Gamification Design Elements For Learning

Gamification = Motivation

In my ATD@Work 2020 publication, Game Thinking: From Content to Actions [1], you’ll find the fundamentals about how to play and analyze games ("deliberate play") to be able to use their elements in your learning design. This article is a supplemental add-on to kick start your creative brainstorming on how to use game and gamification design elements in learning design.

Before you explore the various ideas, keep in mind the following guidelines for "gamifying" learning:

  • Do not start with gamification or games
    Start with business goals; performance goals and objectives; actions and decisions people need to make; barriers that hold them back; and, learning objectives that address them. Engagement and motivation only come after.
  • Gamification is not about playing games
    It’s about motivating people to do something. Therefore, you must know that “something” before you can think about gamification. That is why you start with desired behaviors, actions, and decisions.
  • Don’t motivate people to take an irrelevant course
    Measuring course completions of irrelevant courses is a waste of time. Using gamification in irrelevant courses may completely backfire.
  • Use gamification to motivate people in an authentic context
    Don't try to "trick" people to learn, instead motivate them to practice those actions that will directly help them on the job in an authentic context.
  • Be careful with motivation
    Even with good intentions, your design can have unintended consequences. For example, rewarding comments with points might seem to be a good idea to motivate social interaction, but I’ll show you later on how it can turn into a disaster.

Balanced Gamification

Using gamification elements in learning design may increase the target audience’s engagement and motivation. However, your design must be balanced. For example, if you rely on competition solely, you may alienate a good portion of your audience that is more collaborative or socially driven. That is because not everyone is motivated by the same thing you are. Therefore, different people react to the same design element in a different way:

Furthermore, the freeform feedback collected from the participants in several of the studies contained isolated comments where certain motivational affordances (which otherwise received positive comments) were felt as negative (such as ones encouraging competition), lending credence to the idea that different player types experience the same affordances differently. [3]

Approach gamification design as a system design by carefully balancing out the different elements so most people can find something in your design that resonates. That's why implementing only points, badges, and leaderboard elements may increase engagement in the short run because of novelty. However, for long-term behavior change, they may only motivate those who thrive in a competitive environment. What about other types of users?

Marczewski’s User Types

Andrzej Marczewski's work can guide you about different types of users in your design. Check out Marczewski's 6 user types for more details in his book [3]. The first 4 user types (similar to the self-determination theory [4]) are motivated by Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

  1. Socializers are motivated by relatedness. They want to interact with others and create social connections.
  2. Free Spirits are motivated by autonomy and self-expression. They want to create and explore.
  3. Achievers are motivated by mastery. They are looking to learn new things and improve themselves. They want challenges to overcome.
  4. Philanthropists are motivated by purpose and meaning. This group is altruistic, wanting to give to other people and enrich the lives of others in some way with no expectation of reward.

According to Marczewski, the motivation of the last 2 user types are less black and white.

  1. Players are motivated by rewards. They will do what is needed of them to collect rewards from a system. They are in it for themselves.
  2. Disruptors are motivated by change. In general, they want to disrupt your system, either directly or through other users, to force positive or negative changes.

For a more detailed explanation on Marczewski’s player and user types consult his book, Even Ninja Monkeys Like to Play [3]. Of course, there is a lot more behind motivation than adding gamification. Gamification without a solid understanding of motivation may not be as efficient as you would expect. Besides the self-determination theory, check out also BJ Fogg's motivation-ability-trigger/map framework [5], and Csíkszentmihályi's theory of flow. As it relates to gamification, another good source is Yu-Kai Chou's Octalysis framework.

How To Incorporate Balanced Gamification Design Into Your Learning Design

The following list of gamification design elements is based on Marczewski’s collection [3]. You’ll find the original definition by Marczewski for each element, followed by my ideas to be used in learning experience design. The first group of gamification design elements presented is generic. The rest of the elements are organized by the user type based on motivation preference: socializers, free spirits, achievers, philanthropists as basic types, as well as players and disruptors as a special type.

Note that the following gamification elements are not necessarily learning design elements. You can use them outside of learning as a reinforcement with activities directly related to actions on the job. They can work along with BJ Fogg’s prompt [5], the workplace event that triggers the behavior change.

Generic Elements

These elements are not tied to any specific player/user types. You can see that some of these elements are directly found in learning design as well.


Original: No one uses manuals anymore! Help people get used to your system with a nice tutorial or a gentle introduction to how everything works.

Learning Ideas: Anything that does not directly support learning can add additional cognitive load on the user. To minimize that potential negative effect, you must think differently about tutorials, explainers, or introductions when it comes to games and gamification. In traditional learning design, we often try to explain everything upfront: navigation, home buttons, links, icons, chapters, etc. Game thinking forces us to think in actions and context. Onboard users as part of the narrative. Give them options to jump in or get some context-sensitive nudge explaining what to do next. If your core loop does require some practice, don’t let users skip the intro, make it part of the narrative so that it feels natural. For example, set it up as the training before taking a job.


Original: Sometimes even the best people need to be pointed in the right direction. Signpost next actions to help smooth the early stages of a journey. Use Just-In-Time cues to help users who are stuck.

Learning Ideas: When designing a learning experience, think not only in space (where actions take place, what content goes where) but in time as well. A player changes over time. If you treat the player the same from the beginning to the end, you’ll end up with one of two problems: (1) too complicated beginning or (2) too easy all the way to the end. Start with signposting first as the player enters the journey. Then, you can remove those clues gradually. You can also make them optional (on/off), controlled by the player. Choice is another game element.

Loss Aversion

Original: No one likes to lose things. Fear of losing status, friends, points, achievements, possessions, progress, etc., can be a powerful reason for people to do things.

Learning Ideas: Some research shows that we care more about losing something existing than gaining something new. Experiment with the effect by using A/B testing: create two prototypes with the same content and gameplay. However, for A, the narrative can be that you start out with the maximum amount and you lose some as you go along. For B, you start out with nothing, and you’re building up, increasing your score. Does it make any difference? If you're interested in the concept of loss aversion, check out more articles on how it shapes our daily lives.


Original: Progress and feedback come in many forms and have many mechanics available. All user types need some sort of measure of progress or feedback, but some types work better than others.

Learning Ideas: This is a huge topic in itself. Showing progress visually is a must for learning. It provides a sense of where learners are in the process. Progress can be static, simply providing the visual representation of how far the learner has gone. Progress also can be dynamic by allowing the learner to interact with its UI representation. Imagine showing the past challenges on a diagram where there is a clear indication of how they performed. They can get a quick summary of what they did right and what they could’ve done better. You can even build in time travel so they can jump back and redeem themselves.


Original: Give your gamification a theme (often linked with a narrative). This can be anything from company values to werewolves. Add a little fantasy, just make sure users can make sense of it.

Learning Ideas: The theme is the invisible glue that holds together all elements in the experience. A theme provides the context in which actions and decisions make sense. Note that it does not have to always be absolutely life-like or authentic. It is more about cognitive resonance, what people do in real life rather than the exact visual or spatial circumstances. For example, if the goal is to practice matching customer needs with a product, and you’re building up mental clues that trigger a certain product, you do not need to replicate the sales store in VR (although you can if you have the resources). However, if the goal is to shelve products on the right aisle and in right place, it might be a good idea to replicate the visuals.


Original: Tell your story and let people tell theirs. Use gamification to strengthen understanding of your story by involving people. Think like a writer!

Learning Ideas: Storytelling is one of the best ways to make learning stick. If the story resonates with the audience, it provides not only a cognitive connection with the content but an emotional connection as well, which helps with recall and knowledge transfer. How to write a good story is more complex than it seems. Consider many elements of storytelling: point of view, characters, dialog, etc. For example, explore different points of view: the customer’s point of view, sales person’s point of view, or maybe from the product’s point of view (i.e., a story about a smart TV that tried to read a customer's mind in order to switch to a channel they might enjoy).

Curiosity/Mystery Box

Original: Curiosity is a strong force. Not everything has to be fully explained, a little mystery may encourage people in new directions.

Learning Ideas: Curiosity is the driving force behind life-long learning. It is the spark for engagement and motivation. We have a tendency to overexplain everything in learning so we do not provide incorrect information. This is a good intention, but it often leads to boring experiences because it never makes us think. Throw the unknown into your design! Unknown things, unfinished things, incomplete things “bother” our minds. They create tension like cliff hangers do in movies.

Having the narrative not start from the beginning is one of the easiest ways to create mystery. Movies use this trick often: you start in the middle. There’s already tension in the room between a manager and their direct reports. What happened? Who did what? How did we get here? At the same time, be careful not to frustrate people with mysteries. Unrelated distractions from the learning goals can increase the cognitive load. One way to avoid this is by providing options or choices. For example, in the beginning, you can allow people to self-select or opt-out of any of the game narrative, or give them a superpower that always has a shortcut to information they need. 

Time Pressure

Original: Reducing the amount of time people have to do things can help them focus on the problem. It can also lead to different decisions.

Learning Ideas: Using a timer or some sort of “ticking bomb” element is common in design. It creates tension. We behave differently under time pressure. Be very careful about how you use a timer. It can be detrimental to some learners. A golden rule is if the authentic task in real life does not need to be completed under time pressure, don’t do it in the learning experience. Or, if you do, use the timer as a potential bonus, rather than a punishment. You can separate the timer and the score. Performance affects the score, the timer can give the user a bonus star. You don’t need the stars, but if you’re competitive, you will do everything to gain them.


Original: Make people think about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it might affect the outcomes of the game.

Learning Ideas: Strategy is crucial in today’s VUCA environment. Change is so constant that it is impossible to memorize and follow the same old steps over and over again. Strategy is the mental model behind choosing the right steps. Learning a good strategy can help us be resilient. 


Original: When people invest time, effort, emotions, or money, they will value the outcomes all the more.

Learning Ideas: Investment works hand-in-hand with resource management. To make this work, you’ll need limited resources (time, money, attention, energy, etc.). If there’s no limit, or the limit is so high that there are no consequences for mismanagement, then gameplay won’t work. The other element with investment is uncertainty or risk. If you know exactly when and how much you need, there’s no risk, there’s no excitement. However, when you need to decide between a short- and long-term investment but you’re not sure what the future brings, you need a strategy to be successful.

User Type: Socializers


Original: Let people build close-knit guilds or teams. Small groups can be much more effective than large sprawling ones. Create platforms for collaboration but also pave the way for team-based competitions.

Learning Ideas: We often think of learning design as an individual experience tailored to a single person. In reality, most challenges are solved by more than one person. Today’s technology allows real-time data connection and analysis. What if you had a system where a “course” is not a single-person activity in an LMS but a team challenge? If this is a blended learning experience, you may use a simulated board game where the team needs to collaborate to solve problems. You may use a game engine to drive the content from an iPad or you may build in Augmented Reality in the gameplay for players to hear testimonials or access data, intranet, simulated data visualization, etc.

Social Status

Original: Status can lead to greater visibility for people, creating opportunities to create new relationships. It can also feel good. You can make use of feedback mechanics such as leaderboards and certificates.

Learning Ideas: Social status is one of the most underutilized, yet extremely powerful elements. If you ever created a competition with a leaderboard, you probably noticed that it’s always the same competitive people on top. That’s great for the top 10% of your audience. But what about others who do not care to be on the leaderboard? Social status is a different way of achieving "top performer status" by answering questions in a forum or providing help to other peers. It’s the “go-to-person” who does not need the spotlight but appreciates that peers respect them as a knowledgeable source. You can empower people and provide good information to others!


Original: Competition gives people a chance to prove themselves to others. It can be a way to win rewards, but it can also be a place where new friendships and relationships are born.

Learning Ideas: Competition is usually the first gamification element used across L&D. There are a couple of things you should keep in mind when using competition: competitive people will love it. They’re the ones who will be on top of the leaderboard. They’re the ones who want to win the prize. However, competition can backfire in several ways: it may encourage people to do what gets them on top of the leaderboard rather than what actually is desirable for the business (gaming the system). Competition driven by extrinsic motivation (win an iPad) may demotivate people who don’t win or don’t care. Competition does not have to be about competing against each other. You can race against time as a team, compete against a common competitor or a fictitious enemy.

User Type: Free Spirits


Original: Give your "free spirits" room to move and explore. If you are creating virtual worlds, consider that they will want to find the boundaries and give them something to find.

Learning Ideas: Please do not lock every element and slide in a course forcing people to listen to the audio all the way. It is like shouting "PRISONER" to your audience.

Branching Choices

Original: Let the user choose their path and destiny, from multiple learning paths to responsive narratives. Remember, a choice has to be or at least has to feel meaningful to be effective and appreciated.

Learning Ideas: Branching allows you to design elaborate interactions where a series of choices can lead the user to different paths. True branching can get complex quickly as the number of paths exponentially grows with every choice. There are several ways to tackle branching without raising unnecessary complexity. The simplest approach is a “pseudo branching,” where the narrative explains the consequences of your choice and forces you to take the right approach. This way, you lose energy, points, or health with each incorrect decision but still go through the scenarios until you run out of energy or points. Parallel paths allow for true branching, but after 2-3 choices, it collapses onto the same path and the cycle starts again. More sophisticated games are connected mini branching stories with several entry and exit points but no branching outside. (Read more about types of branching here.)

Easter Eggs

Original: Easter eggs are a fun way to reward and surprise people for just having a look around. For some, the harder they are to find, the more exciting it is!

Learning Ideas: Easter eggs pique curiosity and lead to unpredictable rewards, which is more exciting for the brain than predictable ones. Since not everyone will have the urge to find these, do not hide important information in Easter eggs that people might miss. Do not make it mandatory to find them! They can be compelling when you also have a social element such as a discussion board. Have people post or brag about what they found without revealing how. And the word spreads! What can be an Easter egg? Let’s say your course includes a senior leader’s official clip. If you’re already shooting a video, why don’t you record some personal messages that people can find? If your culture allows, use some humor—how about a quick "how it’s made" clip? What about a simple minigame? A random, hidden trivia question?

Unlockable/Rare Content

Original: Add to the feeling of self-expression and value by offering unlockable or rare content for free spirits to make use of. Link to Easter eggs and exploration as well as achievement.

Learning Ideas: Sometimes a course is locked down, meaning people must complete a topic before they move on to the next. Often this is done for the wrong reasons: to force people to see every page (assuming that seeing a slide means they learn what’s on it). When content is locked down and people are forced to listen to the audio (regardless of whether or not they already have the knowledge or skill), you’re taking away the user’s autonomy. If you do need to lock content because it is a linear process, for example, and people need to go through the process in order, you can frame it as locks and keys. You earn a "key piece of knowledge" to unlock the next topic. Use the narrative "what the key is" (knowledge, skill, attitude, etc.).

Not only content can be unlockable! For example, present challenges as scenarios to solve; the basic scenarios could be open while the advanced scenarios are locked. Combining scores/money/coins with unlockables, you can design a scavenger hunt activity where users could buy tools to unlock certain doors. By using Augmented Reality (AR), you could take this outside from the virtual world to the real world.

Creativity Tools

Original: Allow people to create their own content and express themselves. This may be for personal gain, for pleasure, or to help other people (teaching materials, levels, gears, FAQs, etc.).

Learning Ideas: Organizations often have innovative thinking in their global strategy. Innovation has lots of meaning, but overall it stems from creativity. Creativity is a new way of looking at something, seeing connections and patterns we didn’t see before. It is often unexpected. Creativity does not happen at a scheduled monthly meeting. It is not a tool you need to install. It is a way of thinking about problems. Curiosity and creativity can work magic if you allow people to use them. Think of learning as not only delivering knowledge and skills but also as facilitating problem-solving. Maybe a monthly challenge where teams or individuals can submit creative ideas on how to tackle an issue? If it gets selected for a prototype, you’ll get credit for innovation.

User Type: Achievers


Original: Challenges help keep people interested by testing their knowledge and allowing them to apply it. Overcoming challenges will make people feel like they have earned their achievement.

Learning Ideas: Challenges are not necessarily expensive and complex simulations. Think of challenges as authentic situations people face while doing their job. Every time there is an obstacle between a goal and intent in the workplace, it is a challenge. Use challenges to introduce content so it is clear what you’re trying to solve for before you get to the how. Challenges can have different levels. You may do a mandatory and optional level or basic and advanced.


Original: Different from general rewards and trophies, certificates are a physical symbol of mastery and achievement. They carry meaning, status, and are useful.

Learning Ideas: Certificates can be formal tokens of achievement at the end of a course. Customize them for each learner with their name, date, and score. Combine certificates with levels or badges to motivate people to do more. For example, if there are challenges to pass in the course to receive a certificate, people can achieve that by answering some of them (for example, 80%) correctly. This is the basic level. However, you can also gain three stars throughout the process depending on your longest streak (i.e., consecutive questions answered correctly). Some people are so motivated to get all stars that they may redo their whole challenge sequence just to get a better streak.


Original: Quests give users a fixed goal to achieve. They are often made up of a series of linked challenges, multiplying the feeling of achievement.

Learning Ideas: The difference between challenges and quests is that quests take longer to complete and may involve many challenges. Quests can be presented as a choice: select the order (if it makes sense) or complete at least 3 out of 5. Quests do not have to be in-course activities only. Imagine you take a course where you build your own quest, you’ll need to complete it in real life. At the end of the course, you download the PDF with the tasks to be completed and share it with your manager/supervisor.


Original: Levels and goals help to map a user’s progression through a system. It can be as important to see where you can go next as it is to see where you have been.

Learning Ideas: Levels are the most fundamental elements in games showing a player’s progress. Levels in learning can indicate the complexity of the challenges you’re working with, the efficiency of your skill, etc. Start with an early success: the first level should be quick and easy to complete, at the same time, don’t make it obvious. Challenge people rather than tell them what to do exactly. We often see a “training’ level as the entry point where all resources, hints, and expert advice is free. This is a sneaky way to introduce the UI instead of having the user going through slides of “how to use this course.”

Boss Battles

Original: Boss battles are a chance to consolidate everything you have learned and mastered in one epic challenge; usually signals the end of the journey and the beginning of a new one.

Learning Ideas: Be creative with this one. It does not literally mean beating your boss. The “boss” can be a fictitious enemy, a competitor, or an abstract target such as fear. Boss battles represent an end of a level, phase, or another unit. If your course is about selling, for example, you could set up “bosses” as a type of objection to overcome. The further you get into the course, the harder it is to overcome the objections.

User Type: Philanthropists


Original: Some just need to understand the meaning or the purpose of what they are doing (epic or otherwise). For others, they need to feel they are part of something greater than themselves.

Learning Ideas: Sometimes we get lost in the trenches of our everyday work. Showing the purpose and the meaning behind what we do and why we do it can help motivate people. For example, a new system will bring a lot of change: we know people resist change. Instead of just focusing on the mechanics of how to use the system, show vision, the result of the effort. Maybe it’s a patient who gets treatment, maybe it’s a busy family that can now afford to go on vacation. Whatever your company’s core values are, it should be clear how your effort contributes to the success.

Collect And Trade

Original: Many people love to collect things. Give them a way to collect and trade items in your system; this helps build relationships and feelings of purpose and value.

Learning Ideas: Collecting is one of the most versatile game design elements you can use in learning design. Collections could be features of a new product, steps of a new process, potential cybersecurity issues, etc. You can collect abstract tools such as "soft skills." Collections can represent summary items or takeaways. What if you collected people? Imagine you’re going through an onboarding where you can collect people as allies based on who you would reach out to in certain areas. First, you would build your allies online, and then contact them in person, in real life.

Trading is harder to make happen as it requires multiple players. The easiest implementation is via a face-to-face training or workshop where you use cards. Cards can then be traded between people or small groups.


Original: Allow gifting or sharing of items to other people to help them achieve their goals. Whilst a form of altruism, the potential for reciprocity can be a strong motivator.

Learning Ideas: Gifting and sharing motivate those who get more satisfaction out of helping others than winning trophies or being on the top of the leaderboard. Don’t limit your thinking in terms of items to gift or share. What about gifting or sharing someone’s time? Expertise? Tools? Tips? Best practices? A special implementation of sharing is sharing knowledge.

Sharing Knowledge

Original: For some, helping other people by sharing knowledge with them is its own reward. Build in the ability for people to answer questions and teach others.

Learning Ideas: Sharing knowledge often solves problems (or even avoids them) better, faster, and cheaper than any training initiative. Sharing does not start with a platform or technology. It starts with a supportive culture and a low-access collaboration system, which can be as simple as a corkboard in the meeting room or post-it notes on the wall. In forums, some people thrive on answering questions nobody can. Sharing their knowledge and gaining peer respect is more valuable than any leaderboard.

Players And Disruptors

Players are motivated by rewards such as points, badges, leaderboards, and prizes. They are the easiest to bring on board with a competitive challenge. They will also do their best to win, so you must carefully design game rules. You should reward behavior directly related to learning!

For example, giving points for logging into your onboarding site can result in thousands of daily logins from the same person. Put daily limits on maximum points or limit the same type of actions in a short period of time. To balance players and other types, reward behaviors that are meaningful. If someone answers a question in a forum, don't reward the answer. That can lead to meaningless responses just to get points. Reward the value of the answer. One of the best examples is, where the OP (original poster) can accept the best answer, and others can upvote and downvote all answers.

Disruptors do not want to play. They're looking for the weakest link in your design to disrupt. Use them to playtest your design! They’re motivated by breaking the system, exposing weaknesses, and gaming the system. They are the perfect quality analysts.


Use this article as a reference when designing your gamification system for learning. Again, gamification is not about making people play cute games. It is about motivating people to do something. Therefore, you must know what that "something" is. You start with the end in mind: business goals, performance goals, actions, and decisions leading to those goals, and only then (if needed at all), learning. The closer you get to authentic actions that people need on the job, the more effective your gamification motivation will be.


[1] Game Thinking: From Content to Actions

[2] Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., and Sarsa, H. (2014). Does Gamification Work? – "A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on gamification." In proceedings of the 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Hawaii, USA, January 6-9, 2014.

[3] Marczewski, A. (2015). User Types. In Even Ninja Monkeys Like to Play: Gamification, Game Thinking and Motivational Design (1st ed., pp. 65-80). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN-10: 1514745666 ISBN-13: 978-1514745663

Related research paper: Empirical validation of the Gamification User Types Hexad scale in English and Spanish by Gustavo F. Tondelloa, Alberto Morab, Andrzej Marczewski, Lennart E.Nacke

[4] Self-Determination Theory

[5] The key to make positive habits