How Does Duolingo Use Conflict To Gamify Education?

This essay was originally written for the Game Design course at Middlesex University in 2019.

In a 2014 interview with Forbes, Duolingo founder Severin Hacker said, “Free education will really change the world… If we achieve that, then all the other issues are… I don’t know, seem not to matter to me.”  

Duolingo, Inc is a privately traded company providing a platform of language learning services including a mobile app and a website, all of which will be referred to as “Duolingo” throughout this essay. In the company’s own words: “We believe that anyone can learn a language with Duolingo. Our free, bite-size lessons feel more like a game than a textbook, and that’s by design: Learning is easier when you’re having fun.” In this essay, an analysis will be presented of the design of Duolingo through the lens of the Games as Systems of Conflict model presented by Salen & Zimmerman in Rules of Play (2003) where they say, “Conflict is an intrinsic element of every game. The conflict in a game emerges from within the magic circle as players struggle to achieve the goals of a game.”, illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – A diagrammatic representation of Salen and Zimmerman’s Systems of Conflict model. 

Before continuing, it is important to establish two things: first, a definition of gamification. In Gamification: Toward a Definition (2011), Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke define gamification as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. Secondly, fundamental principles of educational theory and practice. In his Great Didactic (1633-1638), John Amos Comenius, popularly considered one of the fathers of modern education, states that all languages can be learned “by practice, combined with rules of a very simple nature that only refer to points of difference with the language already known, and by exercises that refer to some familiar subject.” 

The essay question can now be addressed: How Does Duolingo Use Conflict to Gamify Education? The process of answering this will be taken step by step through Comenius’ statement, considering how Duolingo fulfills his ideals through the models presented by Deterding et al and Salen and Zimmerman. 

Figure 2 – An illustration of the magic circle. 

First, there is practice. In context, the goal of a player of Duolingo is to learn a language. However, this goal is not necessarily the same as that which they have within the magic circle, pictured in Figure 2 and defined by Johan Huizinga (1938) thusly: 

“Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle… are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” 

Although the goal of the player when playing Duolingo is tp learn a language, their in-game goals differ. Huizinga says of the purposes of some religious rites: “It forces the hand of the gods”. Similarly, it can be said of Duolingo that its purpose is to teach language. Duolingo, considered isolated within the magic circle, can be likened to the rites described in the “Play and Knowing” section of Homo Ludens: 

“The astonishing similarity that characterizes agonistic customs in all cultures is perhaps nowhere more striking than in the domain of the human mind itself, that is to say, in knowledge and wisdom. For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is magical power… For this reason there must be competitions in such knowledge at the sacred feasts… The questions which the hierophants put to one another in turn or by way of challenge are riddles in the fullest sense of the word, exactly resembling the riddles in a parlour-game but for their sacred import.” 

Practice in Duolingo consists of participation in activities playable in “nodes”, which are sets of activities focused on a topic. The exact natures of these activities varies, but generally most nodes can include translating a written passage to or from the chosen language, speaking a written passage aloud, or transcribing a spoken sample. An example of this can be seen in Figure 3. Failure to correctly complete a given task simply gives the player the correct answer, then moves the task to the end of the node, so that the player can try again at the end. In addition, selecting any given word in a written passage in Duolingo by tapping or clicking will show a translation of that word. 

Figure 3 – An activity from Klingon on Duolingo 

While these simple, easily circumnavigable tasks seem inherently contradictory to most ideas we have with regards to both effective education and game design, they are intended as practice, and practice alone. Without the development of their skills first players will be ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that appear later. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002) defines being in the flow state as “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing”, games must ensure their players are suitably skilled to face the tasks ahead of them. 

In the games as systems of conflict model, nodes afford the player a kind of breathing room; the game itself doesn’t attempt to challenge them, nor do any other players. The only block to the player’s progress through nodes is their commitment. Given enough time and perseverance, the player can pass through any node with relatively little struggle. No conflict is caused here. Most conflict in Duolingo can be found in its “checkpoints”. 

In the context of games, we have a certain pre-conceived notion of what purpose a checkpoint serves. Scott Rogers (2014) describes such checkpoints as, “predesignated locations within the level where players can save their progress; take a break; or reassess their choices of equipment, route, and so on.” The checkpoints in Duolingo are closer to those found between national land borders; difficult and time consuming inspections wherein very few mistakes will be tolerated. 

Duolingo’s checkpoints are tests where all previously acquired knowledge is needed in order to pass through them. These are where the real challenge of Duolingo lies, and it is the player’s goal of passing the last among these checkpoints that generates the game’s overall conflict. In a checkpoint, the player cannot check the meanings of words. In a checkpoint, the player is only allowed to make three mistakes, and questions which they answer incorrectly on are not recycled. Passing Duolingo’s checkpoints requires a mastery of all previous skills developed from practicing in the nodes. 

In fact, a checkpoint in Duolingo is more akin to a video game boss than a video game checkpoint. Scott Rogers calls a boss, “a large and/or challenging enemy that blocks a player’s progression and acts as the climax/ending to the game’s environment, level, or world.” In the context of the games as conflict model, the boss, or in this case, the checkpoint, acts as the game pushing back against the player, testing them to see if they have the strength to fight it. If their skills are sufficient, the player will succeed, defeating the game’s attempts to stifle their progress and moving on. If not, then the player will be motivated to persevere until they can win. Such a checkpoint can be seen in Figure 4. 

Figure 4 – Irish Checkpoint 1 in Duolingo 

This is the sum of the adversarial interaction between the player and the game itself, and this does much to aid the education of players. However, the conflict produced by Duolingo is not limited to this dynamic. Multitudes of depth are added by the player’s interaction with other players. Salen and Zimmerman spend an extensive amount of time considering how the relationships between players and how they can interact in the context of the game shape and influence the conflict. They come up with a list of questions regarding the players’ interactions, shown in the table below, Figure 5, along with the answers pertaining to Duolingo: 

Question Answer 
“How many players can play?  Theoretically, as many as there are people in the world with access to the app. 
Do they play simultaneously or do they alternate playing the game?  Each player plays in parallel to the others. 
Is there a high score list?  The amount of XP accrued on a weekly basis by each player is recorded. 
Are players given constant feedback about their relative scores?  Player’s relative XPs in their league table is constantly and visibly displayed on the website, and in an easily reachable tab on the mobile app. 
Does the game pause to allow players to directly compare their scores and other game statistics?  Duolingo does not function in real time; players can compare their XP at any point that they are not currently in a node or checkpoint. 
Are there computer-generated opponents and obstacles that players face together or do the players serve as opponents for each other?  Each player has their own antagonistic relationship with the game itself, which generates their XP, which serves as the measure by which they conflict with other players. 
Does the structure of the game allow players to have direct conflict with each other?  Players may “friend” one another and communicate on forums, to allow them to keep direct track of one another, however, there is no direct way for any player to work to the aid or detriment of other players. 
Are there resources for which players can compete?  Those atop their leaderboard each week receive a special bonus of “lingots”. 
 Can players spend money to continue the game or enhance their play?”  There is no way to pay for lingots directly through the game. A premium subscription can be bought to remove ads which usually play at the end of a node or checkpoint. Lingots can only be spent on cosmetic upgrades, wagered on the player’s ability to maintain a streak (regular, continued play over a certain period of time), or to unlock some nodes which do not form a part of the regular progression through the game. 

Figure 5 – A table of the questions posed by Salen and Zimmerman on the shape of inter-player conflict and their answers with regards to Duolingo. 

The question now is, how do these answers help describe the shape of the conflict of Duolingo? It appears that much of it has been designed not just to cause players to learn through the game, but to keep them coming back and learning more as time goes on. John Hopson discusses at length in his 2001 Gamasutra article Behavioural Game Design general rules and principles of how to trigger certain reactions in a player through certain patterns of rewards. He calls the article, “a primer to some of the basic ways people react to different patterns of rewards.” Hopson describes a “recipe” for “how make players play forever.”: 

“The short answer is to make sure that there is always, always a reason for the player to be playing… What a game designer also wants from players is a lot of ‘behavioral momentum,’ a tendency to keep doing what they’re doing even during the parts where there isn’t an immediate reward.” 

The conflict generated by inter-player relationships in Duolingo achieves exactly this. Players will almost always find themselves with a reason to log onto the game because of the advantage this will give them relative to other players; if they are not logging in daily, they will likely not accrue enough XP to keep up with the leaderboard, and run the risk of being relegated down to the previous leaderboard. In addition, the more they play, and the more XP they accrue, the closer they will be to the top of the leaderboard and with a chance of receiving a special lingot reward, motivating them to play even more, thus creating a feedback loop, shown in Figure 6. 

Figure 6 – The feedback loop Duolingo creates. 

Outside of the leaderboard dynamics, the social interactions which Duolingo enables are an equally important part of the conflict it generates. Anyone who posts on Duolingo’s forums will have stats displayed beside their name: their “crowns” (one for each node and checkpoint completed) for each of their languages, and their “streak”, for how many consecutive days they have met a certain XP goal in the game, as shown in Figure 7. This creates a hierarchal relationship, where those with greater streaks and crowns are respected as the more dedicated players. Seeing these numbers next to players‘ names gives new players an aspirational goal, and keeps them playing to achieve it, as well as giving long-time players a reason to keep playing to maintain their position, thus creating a natural and dynamic competition. 

Figure 7 – The start of a Duolingo forum post by alexinIreland 

Keeping players playing for longer means keeping them dedicated to the task of learning. According to Comenius, this is vital. He says: 

“Each language must have a definite space of time allotted to it. We should take care not to convert a subsidiary study into a chief one, or to waste on the acquisition of words the time in which we might gain a knowledge of things.” 

He suggests that the process of language acquisition is one which requires certain commitment, but he makes clear caution against it becoming the object monopolizing an individual’s time. Comenius might, then, take issue with many in modern times for whom the process of language learning is an end unto itself. Comenius believed, although he lacked the terminology at the time to say so, that the process of language acquisition should never exist in the flow state described centuries later by Csikszentmihalyi, for it was not a valuable end unto itself. Whether an individual today finds the act of learning a language itself pleasurable, or whether there is some other end goal to which the acquisition of a certain language is a means, Duolingo certainly does much to make the process more pleasant, by gamifying education. 

Figure 8 – The digital trophy earned for completing a full language tree in Duolingo 


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