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How gamification can help engage learners


Using the core concepts of gaming can help build engaging learning experiences. Ben Betts shows the way

As many of us are introducing notions of social eLearning into the L&D mix, a key question remains; how can we get our audience to meaningfully participate in these learning activities? After all, there is nothing sadder than an empty forum. Gamification might be a useful method for you to consider as a part of your next engagement.

Defining gamification

Broadly speaking, gamification is the practice of applying game-like mechanics to none-game activities. A typical example of gamification would be to retro-fit reward badges or points into an environment which wasn’t originally designed with those things in mind. This popular definition somewhat undersells the idea though; it can be so much more.

Jesse Schell, a prominent game designer and industry thought leader, suggests that any game is comprised of four parts. He called these four parts aesthetics, mechanics, story and technology. I like to think of these as the four pillars of gamification. You can build on these pillars in any way you like to create more engaging learning experiences.

"Telling stories is a fantastic way to engage your audience and get their emotional buy-in to an experience." 


The attitude with which your participants first approach a learning experience can be heavily influenced by the aesthetics you use. Being playful is at the heart of the gamification experience; we want people to try new things and to be unafraid of failure. More often than not, aesthetics can help to encourage this feeling of playfulness with your learning, if for no other reason than to make something look like a game. 

However, you don’t have to make a 3D virtual world to make a game; some of the most prolific games in history are browser based. The aesthetics help you to set the tone; what that tone is, is your decision. It is also important to realise that aesthetics aren’t just about visual appearance; think sound, think touch. New devices are providing a huge range of aesthetic opportunities for designers.


Games allow us to take part in epic stories, to experience things out of the ordinary and to influence the outcome in a way which no other medium allows. Stories have been at the heart of teaching and learning for centuries and so an obvious synergy begins to emerge.

Unfortunately, the story is one of the most oft overlooked areas in gamification – it tends to be an afterthought, if it is included at all. Don’t fall into this trap; telling stories is a fantastic way to engage your audience and get their emotional buy-in to an experience.

For example, consider your employee induction programme. Previously the programme might have been a dull, preachy information dump – a bad introduction to the organisation. Next time you run it, pretend you’ve lost all the files right before you started the first session. You desperately need your new hires to help you pull the information back together, or you’ll get fired. Now it’s getting interesting…


Mechanics are the bits and pieces that most people would consider the tools they need to "gamify" an experience.  Game mechanics refer to the mechanisms by which the game itself works, be that points, levels, cash, badges and so on. They are also the measure by which we win. Of course, these are important, but they are not the be all and end all of a game, as many proponents of gamification would seem to think.

Mechanics help a player to evaluate their competence within the game environment – they let you know that you are getting better and they allow you to compare yourself to others. They are important and they will form a pathway for how you engage learners in your journey. The mechanics may emerge as the reason why people continue to play the game, but they probably aren’t enough to get people to mass adopt the game in the first place. For that, you need to rely on the other pillars.


All games have a foundation in technology, they just use it differently. Some games require no more technology than a pencil and paper. Others require innovative and new technology to be implemented. How you use technology will play into both the ability of your players to play the game and also the attitude with which they approach the experience. 

For example, rolling out an e-learning package via the X-Box in the cafeteria might engender a more playful attitude than using the LMS. What is most important is that your technology allows players to play the game as you intended them to. It cannot be a barrier, it must be an enabler. If players can’t interact with either the system or other players, then your technology is going to fail you. 

Games come in many forms . . .

If you are creating a game then you will, by default, be using these four pillars in some way. Take Hangman as an example. It probably doesn’t seem like it uses all four pillars on first glance, but dig a little deeper and you see more. 

The mechanics are simple, but effective; a limited number of tries to get the answer correct. The story is an epic one; life and death. The aesthetics include the provocative hangman’s noose and the blank letter spaces, appealing to your sense of intuition. And the technology is simple, yet entirely suitable – play it anywhere you’ve got a pen and paper. 

These four pillars all come together to make a game which is timeless and replayable. If you are looking for ways to engage your audience with a learning experience, I can strongly recommend evaluating a gamification approach. Just be sure to evaluate every aspect before you look to implement as there is so much more to games than merit badges and leaderboards.

Ben Betts is managing director of HT2, creators of innovative learning technologies. You can learn more about gaming’s impact on learning at the Learning Live conference where Ben will leading a focus session on "Designing social learning to get people involved". Learning Live takes places in Birmingham on 13-14 September. Find out more visit 


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