Instructional design

What is gamification?


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What is gamification?

There’s a lot of discussion about gamification in eLearning at the moment. But what is gamification and what does it mean in an eLearning context? Does it imply we are all going to learn new health and safety rules by playing a version of Angry Birds?

Not necessarily. In our view, the essence of gamification is taking the positive motivational aspects and challenges of the game-playing world and allying them with solid learning content and experience.

In many ways, good eLearning has used gamification for a long time. For example, the challenge of multi-branched scenarios harnesses the incentives of game playing and decision-making but combines them with the context of real work situations. Or simple click-to-reveal interactions have gamified elements of exploration and reward within them.

To simplify what gamification is for eLearning, I’ve boiled it down into a number of key elements which I call the Cursim Four C’s of Gamification: Creative, Challenge, Control and Competition.

Creative: create a story, characters and plot.

People like stories. Many learners learn well from stories. Many successful games have a strong narrative, great characterisation and an intriguing plot. For learning, when you can relate a story into a real workplace situation, the learning has a deeper resonance. For example, what appeals more?

“The basics of manual handling”


“It’s Arjan’s first day in the warehouse. Help him make the right decisions to handle all the loads which are waiting for him in the warehouse.”

Challenge: Give learners a challenge

Games challenge the gamer to take some action and progress. Challenges can come in a variety of shapes and forms. We’ve separated out the elements of challenges into a few distinct parts:

  • Decisions
    An important element of gamification is that the players have to make decisions which control their progress through the game; eLearning should do the same and encourage the learner to make decisions. Give them questions and scenarios that determine how they progress through the course. For example, selecting the wrong answer to a question could either return the participant to the start of a section, or it could decrease the time left for a challenge or it could lower their pot of overall rewards.
  • Levels
    A lot of games use levels to challenge the players to progress. For eLearning, construct the course so that instead of seeing a series of sections, the student sees a series of levels but more complex levels are only accessible (“unlocked”) after completion of the initial ones. This structure gives an idea of progression, advancement and momentum. So in our manual handling course, our first level could cover basic lifting posture with questions asking the student to help Arjan identify the three key points of posture. If they beat that section, they progress to the “Handling awkward loads challenge” and so on until they get to the ultimate “Fork lift truck challenge”.
  • Rewards
    The rewards systems for games are varied but the challenges are for the gamer to progress using the reward system. These systems can range from a simple score-based measure through to the acquisition of materials (for example, gold, kudos, trading currency). For eLearning, accumulating points or rewards is another method of adding momentum and progression to your course. Simple mechanisms like using the cumulative point scores from quizzes, questions or scenarios are easy components to use within most eLearning authoring packages. Rather than presenting the quiz results as a pass or fail type score, convert them to awards, badges or even just amass the results of all the exercises into an overall “High score” which is shown throughout the course.
  • Timing
    Adding a timer to events, particularly when a decision needs to be made or some questions need to be answered, adds excitement and dynamism to an event. Under time pressure, the student may not have an opportunity to consider all the factors for a “right” answer mirroring real life and real work situations, increasing the effectiveness of the learning.

Control: Allow learners to take control

Giving your students (or “gamers”) control means that you provide the participant with choices over where they go and the paths they take. In our manual handling example, we could give Arjan the choice of which load to tackle first and then select from a range of equipment or an option to seek advice from a range of different people (phone a friend).

Control also comes in giving gamers the choice to quit, restart, try again or continue where they left off so they feel more in control of the experience. This contrast with common eLearning experience, which often follows a single linear path, takes a fixed recommended time and the student is powerless to control their destiny other than the speed with which they can press the next button.

Competition: Use the motivation of competition

An important element of game play is the competitive element, which may try to achieve a high score, a badge or some other reward within the game. Some games go further and provide leader boards visible to all players. We can use these features within eLearning too. That could be an external list of achievements such as an integrated leader board for your course. For example, the leader board could show the top 5 scores from all the manual handlers in the warehouse. The participants are motivated by the kudos of high achievement which is displayed to their peer group.

However, while this motivation works well with extrovert types (for example, in a typical sales environment), it might be less successful for a course appealing to more introverted types of audience. Having said that, there are other less obvious ways of incorporating external rewards and many of them don’t need to be automatically generated. For example, you could provide recognition of achievement by having a small colour-coded lapel badge that people wear that shows they are a “Manual-handling hero”.

All these gamification elements can provide powerful motivational and fun ways to add to an eLearning course. Once you combine those elements with a solid understanding of your learning points, you can build learning experiences which are both valuable from a learning perspective and enjoyable for students. Most importantly, if you get the design right, students will want to try and keep trying the course!