Gamification vs. Gamified Learning

The word ˜Gamification’ has been flying around the realm of education and employee engagement for at least a few years now, but for many it remains a curious buzzword. It’s practically become a new panacea for training and learning that, with just a few Google searches, becomes clear that it may not be performing as well as expected. Your employees don’t care about their mandatory training? “Let’s throw some gamification on it. But what is gamification, and why isn’t it being used that well?

In short, gamification is taking any sort of learning and making it progressional, so much so that there are tiny achievements (in the form of badges, points or awards) placed at regular intervals. It breaks up learning into smaller chunks where for every 5 minutes or single page of work a user gets through, they get something as a reward. The award doesn’t actually matter, but rather it gives a small sense of achievement, a small bit of positive reinforcement that coerces the learner to want to get the next little achievement. They may level up, get a badge, or gain a skill point. The form the reward takes is not of particular importance. What must be clear is that the achievement they’ve received is a smaller part of a larger scheme–they got a bronze badge, and if they get 3 bronze badges it becomes a silver badge, and so on. These kinds of incentives tend to motivate people to stick with learning longer than they might have without any kind of progression system. This is the exact type of system that video games and table-top role-playing games have used for decades: people just seem to want to get to that next level, even if the only difference is a change in what their character wears.

These tiny achievements are called ˜threshold effects,’ where they give just enough of an award to keep us going, but not to feel fully satisfied yet. This can be used as a great way to get learners to stick with the curriculum, especially with self-directed learning, or content that is particularly dry. The problem is that gamification isn’t always a positive and productive addition to elearning. Learning for the sake of feeding that tiny addiction doesn’t necessarily mean that learners are actually learning any better. Retention and understanding can actually decrease when instead of trying to learn the content fully, learners become more focused on superficial achievements. More people may finish their training, but fewer may fully comprehend or retain the information.

While gamification remains an industry-wide buzzword, the idea of ˜gamified learning’ still remains a bit of an insider’s secret weapon. Where gamification is often a band-aid for poor learning outcomes or completion rates, gamified learning is an attempt to stop the damage from happening in the first place. Gamified learning starts from the ground up, in that the content itself needs to be developed with the idea of making the process of learning game-like in any broad sense. Games are fun, and people pay more attention when something is fun, it’s that simple.

Ralph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun Game Design, writes, “Fun is just another word for learning, and he’s right–discovering news skills or knowledge and then putting those things into practice is the basis of virtually every type of game in the world. Because of this, gamified learning is as much an approach to instructional design as it is to elearning development: design the content to be discovery-based learning, where learners need to actively interact with the content in order to uncover new information, and must demonstrate that learning through small tasks and assessments. When learners have a vested interest in completing interactions, you end up with a something that is both a game and an educational course.

Matt Devlin

Matt Devlin

Elearning Developer at Learnkit
Matt is an Elearning Developer at Learnkit with over five years of experience producing instructional multimedia, assessing technology needs, and implementing custom solutions. He previously held instructional technology support and development positionsat both Ryerson University and the University of Western Ontario. He has a Master of Arts in Media Studies from the University of Western Ontario, and has taken continuing education in both project management and elearning.
Matt Devlin

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