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Can gamification make deliberate practice for counselors fun? Daryl Chow and I disagree.

He had a few objections to my framework for gamifying Deliberate Practice. I thought these objections helped to push the conversation forward, so I'm publishing them here as well as my response.

The heart of gamification is all about understanding how we can design systems which increase motivation.

So if you're interested in human motivation, I think you'll find this interesting.

I hope these serves you.

Jordan (the counselor)


Chow on the pitfalls of gamifying deliberate practice for counselors

Picture of Daryl Chow sitting
Daryl Chow

Jordan knows my bias on this.

Admittedly, I have reservations about taking a certification approach to incentivising learning.

Why? First, let me be clear, this is my viewpoint. Every view comes from a point. Which means, I’m biased. My bias is likely informed by negative experience in the education system. I spent 15 years or so lost in an education system in Singapore² that pushed for results and performance… and failed. Even when I began to perform well in higher education and so on, I wasn’t actually “learning”; I was performing.

As I’ve talked about this elsewhere, the education system, to me, is a type of finite game. You play to win a certificate, so that you can go to the next stage, and win another certificate. Its carrot? Grades. Its social signal? It tells others that I’m intelligence, conscientious, and conformist.

Chow's pyramid of education which includes intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity.

Second, when we become overly-focused on results, Robert Bjork and colleagues points out the unintended consequence is that this impedes real learning (for more on the relationship on performance and learning, see this post).

However, Jordan Harris raised a point that I hadn’t considered deeply enough. He said,

“The trick is to really leverage the social aspects…”

One benefit of this design principle of gamification is that it brings people together. I feel a strong resonance with this idea. People need people, that’s how we are made and that’s how we grow. This is also one of the major reasons why I really appreciate other peoples’ contribution to this conversation (Thanks Jordan).

Third, while my colleagues and I do care about therapists getting better, I’m not sure if we should make “deliberate practice” a requirement. Therapeutic work is hard as it is, to make it a requirement runs the risk of adding future emotional burden on people not who aren’t keen for various reasons, and thus, chase away the emotional safety that is needed for deep learning.³

Nevertheless, we can move the culture of therapy to raise the lower bar of clinical practice, like teaching therapists to use feedback-informed practices to prevent dropouts or to catch predictable poor outcomes and doing something about it.

The ones who will rise to the challenge for the higher bar and engage in deliberate practice to further improve their effectiveness are a self-selected minority. I fear that if we create extrinsic incentives for what is an intrinsically motivatied behavior, this might doused the fire.

In the 1970’s, sociologist Darrel Siedentop tells the story of how he successfully stopped a group of neighborhood kids from playing football in his well-mowed lawn and priced garden. Instead of threatening them, as they expected, or punishing them (or worse, calling their parents), he informed the football players that he was so delighted for them to continue playing that he would pay them a dollar each to come back and kick the ball in his turf.

The kids couldn’t believe their luck. Each day, they returned collected their monies. However, within a couple of weeks, they stopped showing up altogether. Siedentop’s conclusion? Taken from the book Overachievement by John Eliot,

…when he started paying the kids, he began to change their motivation. Soon they were coming to his yard not for the joy of a pickup game of football, but to make a buck. Their motivation had been shifted from internal—“Hey, let’s play”—to external—“That weird guy will give us a dollar again.” Commitment that is personally driven is stronger and more enduring than commitment hinging upon outside rewards.

I agree that deliberate practice “has a design problem.” It’s not that it’s boring, though it could be for some. In my estimates, the design issue is that we need to create space for deep learning.

Practitioners in agencies or in private practice are often time-pressed and tight-squeezed. Providing protected time for reflection, consolidation of learnings, etc might give a breath of fresh air. Some might use this time to walk and contemplate, others might want to capture notes or mind maps, and others might use this time to analyse their data or review their therapy recordings. Consequently, this regular protected time may allow practitioners to figure out where they are and where they need to grow.

Finally, I believe gamification in a personalised way is indeed possible.

But, we must be clear: Who is it for?

Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of SuperBetter…Powered by the Science of Games gave a useful example in an interview with Shane Parrish from The Knowledge Project:

A public library consulted McGonigal on how to design a game to entice kids to visit the library more frequently. She told them that this was not a good idea.

The team was shocked at first. McGonigal said that getting kids to the library was in service of the company, and not in service of the kids.

She proposed instead that they should design a game to help kids write their first book, and then, print it and place it in the library.

Big thanks, Jordan Harris for your thoughtful contribution (and the funny gifs!)

Thanks for reading Frontiers of Psychotherapist Development! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

My response: My framework actually fixes the pitfalls of gamifying deliberate practice for counselors

Thanks for letting me contribute! Here's a friendly response to your response :-)

First, I actually share your bias against certifications. I hold no certifications. I suspect we've both seen them lead to things we don't want. So, why did I write a post about certification if I'm not a fan? Because other people are.

The fact is that the default way for many (most?) in our field is to grow their skills by certification. The research is pretty clear, for the average therapist, certification has no impact on clinical outcomes. That doesn't change the fact that "advanced" trainings and certifications are our field's default way to grow.

It strikes me that this is because certifications are inherently motivating. Since this is the default way our field does continuing education, and because it's engaging to people, I think we should use it.

Second, your comments on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation identify a very common barrier to good gamification. This is called the points, badges, and leaderboards problem. People often think adding points, badges, and leaderboards to their boring and/or extrinsically motivated activities will make them more engaging.

That always backfires.

The way to fix extrinsic motivation is to use less points and more creativity, empowerment, and social relationships, so that the experience is more intrinsically motivating. That's why I talked a lot about empowering therapists and fostering relationships. This is also why I did NOT talk about leaderboards or publicly tracking outcomes.

My thinking is that if therapists are already intrinsically motivated to go through a certification process, let's point that energy in a productive direction - deliberate practice.

I think this is important because the alternative is to follow what some have called "big boy rules," leaving the responsibility of doing practice completely on the shoulders of the individual. It doesn't work. Or rather, it works with a small group of highly motivated, super intrinsically motivated clinicians. But if we want to scale, if we want to change the profession and create a tribe of expert therapists who can work with compassion and kindness to relieve the mountains of human suffering all around us, well then most of us need a little more structure.

Thanks for letting me collaborate with you. I hope we can do it again in the future.


If you liked this post, consider reading this next. I think you'll like it ;) It's the original post on gamifying deliberate practice.


Jordan Harris, Ph.D., LMFT-S, LPC-S received his Doctor of Philosophy in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Louisiana Monroe. He is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Arkansas, USA. In his clinical work he enjoys working with couples. He also runs a blog on deliberate practice for therapists and counselors at

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