Psychology & Technology: 4 Ways to Engage Learners With Gamification

Gamified learning has been in the public eye for a while now. The term was coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, a programmer, but most most people probably became aware of gamification around 2010, when businesses started adding gamification to things like reward systems. It quickly became a buzzword when companies began adding game elements to their products and websites to attract and retain  customers.

In case you’re not up on gamified learning, gamification is the use of game elements — points, for example — in activities that are not games. In the case of workforce e-learning, gamification most often takes the form of adding points, badges, and leaderboards to courses. If a learner completes a module, they get a certain number of points. If they complete a certain number of modules, they’ve earned a badge.

However, gamification can take other forms as well, including simulations, augmented reality, or ARGs (Alternate Reality Games).

Why is gamification important in workforce training?

For one thing, games can function as a laboratory, where players can be free to fail with no consequences. In customer service or compliance simulations, for example, a learner can mess up as many times as it takes for them to learn the correct response. (Customers in real life are seldom that forgiving.)

Gamification is also a powerful motivator that uses tricks from the gaming world to keep learners coming back to complete modules, without prompting from a manager. As Gabe Zichermann, a gamification expert and author has said, gamification is “75 percent psychology and 25 percent technology.”

At its core, gamification keeps learners coming back for more by offering them rewards, a chance to compete against themselves or others, and recognition. Those are powerful psychological motivators. Here four ways you can put gamification to work for you and your e-learning.

  1. Achievement Unlocked: Badging and Motivation

Badges are digital, visual representations of a learner’s achievements; a badge might be earned for completing certain activities, or for logging a certain number of hours, or for earning a certain number of points. In any case, badges function as both a reward for completing activities, and as an outward sign of a learner’s accomplishments.

For people who like to strive towards goals, collect trophies and show off their accomplishments — and that’s most of us — badges can be a great motivator.

Researchers have found that badges do influence players’ behavior; one study  that focused on Stack Overflow, a community site for developers that uses badges, found that when badges were associated with a certain level of activity on the site, users would increase their activity to that level in order to get the badge. Another study found that gamers would play games in a more challenging way in order to unlock an achievement.

How might that look in L&D? A learner might complete an extra module or two in a day if that means they’ll get a badge. Or they might be motivated to take different kinds of courses if it means they’ll get a badge for each area of study.

2. Beating Your Own Best Score

Often, points are not themselves motivators. Unless they are associated with something of value, they’re just a number. Points become a valuable tool, however, when they are used to measure performance.

A performance graph is a visual representation of a learner’s progress. It’s a way for a gamified platform to give a learner information about their own performance over time. Players can use that information to see how they’ve been learning, and according to research, performance graphs motivate learners to improve their performance and master certain skills.

This approach to mastery is often used by educators — teachers will use performance graphs to show students that they’re this close to honors, for example — but player stats are also used in gaming. Overwatch, a first person team-based shooter, uses a graph to show players how they are doing individually, and how their team is doing. Seeing the stats shows teams and players where they need to improve.

L&D can use the same approach to encourage learners to compete against themselves.

3. Ready Player Two

Competing against yourself is fine, but nothing motivates some learners like a chance to compete against others. That’s where leaderboards come in.

What is a leaderboard? If you’re old enough (or you’ve watched Stranger Things) you remember arcade games. After a game of, say, Donkey Kong ended, the screen showed a list of the top players’ names and their point totals. That was the leaderboard, and it was very motivating for the top few players, who were always putting more coins into the machine to either beat the top player or maintain their high score.

Leaderboards work the same way in L&D. A publically displayed-leaderboard shows who has been logging in to the LMS and learning learning the most. In certain conditions, leaderboards can be powerful motivators: if for example, a player just needs a few more points to move up to the next slot, or if there is a friendly rivalry between two players.

It’s important to note that leaderboards are mostly motivating for the top point getters. According to Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, the authors of For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, leaderboards shouldn’t be used on their own because they can be demotivators for people who find themselves far behind the “winners” and give up.

That brings us to the last point…

4. No One Wants To Be A Loser

It’s not just the top of the leaderboard or the badges motivating employees. If their badges and points are made public, team members will be just as motivated to not be at the bottom of the leaderboard. No one wants to look like a slacker in front of the whole team.

The truth is, however, that if you use a leaderboard, someone will always be at the bottom of it. The fact that there will always be a low scorer isn’t a bad thing, however. It’s an opportunity for engagement.

Even if a leaderboard isn’t public, managers can look at their own data and see which learners don’t have many points, and haven’t collected many badges. They can then use that information as a springboard for an in-person discussion. There may be a good reason the employee isn’t engaging well with their training.

A low point total can help the manager start that conversation.