Gamification In eLearning: Obstacles And Opportunities

Learning Through Gamification: Obstacles And Opportunities
Summary: Does gamification fit your learning strategy? Here's everything you need to know, backed by research and real-life examples.

How To Master Gamification For Learning

This article describes gamification, outlines its benefits and possible drawbacks backed by research, explains its psychological foundations, presents successful instances in client and employee settings, and offers guidance for creating your gamification strategy.

What Is Gamification?

Gamification involves incorporating game elements into non-game contexts. It's distinct from "game-based learning," [1] which uses play for educational goals. For instance, awarding a badge for consistent app use is gamification, while using word games to teach a language is game-based learning.

These ideas have historical roots; ancient leaders played chess for strategy, Scouts earned badges for skills, and young animals practiced hunting through play. Nowadays, both gamification and game-based learning are widespread, seen in schools [2], gamification in corporations, and even in the military [3].

How Does Gamification Work?

Grounded in human psychology, this approach functions through three mechanisms:

1. Goal Achievement

Badges, levels, and leaderboard positions serve as clear and reachable objectives. That elevates learners' expectations, enhancing motivation and performance. Attaining goals brings satisfaction, propelling individuals toward fresh accomplishments. A byproduct is completionism, observed in the Aalto University study, where students aimed for a 100% grade despite 90% sufficing. That pursuit of maximum results is a form of gamification—each percent becomes a point, as the authors suggest.

2. Social Interaction And Competition

Innately, humans seek recognition and acceptance from peers. Gamified settings tap into these motivations through features like leaderboards and open profiles showcasing achievements, directly bolstering learning effectiveness. Yet, competition is nuanced. Some naturally chase the leaderboard's peak, while others are content with a spot among top learners. Conversely, a few find it discouraging. Context plays a crucial role in determining individual responses, as mentioned earlier.

3. Utility And User-Friendliness

When a system enhances performance ("perceived usefulness") and operates smoothly ("ease of use"), its value is amplified. A skillfully gamified educational program aligns with these criteria, enticing learners to invest more time in it.

Common Gamification Techniques

Numerous game design elements apply to eLearning. Here, we highlight the top five. It's important to ensure users retain their earned rewards to prevent demotivation.

1. Storytelling

Incorporating a narrative enhances user motivation [4]. That could involve tasks like progressing towards launching a rocket to the moon, each step edging the learner closer to success, or a more intricate story with conflict, setting, and well-developed characters.

2. Levels

Similar to character progression in role-playing games, users in eLearning software can advance levels by accumulating experience. For instance, reaching 100 points might elevate a user to level 2. These levels can tailor challenge difficulty to learners and showcase their skills and commitment.

3. Points

Upon assignment completion, learners are rewarded with a designated number of points. These serve as a clear measure of a user's advancement.

4. Achievement Badges

Acknowledging specific actions such as consistent study or thorough preparation, users can earn badges to commemorate their accomplishments.

5. Leaderboard

Addressing our desire for status and social validation, a leaderboard can notably motivate naturally competitive learners. However, it's crucial to employ this feature solely for positive reinforcement; introducing "loser boards" can be disheartening.

Benefits Of Gamification In Learning

The University of Tampere, Finland, conducted a study on gamification's impact on learning. Their analysis of existing research revealed predominantly positive results, though some caveats were identified (explained further ahead).

1. Enhanced Learning

Gamification boosts learning results, as demonstrated by various instances. In a study at the University of Alcala, a gamified approach was integrated into the "Qualifications for users of ICT" course. That involved leaderboards, personal stats, 36 challenge achievements, and 7 participation achievements. Students achieving at least 6 of these attained notably higher final scores compared to those using the non-gamified version.

Furthermore, digital learning did not hinder traditional studying: "No evidence suggests that gamified experiences result in poorer written exam outcomes or hinder classroom engagement." Another study demonstrated that the gamification group outperformed in error-free exercise completion [5], although overall test scores only slightly surpassed the control group. However, the paper's authors highlighted that grades capture only a portion of the picture, excluding assessments of knowledge retention and skill application.

2. Enhanced Motivation

Research reveals that gamification amplifies the drive to learn. In the study [5] by the University of Aalto researchers, 74% of participants experienced heightened motivation, with one describing, "I felt like I was in a car game. It's surprising how much I wanted to unlock them (the badges)." That aligns with the finding that gamified students invested more time in studying—13.4 hours compared to the control group's 11.4 hours. An almost 15% increase holds significant value.

Interestingly, badges awarded for timely assignment submission effectively addressed typical student procrastination. Another examination [4] of published gamification studies also highlighted that the presence of game elements heightened people's motivation to learn.

3. Enjoyment

Although measuring enjoyment is challenging, it yields tangible outcomes. Folding virus proteins isn't a typical pastime, yet when gamified through Foldit, enthusiastic players solved a 15-year-old biochemical puzzle in just three weeks. The mentioned studies also confirm that all papers highlighted heightened engagement and enjoyment.

Challenges Of Gamification In Learning

Gamification's diverse nature contributes to the risks associated with its application.

1. Learner Engagement Needed

Occasionally, integrating game elements led to unfavorable outcomes. Professor Ethan Mollick of Wharton studied "Slam-Dunk," a basketball-themed sales game that rewarded sales-related actions. Results revealed that although beneficial for many, some participants were deterred, even experiencing setbacks [6] in their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

The key factor was consent: Players who willingly engaged found success, while those who resisted felt negative about their jobs and company. Without consent, a company's attempts to create "mandatory fun," as described by Mollick, could become challenging.

2. Potential Misaligned Motivation

This risk has two sides. First, well-intended incentives might backfire. Second, the drive to learn could shift to chasing badges or leaderboard status, harming actual knowledge retention. In the Aalto University study mentioned earlier, the "early bird" badges prompted students to shift from last-minute assignment submissions to completing tasks hastily as soon as they could—even before the topics were covered in class.

The badge for error-free first attempts on assignments didn't effectively encourage thorough study, as making a single mistake resulted in losing the badge and its incentive to avoid revisions. In these instances, the authors highlight the necessity for a more thoughtful badge approach to stimulate the intended behavior. Other researchers [7] emphasize that points and badges might offer superficial extrinsic motivation. This shift of focus from learning outcomes to reward acquisition can undermine knowledge retention.

3. Need For Further Research

Compared to certain fields, gamification has been relatively under-researched. Prof. Jonna Koivisto explained [6] that she reviewed around 800 studies, but only 300 were grounded in empirical data. Consequently, there's limited certainty about what strategies are effective due to this lack of comprehensive research.

How To Succeed In Gamification For Learning

Professors Armstrong and Landers, seasoned in gamification, recommend commencing with the proven ADDIE approach: Assess needs, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. Begin by identifying the pain points gamification should resolve. Once problems are recognized and goals established, you'll have a clear program direction. That might also guide you toward alternative ways to enhance your eLearning approach.

Deloitte experts advise tailoring your strategy to match the player types within your organization. Considering your corporate culture, diverse personalities with varying motivations might be present: from those who relish content exploration, to competition enthusiasts, and those aiming for perfect achievement.

Jeanne C. Meister, an HR company partner, and Harvard Business Review contributor, suggests creating a monitoring plan for your gamification strategy. Establish Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) like engagement level and completion rate, set benchmarks, and implement analysis methods to gauge the program's success in attaining desired outcomes.


[1] Gamification Versus Game-Based Learning: What Suits Your Business?

[2] Serious Play Conference 2011: Microsoft's 'Productivity Games'

[3] NPS Students Teach CyberOps Fundamentals Through Gaming

[4] Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification

[5] The Effect of Achievement Badges on Students’ Behavior: An Empirical Study in a University-Level Computer Science Course

[6] People Love Games — but Does Gamification Work?

[7] Gamification of employee training and development: Gamification of employee training

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