Malone’s theory of gaming.

Malone (1981) presented a theoretical framework for intrinsic motivation in the context of designing computer games for instruction. Malone argues that intrinsic motivation is created by three qualities: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity. Challenge depends upon activities that involve uncertain outcomes due to variable levels, hidden information or randomness. Fantasy should depend upon skills required for the instruction. Curiosity can be aroused when learners believe their knowledge structures are incomplete, inconsistent, or unparsimonious. According to Malone, intrinsically motivating activities provide learners with a broad range of challenge, concrete feedback, and clear-cut criteria for performance.

This theory pre-dates today’s technology, connectivity and digital culture. His theory emerges alongside the invention and domestication of the home video player. At the time, people we’re just beginning to expand their consumer biosphere from a radio and TV where information was created for them and about them to devices such as home micro computers, video players and the seminal Sony Walkman. Culturally, game offered these three qualities electronically for the first time, however anyone playing RPGs or numerous other table-top games would have thought how simplistic and unimaginative these blocky games appeared.

These three things are counter-intuitive to schooling. Challenge is associated with ‘being a better person and intrinsically feeling good about the self’ rather than accepting failure and repeated failure is motivating. Fantasy is rarely tolerated in school curriculum when facts prevail and therefore curiosity is tethered to time and distance a teacher feels a student can move from those facts in the time they make available.

I do like so much of the emergent theories about instructional design, technology and games in the 70s and 80s, but while they are interesting, much has changed technologically and culturally in game design and experience. Some schools have made the leap from drill and skill, others are talking about it. The key insight in Malone theory to me is clear cut criteria and concrete feedback which once again is best served from human interaction and empathy.

Malone, T. (1981). Towards a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333-369.

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One thought on “Malone’s theory of gaming.

  1. An insightful baseline for exploration – and much more solid than eduSpeak. Thank you for sharing the importance of research and thinking with a past, with relevance to the future!

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