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Revealing the theoretical basis of gamification: A systematic review and analysis of theory in research on gamification, serious games and game-based learning

Highlights•We performed a systematic meta-review of theoretical foundations in gamification, serious games and GBL research.•We identified 118 theories in the areas of motivation and affect, behavior, and learning used to explain gamification.•Self-determination theory, flow theory, experiential learning theory and constructivist learning theory are most popular.•The theories can be connected and interrelated in a theoretical landscape.•We derived ten theoretical principles that help explain how gamification works.AbstractDespite increasing scientific interest in explaining how gamification supports positive affect and motivation, behavior change and learning, there is still a lack of an overview of the current theoretical understanding of the psychological mechanisms of gamification. Previous research has adopted several different angles and remains fragmented. Taking both an observational and explanatory perspective, we examined the theoretical foundations used in research on gamification, serious games and game-based learning through a systematic literature review and then discussed the commonalities of their core assumptions. The overview shows that scientists have used a variety of 118 different theories. Most of them share explicitly formulated or conceptual connections. From their interrelations, we derived basic principles that help explain how gamification works: Gamification can illustrate goals and their relevance, nudge users through guided paths, give users immediate feedback, reinforce good performance and simplify content to manageable tasks. Gamification mechanics can allow users to pursue individual goals and choose between different progress paths, while the system can adapt complexity to the user's abilities. Social gamification elements may enable social comparison and connect users to support each other and work towards a common goal.


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