How to win at gamification in elearning, every time!

Gamification; gamified learning; serious games. Whatever term you prefer, games and elearning have something of a chequered history! Once the thing everyone was talking about, then something most people were only talking about (and not really doing), and more recently a bit of an abandoned bandwagon. But gamification in learning is absolutely something you should care about because it taps into a fundamental aspect of human behaviour: motivation.

winning gamification motivation

Back in 2015, gamification was an undisputed hot topic in the learning technologies world, ranking fifth in Donald H Taylor’s L&D Global Sentiment Survey. By 2018, it had fallen to position 14. This year, it didn’t feature in the top 15. The report suggests that gamification is just too complex: the ambition was there, “but for most time-poor corporate L&D professionals, [putting it into practice] was something they simply [did] not have time for.”

Perhaps the real problem is a misunderstanding of:

  • What gamification is, in an L&D context
  • Why it doesn’t need to be complex or daunting
  • How it really delivers value

Let’s explore…

What is elearning gamification?

It’s more useful to begin with what gamification in elearning isn’t. It isn’t just throwing an offline game format (like a crossword or wordsearch) into an elearning course. It’s also not (often) a video game! Effective elearning gamification falls somewhere between those extremes.

Gamification is the application of gaming mechanics or elements to non-game activities, to encourage active participation, specific interaction, and ongoing engagement. It’s about gamifying content because (and so that) it delivers a better experience than a non-gamified alternative would.

Why gamify your content?

You can’t make good choices about when and how to gamify elearning unless you understand why it’s a ‘thing’ at all. What does it offer that lets it provide that enhanced experience?

game football competition motivation

The crux of it is motivation.

Take an everyday ‘real world’ example of the psychology of gamification – supermarket loyalty schemes:

  • You have to (rather than choose to) do grocery shopping.
  • The loyalty scheme offers you points just for doing that necessary task.
  • Points bring rewards such as discounts, special offers and exclusive access.
  • Soon, you’re motivated to do the grocery shopping for reasons other than necessity.

By gamifying the loyalty scheme, the supermarket shifts the motivating factor from the threat of punishment or penalisation for not doing it (“I have to go shopping otherwise I won’t have anything to eat”) to the promise of reward for doing it (“I want to go shopping so I can reach the next reward threshold”).

Back to the workplace.

There are two types of motivation that can encourage an employee to complete a corporate training programme: extrinsic and intrinsic.

  • Extrinsic motivators come from the outside: punishment, tangible reward, peer pressure and so on. The carrot is more effective than the stick – potential reward motivates more strongly than potential punishment.
  • Intrinsic motivators come from within: development of skills or confidence, or autonomy for instance. Intrinsic motivators tend to be more effective because you’re pulling the content rather than having it pushed onto you.

What does this mean for gamification in elearning?

Elearning can be good at tapping into intrinsic motivators, giving people responsibility for their own learning and choice about where, when and how. Users are also motivated by seeing that it will help them do their job better or support their personal development. Gamification builds on this foundation of intrinsic motivation by adding the possibility for social connection, and extrinsic motivators such as leaderboards and badges. Recent research carried out in the US shows that employees believe gamification improves their purpose, productivity and even happiness at work!

happy gamification employee

There are other reasons to consider gamifying elearning, too.

  • Personalisation. This one is consistently high on the Global Sentiment Survey, and gamification taps into it by putting the learner in control of their journey (for example, via branching) and progress.
  • Learning through mistakes. Games are engaging partly because of the feedback cycle. Mistakes are valuable learning experiences, as long as instant feedback points towards doing better next time, or in real life. Elucidat’s 360 feedback and lesson badges can help with this.
  • Engagement. Often gamification comes up because a topic needs to be made more ‘fun’. But gamifying content doesn’t automatically make it fun. Getting it right motivates and incentives users, and that is what makes it engaging.

When done well, gamification draws people into your elearning and keeps them there. This is not because they’ve been told to do it or because there’s a certificate for completion, but because they become more intrinsically motivated, engaged and invested in it.

Gamifying training also benefits you as producer.

As learners compete, they’re likely to talk about it, share it and invite others to access it. (The US research cited above reveals that 81% of people are more likely to invite others to use an app or software if it was gamified.) Word-of-mouth marketing is not to be sniffed at!

friends laughing social work

Gamification can also encourage users to explore more features or engage more by incentivising those behaviours. Dropbox is one great example of this: users value storage space highly so that’s the reward on offer; to earn it, they have to hit certain achievements including using specific features or referring friends. Without any hard sell, Dropbox increases engagement and ensures a stream of new users. Another example is TripAdvisor, which gives you information about the reach of your contributions, hoping that knowing you’re helping other people provides intrinsic motivation to keep engaging.

When should you use gamification in learning?

So gamification offers lots of attractive benefits, but it’s not always the right choice. Every situation is different but here are some scenarios in which gamification could really add value:

  • When you can really measure the behavioural impact through data that links the game mechanics to improved metrics. Think direct marketing conversion rates, reductions in expense claim errors and so on.
  • When you’ve got a longer-term programme: it may be tempting to gamify a one-off compliance course to make it more engaging, but it’s unlikely to deliver value. But a campaign approach across a suite of compliance topics, for instance, could be enhanced through gamification.
  • When you’ve got a clear cohort or potential community, who could make the most of the benchmarking, competition and social elements. Induction programmes, grad schemes or new leader development programmes could be great candidates.

Don’t write off any single demographic.

The US research mentioned earlier revealed that the employees most likely to believe that gamification would help them deliver better results at work are over 45. They’re more motivated by game elements too. The lesson here is that gamification might be a new word, but it relates to millennia-old human psychology!

Six practical tips for effective elearning gamification

dice 6 gamification 2

1. Start small but don’t cut corners

Rather than going all-in on a high-profile gamification project, target a particular business area, audience or programme and experiment with different approaches. Make sure you have some control data, and gather more after implementation to assess value add. Build up to more complex or widespread implementations. Just remember, starting small doesn’t mean just adding points to a task or tacking a leaderboard onto an end-of-course quiz. The game mechanics have to serve a purpose beyond ‘making it fun.’

2. Prioritise the learning, not the game

Points and competition only deliver value if they’re tied to behaviours and performance. Always get the learning objectives straight first and design game mechanics to be in service of those. It can be worth developing a hierarchy, whereby points are easily earned (maybe for completing a profile or sharing the course) and accumulate quickly, but badges are more meaningful, offered only in return for doing something that demonstrates new knowledge, competence or skills.

3. Be clear on criteria and progression

Transparency and clarity about how the game works will keep people engaged and motivated. What tasks earn points? What do points mean? Perhaps they translate into badges or unlock new content. What’s the criteria for reaching the next level or reward? What do rewards mean in reality? (Maybe they translate into tangible or financial benefits, or serve as accreditation of a skill that opens opportunities.)

4. Ramp up the challenge gradually

Learners need frequent, easy achievements to begin with. Once they’ve got to grips with things and seen that effort reaps reward, they’re primed and ready for a bigger challenge. The aim should always be for the next level to be within sight, challenging but attainable. Even better if each new challenge requires learners to draw on what they’ve most recently learnt.

5. Don’t disregard individual competition

It isn’t always feasible or appropriate to pit learners against learners on public leaderboards – but that doesn’t mean you can’t successfully gamify your content. Social polling lets an individual see how they compare to others, but anonymously. Or take FitBit: it has the community aspect, but plenty of people use it without that. There’s something intrinsically rewarding, even slightly addictive, about setting a goal and measuring your progress towards it (then hopefully achieving it!).

6. Facilitate continuous learning

Look for ways to encourage learners to keep returning and improving their score (and therefore, their skills and competence!), such as resetting leaderboards regularly or introducing new challenges or rewards periodically. Give people a reason to keep coming back rather than considering their learning ‘done’ and you’ll be supporting a culture of continuous, informal or on-the-job development.

Take a look at four examples of these gamification techniques in action.

In summary…

Gamification in elearning is about much more than adding gimmicks to liven up slightly dull content or setting up competitions between employees. All the points, levels, badges and rewards are there to help individuals achieve their goals. It’s about supporting individuals, facilitating collaboration and encouraging behaviour change. And we do that by tapping into what we know of human behaviour to motivate and engage learners and, in turn, deliver results. See some best practice tips here!

We can help you do it!

Want to introduce gamification into your digital learning strategy? Download the ultimate guide to winning at gamification in elearning.

gamification guide elearning

Stephanie Karaolis

Stephanie is a freelance learning designer and copywriter, drawing on a decade of experience in the industry, including roles at Saffron Interactive and in BP’s Online & Informal Learning team. She shares her learning ideas regularly on her personal blog.
Stephanie Karaolis

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