Rhythm for Reading - sustainable reading intervention for schools

Sign up for Free Weekly Insights

We respect your email privacy

The Rhythm for Reading blog

Gamification, Social Exchange and the Acquisition of Language

27 February 2017

Today ‘gamification’ integrates the reward-related and therefore motivational aspects of game-like participation, helping many people to achieve their goals or targets. Gamification appears in classrooms, businesses, The World Bank and lifestyle apps, and even in recruitment campaigns for the US Army (Stanley, 2014). It encourages increased engagement, productivity, motivation to succeed with a new project or development of a new skill, allowing individuals, employers and schools to monitor progress and promote competition between users and teams.

The importance of games for human development first begins in early childhood when parents assist their children in the acquisition of language. In a study of the nature of early ‘disappearing’ games such as peekaboo and hide-and-seek played by parents with young infants, researchers discovered that although these games were entirely spontaneous in style, they tended to use the same restricted format and clearly repetitive structure (Ratner and Bruner, 1977). The motivation and purpose of early playful games appears to be driven by the sheer joy of human interaction. These positive experiences prove to be irresistible and highly rewarding and have likely contributed to the evolution of the human capacity for language.

Although Ratner and Bruner’s study was published forty years ago, their question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games is still highly relevant today. According to an OECD published report, it is likely that learning environments, emotions and social interactions play an important role and combine to shape learning and memory processing, embedded in interconnecting neural structures (OECD, 2007, 37).

Interestingly, Ratner and Bruner concluded that parents’ practice of deliberately restricting and repeating the game provided opportunities for infants to anticipate what would happen next in the game, to initiate the game and even to generate a synchronised ‘boo’ response with the parent as the game developed during the child’s first year. During this period, the degree of restriction and repetition, combined with positive experiences of social and emotional interaction would have provided a rich and playful opportunity for focused learning and memory development.

According to neuroscientists, repeated use of specific neural pathways catalyses the maturity of the neural structures through a process known as myelination. Myelin, a fatty substance, insulates the axons of nerve fibres of frequently used pathways, and the insulating effect rapidly accelerates to a factor of 100 the transmission of signals between interconnecting neurons (OECD, 2007, 37). It is highly likely that the restrictive and repetitive ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games described by Ratner and Bruner (1977) would have triggered the myelination process. Therefore, in, referring back to Ratner and Bruner’s question about the ‘nature’ of early ‘disappearing’ games, it appears that language learning during infancy and early childhood coincides with spontaneous and joyful social interaction with an accompanying sense of intrinsic reward. This arguably contributes to successful social interaction throughout life.


OECD (2007) Organisation for Economic and Co-operative Development, Center for Edonomic Research and Innovation, understanding the Brain: the Birth of a Learning Science (2nd Edition) Paris: OECD CERI

Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401

Stanley, R. (2014) Top 25 Best Examples of Gamification in Business, accessed on 27.2.2017, 19.40 https://www.clicksoftware.com/blog/top-25-best-examples-of-gamification-in-business/

Back to top

Read more: