Picture this scenario: you’re a construction worker with years of experience that just accepted a job at a new company. When you arrive to start your first shift, your boss explains that you need to complete a workplace safety course as part of their standard onboarding processes. While you understand that there are good reasons why you should take the course, you can’t help but wonder why you have to waste your time completing yet another safety course when you’ve already repeated the same course multiple times throughout your career. You get ready to view the same boring PowerPoint presentation that you’ve seen countless times before.
Safety in any work situation is very important. If a student isn’t engaged or is complacent about learning safety training material, it can lead to serious accidents. Considering the above scenario, how can companies provide a learning environment that engages workers, even if they have a lot of experience or might already be familiar with some of the course content? That’s where gamification comes in.
Think of three games you like to play. What do they all have in common? What makes a game fun and enjoyable to play? Imagine taking the elements of a game and integrating it within an online course, making the experience of learning the material fun and engaging. When people are having fun and are invested in learning, they tend to be better at retaining that information. Let’s explore how gamification works and how it can improve learning outcomes in online courses.
What is Gamification?
Gamification is the use of game elements to increase interaction and enhance learning for non-game situations. Picture a firefighter having to virtually put out a fire, or a worker having to react to a virtual dangerous chemical leak and having to choose from several options on what to do next. These virtual tasks can benefit students that are both newer to the industry or workplace and experienced ones. With gamification, a learner might have to complete certain challenges in order to collect items or progress to the next level within the course, which encourages them to continue. When done well, gamification can increase enjoyment, motivation, and learning.
Typically, games involve some form of these common elements:
- A goal (for example, getting a higher score than your opponent)
- A game mechanic (the main activity—for example, making the best choice out of a series of dialogue options to move forward, or navigating a character through a maze)
- Competition (either between players, with oneself, or against a computer) Rules (for example, letters must form real words)
- Feedback (about one’s progress towards the goal)
Gamification interventions can be most effective when they target the processes that can improve learning, rather than targeting learning directly (Landers & Landers, 2014). For example, the amount of time spent on a task and repeated practice sessions are associated with task mastery, so gamification elements might be used to increase learners’ enjoyment, engagement, and motivation to stay on task and increase their practice time.
An important factor to remember about gamification is that students must have the ability to fail and see the consequences of those mistakes. A course shouldn’t give a reward for simply completing the content. On the other hand, failing shouldn’t force the student to redo the last action over and over until they get it correct. Instead, gamification can give the student the opportunity to understand the potential consequences of a mistake and recover from it on their own. Giving the student the ability to figure things out on their own not only makes the content more engaging but can also be used to introduce more complex and nuanced scenarios. The ability to build understanding through direct interaction with a situation is one of the strengths of games that traditional content delivery struggles to realize.
How does Gamification Improve Learning?
Gamification may be a trendy topic in corporate training but moving past trends toward learning enhancement requires an understanding of different types of gamification associated with different outcomes. Nicholson (2015) noted that when the primary goal of gamification is to benefit an organization, it is more likely to involve rewards, and will have limited long-term impacts on players.
However, when gamification is focused on benefiting the player, outcomes such as intrinsic motivation and long-term behaviour change are more likely. Increased motivation and long-term behaviour change leads to the player being able to apply what they learned in a more purposeful way.
What are the different types of Gamification?
If there is a clear match between learning outcomes and the “game mechanic” or core activity in the online course, it can improve learner retention and create relatable and repeatable learning experiences. This is known as content gamification—where the content is altered to make it more game-like (Kapp, 2013). For example, if the learning outcome is time management, the game mechanic could be creating a schedule for the learner’s favourite fictional character. If the learning outcome is critical thinking and decision making in a hostage crisis, the game mechanic could be choosing different paths in a hostage story and showing the outcomes of effective and ineffective decisions. Correct processes are reinforced with the use of the right game mechanic. Content gamification can be very time consuming, but it often results in deeper engagement and opportunities for transformative learning.
Structural gamification—applying game elements to propel learners through the content—is often used in cases where learners are not highly motivated to engage with the content on their own (Kapp, 2013). Rewarding participation with things like points and badges can enhance performance for tasks that require little original thought and are about following rules. However, rewards should be used with caution, as performance will likely decrease when the rewards stop.
Meaningful gamification is focused on helping learners find personal connections to enhance motivation for long-term behaviour change. This often involves content gamification – but could also include aspects of structural gamification.
Nicholson (2015) described six elements of meaningful gamification, grounded in self-determination theory—a theory of motivation:
- Play – Optional, flexible, outside of the real world. Freedom to explore and try new things, within boundaries.
- Exposition – Stories connecting players to the real-world setting.
- Choice – Giving power back to the player. Providing multiple ways to learn content and express mastery of content.
- Information – Helping players better understand the real-world context through game design and game display.
- Engagement – Social engagement with other people or engaging game play experience (“flow”).
- Reflection – Debriefing. Helping players connect their learning experience to other interests, past experiences, and real-world applications.
By understanding the different types of gamification and how they can be applied to learning outcomes, our instructional designers can design online courses that students enjoy.
Using Game Mechanics to Enhance eLearning
Finding new and interesting ways to keep learners engaged is always a challenge for anyone who teaches or develops course content. If a student has fun while they are learning something new, it has positive benefits like increased knowledge retention and greater connection with the course material. Everyone likes being entertained, and when you can combine entertainment with learning to more effectively train students, staff, and workers, everyone wins.
Kapp, K. (2013, March 25). Two Types of #Gamification [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://karlkapp.com/two-types-of-gamification/
Landers, R. N., & Landers, A. K. (2014). An empirical test of the theory of gamified learning: The effect of leaderboards on time-on-task and academic performance. Simulation & Gaming, 45(6), 769-785.
Nicholson, S. (2015). A RECIPE for Meaningful Gamification. In Wood, L & Reiners, T., eds. Gamification in Education and Business, New York: Springer. Available online at https://scottnicholson.com/pubs/recipepreprint.pdf