So What Is Gamification? And What Isn’t?

This is the second post in a three-part series on gamification in eLearning, based on a recent webinar, "Gamify your eLearning! 6 Ways to Incorporate Gamification into eLearning" by Paula Yunker of Limestone Learning and Sean Hougan of Lambda Solutions. Click here for Part 1.

For most of us, gaming isn’t a new idea. Surveys show that over 75 percent of us are regular gamers—whether those games are online puzzles, first-person shooters, medieval role-playing games, or word games. So we know what a game is: an entertaining activity that is played according to rules and often involves skill building.

But what’s gamification then?

In eLearning, gamification is the concept of using game design elements, game mechanics, and game thinking in non-game contexts to make learning more compelling. Gamification takes game-play elements and gaming mechanics and applies them to existing learning courses and content to engage learners, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems. Gamification uses our natural desire for social connection, learning, mastery, competition, achievement and status.

So if my eLearning features a fun little gem-swapping game as a reward for completing a section, is that gamification?

—> Nope. Gamification is more holistic than that. Gamification makes the entire eLearning process a game.

The key distinction is the non-game context in which gamification is applied. Take compliance training at an insurance company, for example. Or safety training at an oilrig. In both cases, the context couldn’t be less like a game:

  • An insurance company, if its employees fail to understand financial regulations, may face enormous financial and even criminal penalties. 
  • A drilling company’s employees, if they work without proper hazard training, may risk injury and even death, and the company bears the liability. 

Simply put, training isn’t a game. But training can still involve—and may be even more effective because of—gamification.

So what are the components of gamification?

Game design elements – There are as many game design elements as there are game characteristics. A few examples include:

  • Fixed rules.
  • Negative consequences.
  • Rankings by effort or score.
  • Three-dimensional environments.
  • Competition.
  • Variable outcomes such as validations, rewards, or consequences—the list goes on and on.
What if I make one of my learning objectives into a game? Say, a word game in which the learner completes a sentence or does a math problem?

—> Not quite. Games do not gamification make—not unless they’re integrated throughout the eLearning module into one big game.

Game mechanics – These are the structural mechanics of the gamification itself. How does the learner advance in the game? Is there a time limit? Some examples include:

  • A point tally.
  • A leaderboard comparing different learners.
  • A rewards section showing how far the learner has come.
  • A ticking clock that imposes a time constraint.

Game thinking – Gamification encourages learners to think in ways that games do. Some examples include:

  • Storytelling. Learners experience the “what happens next?” sensation, which encourages them to continue exploring the subject matter.
  • Quests. Learners pursue a goal by navigating a journey, often with obstacles.
  • Challenges. Learners have the opportunity to beat a previous score, beat co-workers’ score, or improve their speed or accuracy on a task.
  • Competition. Learners can look at a leaderboard and see how others are doing, which may inspire friendly rivalry and boost learning.

So what’s the difference between gamification and learning games? It’s a subtle distinction:

  • Gamification turns the entire learning process into a game, with all components geared toward the rules, mechanics, and thinking of that game. An example would be a quest to collect all the ingredients of a menu item the learner needs to learn how to prepare, with rewards or consequences at the end of the learning process.
  • A learning game is an element that is incorporated into eLearning in relation to a specific learning objective. An example would be a math game testing one learning objective of a customer-service module, such as cash handling, with other learning objectives being tested in other ways.
What if my whole eLearning module is a quest to gather the right documentation for, say, a customs procedure, and when the learner finishes, she gets a reward?

—> Bingo! That’s gamification!

What are some other differences between gamification and games?

  • Games have defined rules and objectives. Gamification may not necessarily set up rules and objectives; it may simply consist of tasks with points or some form of reward.
  • Games present the possibility of losing. With gamification, however, the point is to motivate learners, so losing may not be desirable.
  • Games are intrinsically rewarding. Gamification may not necessarily be intrinsically rewarding.
  • Games are difficult and expensive to build. Gamification is usually easier and cheaper.
  • In games, content is morphed to fit the game. With gamification, game-like features are added, but the content is retained. 

That should get you started thinking about gamification in eLearning. Like all new developments, gamification is evolving, and we’d love to get your thoughts on how to successfully deploy it. Drop us a comment below!

Next up - Part 3 of 3 in our gamification series: Six ways you can incorporate gamification into your eLearning regardless of budget. Click here to check it out!