Gamification in Learning: Getting Games Right

In this week’s blog, Sam Brown – one of our in-house Learning Experience Designers – takes a look at Gamification in learning. What’s it all about? Where can it go wrong and how do you get it right?

Written by Sam Brown
Published 29 November 2022
Gamification in Learning: Getting Games Right
One of the biggest challenges in learning is figuring out how to engage your learners in the material. It’s a key part of the process, but one we’ve all struggled with at some stage. How do you get somebody interested in a subject which is important, but dry?

Common wisdom says you should introduce an element of fun, or interactivity to the subject so that your learner is involved in creating knowledge instead of simply consuming it. The thing is, we often stop after some surface changes. We can go further, and gamification can help you do that.

To put it simply, gamification involves taking  elements of a game that make it exciting, engaging and memorable, and then applying them to our learning. It doesn’t have to mean you “turn this into a game” and the aim isn’t necessarily to make something “fun,” (though that can certainly help). It’s all about  helping your learner to retain information through a more exciting learning process.

There are two approaches to gamification, which can have very different results:

Structural Gamification. According to Karl Kapp, Author ofThe Gamification of Learning and Instruction,” structural gamification can be applied to something that already exists, like a course or a workshop. It involves looking at what you have and adding something “gamey” to it to make it more interesting or memorable, or to motivate a learner to progress through it. Adding game mechanics in this way can help to make dry materials more palatable, but the changes tend to be surface-level. In structural gamification you aren’t changing the underlying content, just layering elements on top of it to encourage your learners.

Content Gamification. Alternatively, you can incorporate game elements into the learning experience during its design, through content gamification. This approach delivers a much more exciting learning experience and normally produces better results, but it’s also more involved in terms of time, effort and cost. It’s not an easy thing to get right, and the game can overtake the learning or feel divorced from it if you get it wrong.

Whatever approach you take, the goal is to create an emotional response from your learners. That could be satisfaction, pride, wonder or happiness, but it could also be stress, pressure or disappointment. Negative emotions, used in the right way, can be excellent tools for keeping a learner engaged. Imagine being so disappointed in your performance that you want to have another go immediately. People do that all the time in games!

Of course, if you’ve listened to our podcast on the subject, you’ll know that gamification is no silver bullet to the problem of engagement. In fact, there is one very common issue that comes up a lot in discussion around it. Gamification is often done badly.

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Kevin Kruse (Author of “We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement”) called gamification a gold rush for consultants and gurus adding points and badges to everything we do. As he points out, these things alone do not make a game. The more challenging aspects of gamification are also the ones that offer the most value.

So how do we get gamification right?

Well, there are many, many different types of games out there, which means that there are many mechanics that we can apply to our learning. The trick is to pick the right mechanic for the task you’re trying to achieve.
The best option will depend on your learning outcome, the level of experience in your audience, the format, the delivery method, the time available… and more.

It’s impossible to give a definitive answer so, instead, I’ll focus on a few key mechanics and explain how we can use them, and what they might do for your learners.

Points and Badges

 This is often the first thing people jump to when gamification comes up: adding points, badges and achievements to learning activities as a way of creating a sense of progress and recognition. Whether or not they’re successful varies, but they are fundamentally attractive for the ease with which they can be added. Most LMSs feature some form of badging or achievement support and it’s very simple to create a suite of goals for your learners to achieve.

Theoretically, these points and badges can act as a goal for a learner to focus their efforts toward, a record of their progress and social proof of their knowledge. But in practice, they rarely achieve anything when they’re not tied to any real-world context.

For example, in console games, points are often used to unlock power-ups or new skills. In a one-off GDPR training course, they rarely offer any real value.

Instead of trying to gamify everything, it’s important that you use it where it will have the greatest effect. Does a one-off health and safety course need badges? Or would they be better suited to an ongoing program that learners will return to time and again?

Competition and Cooperation

People work best when they have others around them, either helping them to achieve their goals or pushing them to do so through competition. We can leverage this by encouraging competition, cooperation, or both in our learning.

You might see this reflected in leaderboards and scoring elements that allow your learners to measure their knowledge and progress against one another. Tools like Kahoot allow you to quiz your learners on a subject and assess their knowledge, but with the added pressure of timers and competition from their colleagues. Seeing their standings and positions change can draw learners in and create genuine tension, especially if there are stakes or rewards attached to their final placement.

Of course, not everybody likes competition, and some will even be put off by it. Fortunately, cooperation can be equally effective for engaging your learners. This could be as simple as setting up discussions between pairs or groups, but it’s often more effective when learners have to actively work together to solve a problem. For instance, you could set up group scenarios where each member of the team has a specific piece of a puzzle, one that only makes sense when they cooperate and engage with their teammates to bring everything together.
But competition and cooperation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Having learners cooperate in groups that then compete in head-to-head tasks can be an effective way to get learners engaged and combines the best of both worlds. Your learners are supported by their colleagues but put under pressure by their competitors.

Difficulty and Progression

Many learning experiences will be structured around modules or sections that focus on a specific aspect of the subject. Having clear sections to complete is infinitely better at holding their interest than a single long screed of text, and helps a learner to feel as though they’re making progress.. However, these sections are often static and require that the learner already has some prerequisite knowledge. You can’t jump into Advanced Rocket Science without taking a few basic physics lessons first!

It’s not practical to create different versions of your learning that cater to every level of knowledge, but it is possible to assess a learner’s general understanding and tailor the way they experience the content to fit. In game terms, think of a difficulty selector. Easy might offer you extra support, remove negative consequences or provide you with additional resources. Normal might give you the “traditional” experience, a balanced level of support and challenge, while hard might strip away all support and up the risks.

We can use this approach to provide an appropriate level of challenge for our learners. Ask your learners how confident they are before an assessment and then provide them with differing experiences that reflect their answers. You might turn a timer on or off, add negative scoring, or even change the questions to reflect their confidence.

Ensuring that each learner is challenged at an appropriate level can help to avoid frustration or boredom while creating a sense of progression. Moving from easy, to normal, to hard as they develop mastery, helps the learner to recognize how far they’ve come and gives them a target to aim toward.

Wrapping up

Gamification is an excellent tool to make learning more engaging and, crucially, more memorable. Using the right elements in the right places can turn a traditional piece of learning into something that holds the attention and brings a subject to life in new ways. The trick is in knowing what to use, and when.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what you can do with gamification here so if you’re looking for a deeper dive into the subject, I’d recommend Karl Kapp’s “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.”

About the author

Sam Brown

Sam Brown

Learning Experience Designer

Sam is a learning designer specializing in L&D and copywriting.

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