Gamification in e-learning, what’s all the fuss about?

Gamification in e-learning, what’s all the fuss about?


Gamification has received much hype and buzz in recent years. In fact, it’s been so overused in the e-learning industry that it was featured in Gartner’s Hype Cycle for four years in a row.

While we may be sick of all the hype, 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.

Gamification of learning

Gaming elements in e-learning 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. In a nutshell:

Games can propel people into action: players of the game Darfur is Dying were 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.

Players perform better: 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.

Players work 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.

What to consider before applying game-based approaches

It’s imperative before embarking on any kind of learner solution that the proper due-diligence is completed.

Once you’ve identified there’s a gap that a gamification solution could solve, you need to consider your learner’s big motivators before moving towards designing the game.

Savv-e’s digital team member Shaun Thompson says when developing a gamification element to learning you needed to find the best ways to get learners to interact and respond with the game.

Ken Ip says it's usually a sense of accomplishment or completion that drives a learner to respond.

“From a design point of view this means having visible and easy to understand progression indicators so that the learner is working towards something.”

If your learners respond well to a sense of community, designers should consider implementing a leaderboard to promote challenge. Another idea is incorporating team activities where a group can work together and achieve a common goal.

Basic gamification techniques

For designers the aim of any gamification experience is to narrow the gap between the learning experience and the real world experience. Budget is the key factor that determines how big or small the gamification element can be.

A bigger budget could put a learner through an immersive 3d environment where you can explore and interact with others. A smaller budget could provide a simple scoring system.

Gamifying content isn’t as simple as “theming-up” a module. Game design guru Jesse Schell said that “a game is a problem solving activity, approached with a playful attitude”.

What we are looking to do is evoking a sense of playfulness; whereby we encourage our learners to try things out, experiment and fail safely. Here are a few of the key approaches we’ve found effective:

  1. Understand your target audience: do they have unmet needs and/or aspirations?
  2. Design content with the end emotion in mind connected to unmet needs and/or aspirations - emotion drives motivation and action.
  3. Identify the preferred engagement modality of your target audience and use relevant verbs (Competitive: win, beat, brag, taunt, challenge, pass, fight. Cooperative: join, share, help, gift, greet, exchange, trade. Exploration: view, read, search, collect, complete, curate. Expressive: choose customise, layout, design, dress up, show off.)
  4. Create challenges that close the gap between the game and the real life scenario and lead towards feelings of mastery, self-achievement and effortless high performance.
  5. Implement engagement loops that cater towards newbies, novices and experts (i.e. increase the complexity and difficulty of challenges as learners progress.)
  6. Incorporate meaningful endogenic rewards (rewards that are only meaningful within the module) with immediate feedback about what behavioural response produced that reward.

Branched scenarios are the most basic and often the most useful technique. This is where a learner explores a situation and makes a decision, and then sees the consequences of that decision. With more budget, there can be more branches (and more involved branches) for the learner to explore.

Savv-e’s designers say you need to ask yourself “what decisions do you want your learners to be able to make, that they aren’t already making themselves?” The answer to this question will determine the game at the heart of the learning. For example, if the decision is “What to do in case of a fire in the building”, then your “game” will present the learner with a situation in which they can explore different decisions when there is a fire in the building.

Where can gamification go wrong?

Failing to scope a project out before jumping into it can be a fatal mistakes. Game design and development is not a cheap process. There are common pitfalls e-learning creators fall victim to. These include developing:

Games that are too complex

  • Games that are too complicated or difficult to complete are ineffective. They can frustrate users and are harder to learn from. You need to find the balance between fun and challenge, without compromising the learning outcome.

Games that are unrealistic

  • Games need to be real for learners to experience the consequences.

Games that are just for the sake of it

  • Don’t create a game just because it seems like a fun idea. This often leads to an incohesive learning experience which can stand in the way of achieving the desired learning outcomes.

Final thoughts

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. But most importantly, it helps a learner make a decision and understand the outcome.

Want to learn more about gamification in e-learning? Get in touch with us today!

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