How to gamify e-learning.
My favorite definition of a game comes from Jesse Schell, CEO of
videogame studio, Schell Games and the former chair of the
International Game Developers Association: "a game is a
problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude." While
that definition uses a broad brush to explain games, you tend to
run into problems if you start to define a game any further.
You might be inclined to think that your e-learning program
probably qualifies as a game by this definition. Dig a little
deeper, though, and you realize that is probably not the case. How
often is e-learning approached with a playful attitude? And I don't
mean sticking a quirky piece of clip art at the top of the screen.
Instead, a learning game should evoke a sense of playfulness in
your learners - an ability to try things out, to experiment, and to
fail safely. Typically, our e-learning solutions are so linear and
"push" in nature that there is very little scope to play.
E-learning solutions are to be worked through, not played with.
So how can we gamify e-learning? Building further on Jesse Schell's
work, there are four key areas to game design: aesthetics, story,
mechanics, and technology.
A game is only a game if it looks like a game, right? Wrong! Games
come in many forms. But games make use of aesthetics in unique and
interesting ways. For instance, Call of Duty is noted for its
ultra-realistic graphics. But Mafia Wars, one of the most popular
games of recent times, is mostly text. This game is all about
dispersing scores of information to players and configuring the
best way to display that information within a text interface.
While aesthetics help encourage playfulness, if for no other reason
than to make something look like a game, they aren't enough to make
something a game in and of itself. You don't have to make a 3D
virtual world to make a game; you just have to make best use of
aesthetics that suit the style of gameplay you want to facilitate.
To be sure, you could move your onboarding program into Second Life
to make it "look" like a computer game, but it wouldn't be enough
to meet the definition of a game. It is important to acknowledge
that aesthetics aren't just about visual appearance; they engage
all of the senses. Think sound, think touch.
One of the most oft overlooked aspects of gamification is the
story. In my opinion, it's the make-or-break element. Games enable
players to take part in stories and influence the outcome. The
story is your games reason for being - your problem to be solved.
The problem needs to be big enough to warrant a story and it needs
to appeal to people's curiosity.
Indeed, games often give players the opportunity to do something
that perhaps they couldn't in real life. Therefore, we typically
expect a game's story to be something epic or larger-than-life in
nature. This doesn't need to go into the world of complete fantasy,
however. Increasingly, games are becoming more appealing because of
their link into real world scenarios, such as Facebook's social
games in which participants compete against actual friends.
Or consider a health and safety program. Previously, the course
would most likely have been a somewhat dull, preachy, common sense,
information dump. Throw that idea in the trash and start with a
new, gamified premise: a quest to save a life. Now that's a story.
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, such as scoring
points, achieving specific levels of play, accessing cash, awarding
badges, and so on. These are the measures by which players 'win.'
Unfortunately, there abounds a level of confusion about mechanics
and their presence as an intrinsic or extrinsic motivator. When
mechanics are tied implicitly to a game and hold only an endogenic
value (meaning something that only holds great value inside the
game), they can be seen as a part of the intrinsic motivation
mechanism. Monopoly money is the classic example. When you play the
game, Monopoly money is vital. When you aren't playing Monopoly,
you couldn't care less about its money.
For example, achieving badges within a game is an intrinsic
mechanic, as long as there remains an endogenic value for them. If
the badges are of no significance within the game and are used as a
basis to reward behavior outside of gameplay, they have become an
extrinsic motivator and have no real place in your gamified
learning. When people play a game to reach some external goal, they
are going to lose interest in the game itself.
Be careful with your mechanics and don't let anyone use them as a
basis to extrinsically reward behavior. Mechanics help a player to
evaluate their competence within the game environment. Don't be
tricked into using the same measures to evaluate their competence
in real world skills.
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 implementation of innovative and new
technology. How you use technology will play into the ability of
players to solve problems and the attitude with which they approach
Deploying your solution on an X-Box is an obvious path to getting
people thinking about the experience in a playful attitude - it is
on a games console, therefore it is a game. Apps for smartphones
offers a nice middle ground; less formal than traditional
courseware offered through an, but more flexible than a games
What is important is that your technology enables sufficient
participation for players to influence the outcome. If players
can't interact with the system or other players, then your
technology is going to fail you. Social learning platforms have a
big role to play here as both systems of consumption and
Games come in many forms
Often, people are quick to judge what qualifies as a game based on
just one of these pillars. But the pillars in isolation are really
never enough to qualify a learning offering as a game. It is the
combination of the pillars that constitutes the true game
Because the industry still lacks a grand unified theory of "games,"
gamification is a difficult concept to get your head around.
However, it is safe to assume that gamification requires an
appreciation of all four pillars. Without this appreciation, it
seems likely that your new gamified learning experience won't be as
well received as it might be.
Simply slapping the "game" badge on your latest learning offering
will not suffice. Be sure to use endogenic mechanics, a compelling
storyline, suitable aesthetics, and the most appropriate technology
to gamify your learning - and you're off to a good start!
Ben Betts is managing director of
HT2, creators of innovative learning technologies.