modern applications soon.

Social Influence & Relatedness is the core drive representing activities around what other people think, do, or say (Chou, 197). A practical design system is to provide a mentorship system within the platform. Mentorship allows users to engage with other peers, lower customer service costs, and emotionally engage newbies with the community. This allows veterans to feel fulfillment by reaching a higher status (Chou, 217). One of the success cases of a mentorship model is the Apolyton community. In Apolyton, Civilization players will engage each other by creating professional guides, giving each other feedback, and issuing challenges. This community’s collective knowledge had some of the best ratings, thanks to the community’s engagement. Many of the veterans from Apolyton harvested the game’s complexity so well that they were employed for Firaxis, the game studio behind Civilization games (Squire, 159). The model worked very well thanks to a clear set of defined milestones that every community member needs to clear. After completing those, the mentor will pass the baton to the mentee, who will perform the same activities with a newcomer. Social influence can be a very powerful motivator in educational games, our game GramMars Wars uses it by allowing players to compare their scores and ranks against each other.

Our game GramMars Wars compares all players proficiency using English Score

But what happens when personal proliferation is not the main focus? Some students are driven by Epic Meaning & Calling. The best example of this kind of application is Wikipedia, where users create and moderate articles on the platform; these users are not motivated by ego. Many Wikipedians remain completely anonymous unless you login into the platform and do some digging. Another example is Waze where the early version of the app would show a snake monster made of cars and how by joining forces, users can use their data to defeat the evil traffic through algorithms. East culture is more connected to these kinds of motivations. For example, Yu-Kai explains how Chinese culture is more prone to evoke epic meaning because of the “Filial Piety” philosophy where “children must show respect for their parents and ancestors” (Chou, 80). Overall, this drive’s motivation is to be part of a greater good, usually by helping other fellow humans without receiving recognition or rewards in exchange.

Unpredictability & Curiosity is the core drive with experiences of uncertainty and chance. In Facebook, the unpredictability of not knowing how many people have liked or commented on your post keeps students logging into the platform. Facebook even reinforces this drive by highlighting the notification tray with unique red color on their website. Even much of Facebook’s games and content follow this drive, like the slot machine apps, personality quizzes, or most social games. The psychology behind this effect is the Variable Reward Schedules introduced by B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s. It dictates that if a reward is introduced in random intervals, and there is little cost in checking the potential outcome, the student checks it habitually (Haynes). Facebook is, in theory, a deterministic system. The algorithm will choose using machine learning which friends will see what content. Interestingly, it seems that Facebook engineers have optimized the algorithm to give the sense of unpredictability, spreading the notifications in intervals so the users will remain engaged to the platform.

The last core drive, Loss & Avoidance, represents the refusal to surrender something or admit that the player wasted their time up to the moment. An excellent example of this drive is shown in the popular game Farm Ville, where the player must log in and hit the crops to avoid losing them. Many students, mostly young, keep engaging with social apps to keep themself informed of the next event because of the fear of missing out or FOMO (Ghose). Both Unpredictability and Avoidance are black-hat/evil core drives or core drives that appeal to a dark and obsessive part of the brain to create engagement. Interestingly many of the popular social media apps are optimized using these drives.

Using core drives is a very complicated feat, just developing a raw product can cost millions of dollars. Incorporating core drives research and testing necessary into the development could multiply the cost tenfold (I can tell that because I have dedicated the last two years of my life to developing an educational game). Historically most educational technologies did not have access to this kind of resource. Apps like Duolingo, with a 2.4 billion dollar valuation, have a higher engagement (Lunden). Suppose there is some good in the Great Lockdown crisis. One good thing is that the educational technology industry will enter into a new golden age because investors are looking for opportunities to solve the consequential academic emergency. Still, we need to proceed with caution as most educational content has the natural handicap of being less engaging than general entertainment.

Works Cited

Chou, Yu-Kai. Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. 2014. 1st ed., vol.1, Fremont, CA, Octalysis Media, 1 Jan. 2017.

Garcia, Emma, and Elaine Weiss. “COVID-19 and Student Performance, Equity, and U.S. Education Policy: Lessons from Pre-Pandemic Research to Inform Relief, Recovery, and Rebuilding.” Economic Policy Institute, 10 Sept. 2020.

Huynh, Duy, et al. “Analyzing Gamification of ‘Duolingo’ with Focus on Its Course Structure.” Research Gate, 1 Jan. 2016.

Squire, Kurt. Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. New York, NY, Teachers College, 2011.

Haynes, Trevor. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.” Harvard University, 1 May 2018.

Lunden, Ingrid. “Language Learning App Duolingo Confirms It Has Raised $35M on a $2.4B Valuation.” TechCrunch, 18 Nov. 2020.

Ghose, Tia. “What Facebook Addiction Looks like in the Brain.” Livescience.com, Live Science, 27 Jan. 2015.