Putting self-efficacy theory into serious games

People often ask me how one can incorporate a learning or behavioral theories into games. It is not easy to do but there is one theory that has been incorporated into serious games with much success. That is self-efficacy theory. I have used this theory as guidance in both of my big games (Re-Mission and Air Medic Sky 1). I find it fits in quite nicely with video game approaches to education and training.

Self-efficacy is one’s beliefs in their capabilities to produce given attainments. People who have high levels of self-efficacy beliefs in a certain domain tend to persist longer at tasks in order to reach their goals. People high in self-efficacy are also more likely to  eventually succeed in reaching challenging goals than their counterparts with low self-efficacy even when their skills are equal. It is highly correlated with the actual behaviors and as such, it is a widely used self-report measure of behavior in research studies.

In this post, I provide a short overview of the sources of self-efficacy beliefs so that you can see how it can be incorporated into a game. The theory is quite detailed and references are provided at the end of this post so you can delve further into it if you seriously want to pursue it. There is much more to the theory than what I present here. But my hope is that you will see how easy it can be to incorporate a learning theory into a serious game. Here are four things you can do to increase self-efficacy toward target behaviors in a serious games.

1. Create mastery experiences

Provide an environment in which someone can practice overcoming obstacles to reach goals. The more these obstacles mimic what the user might confront in the “real” world, the better.

Video games can provide wonderful opportunities for creating mastery experiences when the real world doesn’t. For example, if you fail a test in school, you aren’t offered multiple opportunities to take it until you get an A. In a video game you can take a “test” multiple times not just until you “pass” but until you have mastered the content to make an “A”.

In addition to knowing what common obstacles are to a behavior based on what has been documented in the research literature, it is critical to engage members of the target group to provide input on what the common obstacles are as you create mastery experiences in games. This information can then be integrated into the game to help make the situations ones that users can easily “identify with.”  For example, a video game that enables mastery experiences for taking tests can include obstacles such as friends trying to convince the user that studying is not “cool,” competing demands such as after-school activities and household chores, or enjoyable distractions such as hanging out with friends or even playing other video games!!!

Here is one math game (that I have not played by the way) that seems to have incorporated some self-efficacy approaches to learning.

2. Allow vicarious experiences of mastery

People also develop confidence in their abilities to reach goals and persist through challenges when they see people similar to them doing just that.

To improve self-efficacy among users in serious games, role models should be offered in game that are as similar as possible to the user.  That way the user can vicariously experience mastery through others. Although it is up for debate, playing a game as an avatar might also allow for “vicarious” experiences of mastery.

Because vicarious mastery requires these other role models to be similar to the user, it is critical that the target group is involved in the creation of the game. They have to be able to relate to the characters and believe that if those characters can do it, they can too. Because it is not a common practice for game designers to consult with the target group and their access to a specific target group for a serious game project may be limited, it is often the work of the researcher to enable game designers to connect with members of the target group.

As a side note, researchers should note that giving designers published research studies or written reports that summarize characteristics of the target group is not enough. While some designers will read the reports and act on them, most will not because it is not part of their culture to do so. What they can relate to is videos of interviews with the target group, or better yet, real-life interactions with members of the target group. There is nothing more compelling for a designer than a member of a target group telling you that what you are doing is “spot on” or “way off base.” Designers are motivated to make engaging games so they will be very open to what members of the target group say. They will be less open to a researcher’s summary of what the target group says.

3. Provide social persuasion

When people are persuaded that they have the capabilities to master a situation to reach their goals, they are more likely to persist through challenges in order to achieve that goal.

Again, a serious game can provide a supportive context for learning by providing and structuring situations that maximize the user’s positive feedback for reaching learning  or behavior goals in the game, no matter how small.  This can take the form of audio feedback, in-game mentors, or victory animations.

Sometimes providing positive social persuasion in a game can be challenging. Unfortunately, in real life, there are institutions and individuals that still believe that demeaning, punishing and negative comments directed at individuals motivate them to succeed.

When I was making a game for young doctors to improve patient safety, we wanted to provide positive feedback to the players when they were successful and encouraging comments when they failed so they would be motivated to master the problems presented in the game. Initially, some senior doctors involved on the project were against this. They said that it sounded too unrealistic. “No doctor would EVER say that.” But the young doctors in our target group told us they wouldn’t play the game if they were treated like that. They said, “I can just go on the floor and work if I want to be treated like that. I don’t want to be talked to like that in a game I’m supposed to enjoy.” Armed with feedback from the target group and research findings that a positive environment for learning would lead to more learning, we were able to convince senior doctors that it would be good to create a “fantasy” world in the game where senior doctors provided supportive and positive feedback to the junior doctors. Research is currently underway on this game and it will be interesting to see whether or not this theoretical approach “works.”

4. Promote adaptive appraisals of physiology 

According to self-efficacy theory, people need to learn how to interpret their internal signs of stress. That is rather than thinking that your racing heart and sweaty palms are signs of impending doom, you can learn that these signs do not necessarily lead to failure. This can be done in a game by creating situations that enable incremental improvements in performance despite these physiological factors. Self-efficacy theory further suggests that actively learning to manage physiology in stressful situations can also improve self-efficacy.

A classic example of cognitive reappraisal of physiological information to promote self-efficacy can be seen in desensitization treatments of snake phobics. People who are snake phobic are asked to visualize threatening scenes with snakes while practicing exercises that induce deep relaxation. They conquer their fears in their imagination while learning a stress management coping skill thus improving their self-efficacy to cope with a debilitating fear of snakes.

My team and I implemented a biofeedback aspect to Air Medic Sky 1, our game to improve patient safety, because stress is associated with making mistakes in medicine. In the game players had to become aware of their physiology and learn how to manage it in order to proceed in the game. The more they relaxed as indicated by increased heart rate variability, the more sutures they could make on the arm of their patient for example. They also needed to increase their “energy,” i.e. sweat response, by practicing techniques learned in the game in order to insert a syringe into an IV bag.

You can see some examples in this short video.

I hope you have a better idea of how you can develop an environment in a game that promotes self-efficacy among your users in your domain of interest. I have included some references below that you can read to get more information on self-efficacy. Enjoy!


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 , 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (Ed.). (1995). Self-efficacy in changing societies. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 75-78

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology (Vol. 52, pp. 1-26). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

“Life is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.
It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps,
creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.
Without self-confidence we are babes in the cradle.”
~ Virginia Woolf ~
A Room of One’s Own

By pamkato

I am a Harvard- and Stanford-trained Ph.D. psychologist, social entrepreneur, and serious game visionary. I want to work with other people to change the world while having fun doing it.


  1. Hi Pam, I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m really interested to know how to recreate stress/nervousness in game players. You mention in your post about the importance of players appraising their own stress levels and managing them accordingly. But how did you generate the stress artificially in the first place in Air Medic Sky 1?
    Best regards,

  2. Hi JP, Video games that are competitive (related to some kind of public display of a performance) and where “winning” is challenge to one’s resources (in terms of skill, time management, knowledge, etc.), are stressful. They increase players’ heart rate and sweat responses. Of course we couldn’t make Air Medic Sky 1 as “stressful” as really going on a mission to help patients in a disaster area but that wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to help them become of aware of their physiology (how it affects their performance) and learn how to manage it (ramping it up or ramping it down).

    If you look at people’s physiology when they play most video games, it’s really not hard to get them stressed out. Most people (unless they are on beta blockers) are really skilled at pressing the accelerator to to get their stress reactivity going. They have a much harder time at putting the brakes on that system.

    Does this information help?


  3. Hi Pam, thanks for the literature overview, I had actually just decided that my research line at my new job was going to be about finding game design rules (and adaptive systems in games) that lead to higher feelings of self-efficacy, and was just starting to write my research proposal. So this will come in handy!

    1. Hi Erik, Great! Make sure you reference my blog in your proposal. Just kidding. I know that would get you in trouble.

      Good luck with it and let me know if I can help.

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