Gamification and learning

You hear about gamification everywhere, but what is it, and does it actually work?

In this article, I will:

  • Explain what gamification is,
  • Share some practical experiences implementing gamification,
  • Look at what science says about the effect of gamification,
  • And finally provide some recommendations on what to pay attention to if you are considering using game elements in learning.

What is gamification?

Gamification is a term used to describe digital user experiences that are not games but incorporate elements and mechanisms from games. Gamification is widely used in digital learning and e-learning, typically with an expectation that game elements increase user engagement, and they thereby learn more.

What elements from games are used in gamification?

When reading about gamification, you find different suggestions for which elements are game elements. Here is an incomplete list:

  • Progression. Something that shows progress. Levels, boss levels or things that the player receives in the game - which give an advantage in the game, for example, better equipment.
  • Reward. Typically points, badges, high score lists.
  • Storytelling/Narrative. That the game is wrapped in a story or has “quests” to be performed.
  • User choice. That the user can choose and that the choices have consequences.
  • Rules. That the game has a rule system that applies. For example, whether you can die in the game, or how many times you need to shoot a monster to kill it.
  • Time. That there is a time limit counting down or the like.
  • Social elements. Cooperation or competition with other players.
  • Personalization. For example, the possibility to design one's own game character.
  • And then what you can call the user's (game) experience. Micro interactions supported by sound and animation, for example, when you have to click on a crop to harvest it. Or when points or money “stream in” instead of just being added to the existing sum.

If you have played computer games yourself, whether it's Angry Birds, Counter Strike or Civilization, you know that it's very important how the individual elements are implemented and interact. For example, it's not enough that there's a story. The story also needs to be good. (And how to write a good story is a whole chapter in itself). It's also not enough that there are choices in the game. If the choices do not influence the course of the game, it's not perceived as a real choice. So, it's often quite complex to make a good/fun game.

Among the most frequently used game elements is the reward of points, badges or stars by completing some tasks. Often there is also a social or competitive element, preferably in the form of a high score list, where you can see how you stand compared to other users. This is so common in gamification that it has been abbreviated to PBL (Points, Badges, and Leaderboards).

Research has uncovered that we humans quickly start to expect the rewards we are promised and therefore do not appreciate them. This mechanism is called the overjustification effect, which you can read more about here. To counteract the overjustification effect, many designers in gamification (and games) seek to give users unexpected rewards, but in the end, you actually start to expect them too.

Many have probably experienced gamification systems themselves that almost become condescending due to excessive use of PBL. Personally, I quickly get a bit tired when I get an unexpected badge for shooting a bird backwards in Angry Birds by mistake, or if I sign up as a user in a "gamified" Learning Management System, and get the message: "CONGRATULATIONS (first name), You have got a badge because you are so cool that you have signed up..."

Gamification seems very promising on the surface, but when you get more into the individual elements and their actual effect, the picture becomes more mixed. The overjustification effect is always lurking, and one can rightly question whether users would ever be entertained by a gamified presentation of a company's personnel policy or fire safety routines.


Practical experiences with gamification

Together with a friend, I once created a gamification app/platform for employees who were employed in retail. The concept was that the employees received an SMS every day with a task that they had to solve during their working day. The goal of the task was usually that they had to learn to sell something more.

In retail, there is a concept called neutral greeting. The idea is that if you enter a store and the staff asks "can I help with something", most people say "no". Most sales courses will tell you that it is a bad start if a potential customer starts by saying no. Therefore, many who work in retail learn to come up with neutral greetings, such as "hello", i.e., a greeting that is neutral and does not result in a yes/no answer. Studies show that stores can increase their sales significantly if only the staff switch from "can I help with something" to neutral greetings.

A task in our app could therefore be: Come up with three different neutral greetings and use them on customers today. Share your experiences with your colleagues in the field below. Another could be: Suggest a scarf to everyone who tries a jacket. The idea was that users were challenged to perform their work in a way that could simultaneously increase sales in the store.

If you want to use smart buzzwords, you can call it situated learning, presented as mobile gamified micro learning. But said in Danish Jutlandic, we simply used a smartphone to get some people to learn something while they were at work - by giving them small tasks every day.

At first, we focused a lot on giving points etc., but later we focused more on the social aspect, where the employees collaborated via our app. This shift was primarily because we became wiser and could see that our focus on PBL had a negative effect on some of the participants' engagement. There were several things pointing in that direction, but especially one anecdote from a round of user feedback says a lot about how the point system was experienced by the staff. We had sold our solution to a chain of retail stores and had just completed a program with tasks for the staff. Afterwards we asked them for their feedback. An older employee, who was one of the store's most experienced sellers, had done our tasks, and had then focused on doing her job of selling. When she looked at the high score list in our app after a week, and saw that the young, newly hired employee was higher than her on the high score list, she was very disappointed. She had focused on doing her job, but the young new employee had been better at solving the tasks in the app, and had therefore achieved a better score. In our attempt to motivate the employees, we ended up rewarding those who focused on the tasks and disappoint those who focused on doing their work.

What does research say? Does gamification work?

When gamification is used as much as it is, is its effect well substantiated by scientific research? The short answer is: "No."

If I Google: Does gamification work, I quickly find two scientific articles that both review the existing research in the field.

I also find a lot of blog articles - many from people who clearly make a living selling gamification. They may well be right anyway, but here I will allow myself to be skeptical and attach more weight to scientific articles.

I'll spare you a detailed review of the mentioned articles - which I of course think you should read yourself - and give you my brief conclusion here:

The answer is:

No, gamification is not solidly substantiated by scientific research.

The slightly longer answer is that there are actually studies on the effects of gamification, but they are of very varying quality, and they do not give a clear answer to whether gamification works, and if so, which game elements make it work.

Some studies report both positive and negative effects, and the trials are also criticized for being short, which makes it difficult to exclude that the gamified is just perceived as exciting because it is new.

The effect of using game elements depends entirely on how it is implemented and in which context it is used. A significant problem with the available research is that the different experiments use different definitions of what Gamification actually is. Therefore, the answer to "Does gamification work?" cannot be a simple choice between yes and no.

In short, it is neither well-researched nor well-substantiated that gamification unequivocally increases users' engagement in what is presented.

Does gamification have an effect?

The answer here is unequivocal: "Yes!"

But it is unclear what the effect is, and how the different game elements affect user engagement.

The studies most positive about the effect of Gamification often use a definition of Gamification that is much more than the use of points, badges and leaderboards (PBL), and especially use social elements, choices and storytelling. But it is most often the simple PBL version of Gamification that is offered and sought.

The aforementioned articles conclude that gamification appears to have a positive effect in the short term, with clear results in terms of engagement, if participants only perform the activities once. But the results become more mixed in the studies looking at gamification over a longer period - the positive effects of gamification seem to decline over time. The very same elements that some respondents reported as engaging and fun, were identified as negative by other respondents.

Isn't it irrelevant that science is unclear about the effects of gamification?

Yes, if it was harmless and free to use gamification. But it is not. Maybe it increases engagement, maybe it harms. No one knows for sure. If it is ineffective, it is at best a waste of resources that could have been used to create better content. In the articles, one can also read that it can have negative effects on engagement if you suddenly remove gamification elements, once they have been introduced. Therefore, one should think twice before blindly following the flock into the land of gamification.

Which elements have the least potential to work?

The clearly most common way to introduce gamification to learning is by introducing systems that revolve around what we previously described as PBL - Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. But when digital points become an end in themselves, it has consequences for the learners' learning - the news value of the systems can perhaps drive a little engagement, but in the long run, it removes focus from the elements that are most important to the learner. Margaret Robertson has invented the term pointsification, which describes "taking the elements that are least important in games and making them the core of the whole experience".

Which game elements have the greatest potential to work?

The answer, unfortunately, is that all the best game elements are also typically the most complicated and comprehensive to develop:

  • Good storytelling. There is a huge difference between an interesting story that is meaningfully woven together with the educational content, and a boring story that in principle could have been pasted onto the educational content at the last minute. If you manage to do the first, you have a good starting point for holding the users' attention.
  • Social elements. If implemented correctly, social elements can act as a strong motivational factor for users. Here again, it is important to emphasize that the social elements must actually have a meaningful significance for the system as a whole; functionless friend lists or a high score list can often be worse than nothing.
  • Meaningful choices. Real and fun games are about meaningful choices. In most gamification, the users' choices only have little influence on what happens in the game itself, which often results in the user feeling constrained and limited.

Meaningful choices have the potential to motivate the user, by offering an experience of exploration and autonomy.

A consistent piece of advice for implementing any game element is that it should work together with the content and with the other game elements. Here one can talk about a kind of synergy effect between elements, which together make up a whole that is greater than the parts:

For example, an element like competition, as mentioned, does not work very well.

But if a social element is introduced that makes the player work together with other players in a group and compete against other groups, then the competition element works better.

Bing Gordon, a former board member of Zynga (the company behind the Facebook game Farmville) is a strong proponent of social elements based on cooperation: He says that "collaboration beats competition three to one". That is, cooperation creates significantly more engagement than competition does. Zynga has about 21 million daily users, which means they have large amounts of data that support what they say.

Conclusion: Is it a good idea to use gamification?

I believe one should be very cautious with using game elements for learning. I have quite a bit of experience with gamification, and I know that it can have outright negative effects if game elements are used incorrectly.

There is a very telling term that describes botched implementations of Gamification: mandatory fun.

It doesn't sound very fun, does it?

Gamification. Mandatory fun.

In connection with my work designing digital learning and e-learning, I often receive inquiries from customers who want to make something boring and mandatory content exciting by using gamification. It could for example be a quiz, one has made about nem-id and nem-account, one wants to make fun by packing it into a game and making a high score list. This solution is often chosen because it is easy (read cheapest) to implement.

My, slightly boring, answer to them is that we can help them make the content more exciting, but the bottom line is this:

Boring content does not become exciting by being disguised as a game. But exciting content wrapped in a game can indeed be exciting.

You should not believe that just because something uses gamification, it is automatically good.

I am very happy to use game elements when I develop learning materials, whether it is digital learning or the analog kind, and I highly believe in play and games in relation to learning, but there is far too much poor gamification in circulation. Bad gamification promises a quick fix, but is often nothing more than pointsification and mandatory fun.

If you want to use game elements to increase user motivation, the main focus should be on good content and that the game elements are used intelligently and nuanced. One could appropriately start with the game elements that align with the Self-Determination Theory, which I have written about here. (Self-Determination Theory is about motivation and is probably the scientific theory that is most relevant to know in relation to gamification.)

Gamification should treat participants as real people instead of promising virtual points to get participants to run around in a digital hamster wheel.

I'd love to hear from you. It could be that you know about some good research I should be aware of, or that you have an example of good or bad gamification. You are of course also welcome to contact me if you would like good advice on implementing gamification, I love to geek out with game elements and motivation!

Would you like to learn more?

Perhaps you might be interested in our Course in (Digital) Didactics - Learn to Design Good Learning.

In the course, you learn to develop learning that captures your recipients' attention and works with their motivation to learn. The course is also for you who teach in a classroom or online and need a professional booster.

Do you want to learn more on your own?

If you are interested in reading more about the brain and learning, these articles might interest you.

If you want to know more about digital learning and e-learning, you can start with our Elearning FAQ.

If you're looking for help with e-learning development, or if you'd like to take a course on Elearning, where you learn to create e-learning yourself - we can also help you.

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