An introduction to Gamification in eLearning


nce you enter the world of eLearning and learning design, you quickly begin to hear about ‘gamification’.

Chances are, you will come across both passionate advocates and passionate critics of gamification.

This is because of a history of instructional designers taking a lazy approach to gamification, with poor results. However, using game principles and applying them to a non-game context can be a highly effective strategy in the design of digital learning solutions.

Let’s take a closer look at why gamification can be an effective e-learning tool, what you need to explore before you take on a gamification project and how to avoid speed bumps along the way.

What is gamification?

Gamification is the process of applying elements of game design to eLearning programs to increase motivation and engagement in learners.

These elements can vary widely and two different gamified projects may look very different.

A sketch of two back and white chess pieces on a chessboard on a yellow background.

A quick history of gamification

Gamification has been the source of hype since early 2010 or so. After a decade of some incredibly dry eLearning, gamification gurus began to crop up promising a fast track to engagement through the fun and excitement of game mechanics. 

Unfortunately, with so few learning designers also being experts in game design, ‘gamification’ was quickly reduced to a handful of very basic and not particularly motivating features that became so ubiquitous they earned their own acronym, PBL. PBL stands for:

  1. Points. Learners could earn points by completing activities.
  2. Badges. Earning a certain number of points, or completing activities could earn the learner specific badges.
  3. Leaderboards. Learners with the most points would be ranked on leaderboards.

PBL aimed to evoke motivational feelings of achievement and competitiveness. And while it isn’t a terrible idea, it also quickly became apparent that PBL was hardly a silver bullet to undivided attention and retention. 

In fact, gamification has become a perfect example of Gartner’s Hype Cycle that tracks the peaks and troughs of a hyped innovation. After an Innovation Trigger and a period of Inflated Expectations, gamification quickly came crashing down in the third phase of Disappointment as PBL just didn’t live up to the dream.

So why do we still hear about gamification? Because it also made its way through the last two phases of the Hype Cycle - the Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity, which is where we find ourselves today. 

The Gartner Hype Cycle. Five phases from left to right read Trigger, Inflated Expectations, Disappointment, Slope of Enlightenment and Plateau of Productivity. A line across the phases peaks in phase two, toughs in phase three then levels out in the final two stages.

Today, successful gamification looks very different to the standard PBL approach and offers some truly unique opportunities for innovation in eLearning.

The benefits of Gamification

Gaming elements in elearning solutions can be effective because they can motivate, challenge and engage a learner.

Studies show games can improve knowledge acquisition, content understanding, motivational outcomes, changes in attitudes and behaviour and can be applied across a range of industries such as art, design, entertainment, marketing, news, health and education. 

Games have the power to propel people into action. In 2006, a design team led by American graduate student Susana Ruiz created a narrative-based simulation game called Darfur is Dying in which the player takes the role of a displaced Darfurian living in a refugee camp. Players of the game were found to be more likely to donate money, share the story with friends, sign a partition and talk to others about Darfur than those who read the text equivalent.

A game-based approach can also result in better performance. 65 studies and data from 6,476 trainees discovered those using video games had an 11% high factual knowledge level, a 14% high skill-based knowledge level and a 9% higher retention rate than trainees in comparison groups.

Studies have also shown that gamification can result in players working harder voluntarily. A math facts game deployed on handheld computers encouraged learners to complete a greater number of problems at an increased degree of difficulty. Results showed these participants solved nearly three times the amount of number problems than those using paper worksheets.

A laptop, desktop and mobile show screens from the Sydney Water gamified eLearning project by HowToo Xpert.

How to gamify your eLearning

The aim of any gamification experience is to narrow the gap between the learning experience and the real world experience.

HowToo Xpert has produced several award-winning eLearning projects that have used gamification as a central technique, such as the Sydney Water project on important record keeping practices. Here are some of the ways that the Xpert team approaches a gamified module.

What is a game?

To gamify something, it’s important to first understand what makes something a game. Defining what a ‘game’ is can be incredibly tricky, but definitions typically involve a combination of the following elements:

  • Making decisions with meaningful consequences
  • Rules and goals
  • A sense of playfulness, or safe risk-taking.

Gamifying learning means introducing these elements in some shape or form.

If this definition feels painfully vague, take a deep breath! Instead, see it as the beginning of an opportunity for untold creativity.

What is your budget?

Budget is the key factor that determines how big or small the gamification element can be.

A large budget could see a learner exploring and interacting with an immersive, 3D environment with Virtual Reality technology, while a smaller budget could lead to incorporating mini-games with time challenges throughout a course.

Whatever your budget, there are a multitude of ways to creatively incorporate gamification into your projects.

What are your motivators?

Chris Scicluna makes the argument that gamification design is really about motivational design, i.e. what principles can we introduce that motivate engagement? He points to examples of challenge, narrative framing, randomness (or unexpectedness), creation and status rewards as powerful motivators.

Developing one or more learner personas can help you to identify what may motivate your learners. Motivators could include different aspirations, personality types, job demands or unmet needs.

Identifying motivators allows you to then design and gamify your learning content with the purpose of:

  1. Evoking these motivating factors in the learner’s mind and emotions.
  2. Creating a safe place for exploration and playfulness with clear goals and rules.
  3. Allowing the learner to make decisions with meaningful consequences.
  4. Challenging the learner to “do better” (than either themselves, an opponent, or a stopwatch).
  5. Rewarding success and fostering new feelings of mastery, achievement and performance.

Examples of gamification

If you’re a detail-oriented person, you may be begging for some tangible examples right now! However, it’s important to begin with a framework for understanding gamification, because having that foundation gives you the freedom to invent fantastic new and creative gamified approaches to learning.

Nevertheless, here are a few common examples of gamified learning that you might like to experiment with or be inspired by.

Branching scenarios

Branching scenarios tap into the gamifications principles of narrativization and meaningful decision making. They are ideal for guiding learners in complex or morally unclear situations.

In a branching scenario design, the learner is placed into a realistic storyline as a character and asked to make decisions on how to act. Each decision that is presented becomes a “branch” in the storyline, in which different options have different consequences. The larger your budget, the more branches and layers you can add to your scenario. 

To successfully pull off a branching scenario module, you must make sure that:

  • The scenarios are relevant to the learner’s day-to-day work. Far-fetched or irrelevant scenarios will immediately lose your learner’s interest.
  • The decision options are realistic to the choices the learner may make. Unrealistic or obviously foolish options will only produce eye rolls and irritation.
  • The consequences are meaningful. Choosing Option A over Option B should result in a truly different outcome for the learner. 

Mini games

Mini games are fun activities slotted between information that can be used to introduce elements of challenge and fun. They are often used as an interactive way to test or embed knowledge.

Mini games tend to use time-based elements to challenge learners to “beat the clock” or beat their own highscore. When designing time-based mini games, it’s important to ensure that they have options to turn off, adjust or extend the time limit in order to meet accessibility standards.

Game-inspired structures

Sometimes, the entire structure of a module can be inspired by a particular game, such as a card game or video game.

In 2020, the HowToo Xpert team worked with a major Australian bank to produce a gamified induction course that combined elements of card games with an isometric game board. The course also included gamified language, point scoring and the ability to select and control an avatar.

A screen from the gamified eLearning course by HowToo Xpert. A 3D isometric disc shows an avatar walking on a pathway with stops and bridges, with surrounding trees, buildings and lakes.

Is gamification right for you?

If applied in the right context, applying game principles can improve learning in a fun and relaxed environment. It increases engagement, motivation and can give a learner great satisfaction. Crucially, it can help a learner make a decision and understand the outcome.

However, it’s important to fully scope a gamified project before jumping in, as game design and development can be very expensive. Likewise, it’s easy to copy to gamified elements from other projects without understanding how they increase motivation, leading to ineffective application. Lastly, it’s important to ensure your games aren’t too complicated to understand or difficult to complete, as this can frustrate users and inhibit learning.

Despite these dangers, finding the right balance between fun and challenge can result in an engaging and memorable learning experience.

Interested in adding gamification to your next eLearning project? Reach out to our Xperts today.

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Sep 14, 2022
Learning Design

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