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Five ways to ‘gamify’ your elearning


Written by Joe Hastings

Is 2014 the year gamification can be taken of the ‘to do’ list and put into practice? While it has been a buzzword in the elearning industry for years now, it seems like this year the time has come for gamification to start delivering real benefits for online learning.

Gamification - the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications - promises much: an engaging, dynamic, memorable and rewarding learning experience. But it can be very difficult to know where to start. Most of us know and enjoy games, but how do those experiences relate to the elearning course that you’re working on right now? I’m a developer at Saffron with a background in games and app design, and so to help, I’ve compiled a list of my top five gamified elements that can help to improve ‘traditional’ elearning.

1. Dynamic storytelling

A common way to relay a subject to a learner is to put it into some kind of real world scenario the learner can relate to, then let them participate and observe the situation as it unfolds. To make a more engaging learning experience, multiple paths can be added to the scenario, with the user’s decisions carving out his or her own path through the content.

For example, in a course aimed at helping people to spot bribery in the workplace, a user may be presented with the option to take a client out to lunch at a fancy restaurant or to provide them with a takeaway sandwich. Both choices may be appropriate depending on the circumstances. The learning experience can now unfold into two very different scenarios, each with another range of options to choose from. The caveat to this technique will always be that content will have to be created that not all learners will see – is this a waste of time or worth it for each learner getting a personalised experience? You (and your budget holder) decide!

2. Exploration

Exploring is a key part of human nature; we were all born to explore the world we live in, and the joy of exploration is that we are all free to go about this in our own way and at our own pace. It’s an integral part of many video games. A great way to implement exploration in an elearning course is a set of 2D scenes the learner can navigate between, where each scene has a number of interactive elements the user can interact with to find out extra information.

These may be a photographic representation of a real world environment or they could be a cartoon/stylised version. It allows learners to familiarise themselves with a place or action and get as close to the real experience as possible. It’s also an easier way to personalise than branching scenarios. By allowing their own curiosity to guide them to areas they are interested in, learners end up finding the pieces of information most relevant to them.

Whilst an all-singing, all-dancing 3D environment for someone to walk around in on an omni directional treadmill wearing a virtual reality headset might sound appealing (now that it is technically possible) unfortunately the nature of most elearning projects – with a varied audience and modest budget - makes this a physical impossibility – for now...

3. Points systems and leaderboards

A points system simply gives us a method for measuring someone’s performance in a task or course. A way to bring the traditional points system to life is to include a social leader board: this can inspire healthy competition between individuals and get them to focus on becoming better at the process. Humans will always enjoy proof that they are the most knowledgeable or skilful in a particular area.

Of course, we are also usually sore losers, so in order to realise the maximum benefit from a leaderboard, it’s important that it is ‘reset’ after a given period of time, so that people struggling at the bottom of the board don’t get too disgruntled (and demotivated)!

4. Satisfying rewards

Reward systems are at the heart of gamification. Rewards trigger a rush of dopamine, and their effect is clear to see in early-adopters of gamification techniques, such as high-pressure sales environments. People are given a target and then rewarded for reaching or exceeding it, usually in some sort of financial way. Of course, if the reward is notional or not worth having, people don’t always try their hardest to reach it.

In the world of elearning we have the problem of providing a reward ‘worth having’ that cannot be financial or hold any monetary value. Whilst not everyone is financially driven, it is undeniably a key factor for most, so what other methods of rewarding are available? Games can tell us a lot about this, as they do not usually feature financial rewards but yet manage to provide instantaneous gratification on many levels. Here are a few methods:

  • One approach it to get people emotionally invested in the task they are undertaking, to a point where they desire to do better becomes so strong, simply completing the task correctly gives the reward they desire. This may be the sense of achievement after a difficult or stressful task is completed.
  • Leading on from point 3. Points systems and leader boards, the reward of being number one or even just one place higher than a friend or colleague can be a great motivator.
  • Achievements and badges. Let’s face it: we’re all secret hoarders. If there is a predefined set of locked achievements for a course, everyone’s obsessive hoarder inside them won’t be satisfied until they’re all unlocked. 
  • Ranks. This method is very commonly used in video games and forums; the user starts as an “apprentice” and ends up a “grand master”, and each rank in between has a set of tasks that must be completed in order to progress. This gives the learner a virtual persona they can see improving over time, providing instant gratification for their actions.

5. Replayability

Repetition is something we would all like to avoid when picking up a new skill. While some seem uncannily able to see something done once and then have the capability to repeat the same process flawlessly, the vast majority of us need some kind of repetition in order to embed information into our brains at a more instinctual level. And as we all know, as necessary as repetition is for learning, the obvious problem is that it can be very dull. If something is repeated to the learner too many times, they feel patronised, spoon fed and, most of all, bored. None of these negative reactions provide any particular assurance that the learner has actually retained any knowledge, let alone changed his or her behaviour.

Adding gamified elements can help to liven up a repetitive subject. It could be some sort of memory game where the learner has to remember and relay a certain order of tasks, with the game restarting each time the wrong order is selected. Or maybe a frustratingly gratifying minigame in which the learner has to quickly respond to instructions. Games have taught us that, actually, frustration does not have to be a bad thing and is enjoyable to a certain degree. Take the recent hit mobile app Flappy Bird, arguably the most frustrating experience available – yet it has over 100 million downloads!

Have you implemented any of these methods in a recent course? We’d love to hear about your experiences.

One Response

  1. What other lessons does the video game revolution* have for us?

    Great summary of what 'gamification' is being taken to mean in learning & development circles right now.

    But I think there are other concepts and directions evolving from the gaming space that have a lot *more* to teach us about designing digital media to educate and inform. For instance, any bold or original game concept now has to incorporate into itself the means by which its specific techniques, rules, goals etc. can be understood by players. The majority of gamers prefer to 'learn by doing', so new games must present them with a carefully constructed overview of the skills and capacities that are going to be required to fully experience the rest of the game

    A colleague of mine wrote a really interesting blog on this recently – worth a read if you're thinking about how gamification is likely to evolve:

    Why Learning Designers should play Video Games:

    Here's a response from a UX perspective:

    And more here from gamification guru Kark Kapp:

    *By 'video game revolution' I'm referring to the rather incredible and widely unacknowledged shift in mass entertainment that's been driven by gaming in the last thirty years or so: a form that has gone from literal non-existence to generating more revenue than the traditional movie and music entertainment industries combined.

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