Hardwire value into your learning games and gamification

What is endogenous value and how can you create it?

Terry Pearce
4 min readJun 3, 2021
Monopoly money is worthless paper, until the game starts.

Everyone’s heard of the employee-of-the-month award that nobody wants. I’ve even heard of teams agreeing to nominate or vote for a new person each month on rotation, just to derail the whole process. Why would they do this? Because they don’t value the award. More specifically, the system within which the award sits hasn’t created value for it.

Legendary game designer Jesse Schell borrows a term from biology here: endogenous value. Value created by the system or game itself. The classic example is Monopoly money. It’s just paper. But while the game is in play, it can buy properties and hotels, so players value it. Real money, in fact, works the same way if you think of our society as a gamified system.

Employee-of-the-month awards are light as gamification goes, but there are plenty of other things within gamified systems and learning games that we might want players to value. In badly-designed games, points are meaningless, because they represent nothing, and are useful for nothing. Whether it’s points, achievements, or game elements, if we’re designing it as something for players to aim for, or to guard and maintain, we need them to value it.

How can we make this happen?

Get them to co-create

People better value stuff they create. There’s even a psychological term for it: The Ikea Effect. So get them involved in design. Maybe of the whole game or system, maybe just of the element you want them to value. We see this working with avatars and characters in many games, as well as with games that allow players to modify the game and create levels or other add-ons.

As well as getting them to value what they create just because they created it, they’re also likely to create things that fit with who they are and their motivations. You might think that their picture on the wall is a great form for employee-of-the-month to take, but they might create it very differently, and in a way that works for them.

Bring it to life with a story

Why do we cry at sad films, and root for the hero? We know they’re just actors. But the story has brought the character to life, in a very real way. We make sense of the world through stories, and we’re primed for them.

So, if you want them to aim for something, don’t just make it points that represent nothing, or a badge or item with a functional name. Weave a story around it. The exact details will vary depending how light or heavy touch your theme is, but even thoughtful or evocative names for game elements can help, and an actual story with an antagonist and a challenge can make the players really strive for that important item that will help a happy ending.

Make it scarce or difficult to achieve

Scarcity and challenge are key motivators. If something is given out every week or every level, it feels routine because it is routine. If you really have to fight for something, or if you know it doesn’t come along every week, it can gain value in its own right just because it shows that you overcame the challenges or were lucky enough to get it.

Your thing could be unique. Or it could be something that’s only available sometimes, or that needs to be unlocked somehow. It could be something that there’s not enough of to go around every player. Or it could be something you only get when you’ve done something really tough.

Use the allure of curiosity or mystery

If you don’t know what’s in the box, you want to open it. You could still be disappointed, but the fact that you wanted to know makes you more likely to value whatever is inside. Many games successfully get players to search around environments for long periods of time, in the hope of finding something interesting. And how many adventure stories use mystery to make us read on?

Place a veil of mystery around the thing you want players to value. Maybe they don’t know what they’ll get until they pass a level or achievement. Maybe there are clues, or a limited but tantalising glimpse. Maybe there’s a buzz around the thing, but nothing specific.

Make it fill a gap

I very clearly remember collecting football stickers when I was younger. I think somebody once calculated that the average price to fill a sticker album was several hundred pounds, but we tried all the same. We would seek out, with purchases and swaps, no sticker with quite as much gusto as the last one needed to complete a whole team. The finished-bar-one page would stare at us, begging completion.

Of course, if they don’t care about the whole, they won’t care about the parts, so this won’t work alone, but you can boost the felt value of the pieces by accentuating how they complete a whole. Link items together. Show a ‘trophy shelf’ with greyed-out versions of as-yet uncollected prizes. Use space and shapes to imply a lack of completion when not all things from a set have yet been earned. Turn your players into bower-birds or magpies, looking for that perfect piece to complete their nest.



Terry Pearce

A consultant and designer in game-based learning and gamification for learning. Go to www.untoldplay.com for more.