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Gamification: Using Game Mechanics to Enhance eLearning

By Rick Raymer / September 2011

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Maybe you've heard of the term "gamification," and perhaps you're wondering what it is and how it can be applied to eLearning. In short, gamification is the use of gameplay mechanics for non-game applications. Almost as important, as a definition of what it is, is a definition of what it's not. Gamification is not the inclusion of stand-alone games in eLearning (or, whatever gamification is being applied to). It also has very little to do with art-styles, themes, or the application of narrative. Rather, game mechanics are the construct of rules that encourage users to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms. With gamification, these "possibility spaces" have been expanded beyond just games into other areas like marketing, education, the workplace, social media, philanthropy, and the Web, just to name a few. As a game designer now making eLearning software, I've found that much of what is used to build engagement in games can also be applied to other interactive material such as eLearning.

In the 15 years I've been making video games, a frequently discussed topic in the game industry has been on ways to engage users; a theme that I've found is enthusiastically discussed in the eLearning space. Since the primary reason to apply gamification to eLearning is to engage learners, the focus of this article is on describing gameplay mechanics that have been proven to be engaging.

What is Engagement?

First though, let's talk about engagement in a general sense. For our purposes, I am defining engagement as simply "occupying the attention or efforts of a person." This seems pretty straightforward, but I think a more pertinent question is, when does engagement occur? I first heard this specific question addressed in Tom Chatfield's TED talk on "7 Ways Games Reward the Brain," where he states that engagement occurs when the brain is rewarded, and that for something to be perceived as rewarding, it must evoke positive emotions in a person. Essentially, there are two components to the perception of something being rewarding: wanting and liking. Without both wanting and liking, people won't find something rewarding. For instance, if somebody wants a job, but doesn't like it, they won't find it rewarding. Conversely, when somebody gets to a point where they are willing to admit that their addictive behaviors are problematic, they are at a point where they like the effect of the addictive substance or behavior, but they no longer want it. An addict will always like whatever they are addicted to, but when they can acknowledge it as an addiction, they will often struggle with wanting it, and therefore, no longer find the addictive substance or behavior to be rewarding. Dr. Kent Berridge, a University of Michigan neuroscientist, has studied this concept of wanting and liking being necessary components of a rewarding perception. In fact, he has found that wanting and liking occur in two separate parts of the brain, and he is looking for ways to utilize this in the treatment of addictions. So, for the purposes of developing engaging eLearning, we need to look at how we are rewarding our learner's brains by giving them compelling reasons to want the material, and to work on developing systems that they will like.

If we are going to focus on developing software that our users want and like, it's essential that we know and understand our audience, not just the subject matter. I would suggest that you research the brands, hobbies, and media (television, films, games, websites, etc.) that your target audience enjoys. This should give you a better idea of the aesthetics and interactions that your learners like and want. In addition, if you are designing material that is branded, make sure that you don't stray from the brand's identity and that you also become familiar with the brand's target audience if it's different than the demographic of the end user. These brands have spent a lot of time and money tailoring an image, and you should respect it.

Let's get to some specific game mechanics that can help to make your eLearning more engaging.

Setting Goals and Objectives

This topic covers the overall structure of an interactive product, rather than individual achievements that learners can earn (rewards are discussed later in this article). Games are generally structured so that players have various "layers" of goals. That is, they have the long-term goal of completing the game, the medium-term goal of completing the levels in the game, and the short-term goal of completing the missions in the levels. (Sometimes these missions are even broken up further into additional tasks.) Generally, the requirements of each goal "layer" in a game get increasingly harder as you move from short-term to long-term goals. That is, the final challenge in a game (sometimes called the "boss battles") will always be harder than the short-term missions. This allows players in games to learn and practice skills, prior to having to demonstrate mastery of those skills in the most challenging parts of the game.

Similarly, when designing eLearning material to minimize cognitive fatigue, instructional designers should break up their products into short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. For instance, before completing a course learners must complete several modules. To complete a module, several topics must be completed. In order to complete a topic, several objectives must be finished. And finally, each objective requires several goals to be completed. Structuring your eLearning this way, allows users to learn new skills incrementally, and then practice those skills before demonstrating mastery of those skills in assessment exercises. This increases the likelihood that learners will remain in the "flow" state Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

If your eLearning material is setup for your users to navigate through it linearly, you could visualize your goal structure this way (see Figure 1):

Figure 1: Linear Flow of Goals. (Adapted from an illustration by Sebastian Deterding)

With the exception of casual games, most modern games follow a nonlinear progression. Casual games, such as Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies (PvZ) are typically distinguished by simple rules and a lack of required commitment. Nonlinear progression gives the player choices in how they proceed through the game. In many cases, these games are setup in what's called a "hub" system. The reason for this name is because if you imagine a wagon wheel, the center, or hub (sometimes referred to as the overworld, a carryover from "dungeon crawlers" like Diablo where players emerged from underground to access other dungeons), represents the area where all other areas are accessed. The spokes of the wagon wheel represent the connections to all other areas. In some cases, the areas represented on the rim of the wheel can be used to access other adjacent areas. In some games, if players progress from area to area around the "rim" of the wheel, rather than returning to the "hub" between areas, the experience can actually feel rather linear. You could visualize this type of nonlinear structure this way (see Figure 2):

Figure 2: Nonlinear Goal Progression

In the preceding illustration (Figure 2), any of the solid lines could be eliminated, as long as there is some other line connecting to a point.

Giving your learner choices by designing nonlinear eLearning can help engage your user. However you'll need to be aware that designing software that allows for this type of flexibility drastically adds to the complexity of the development.

I mentioned "flow" state earlier. Below is the diagram commonly used to illustrate this (see Figure 3):

Figure 3: Flow Channel

Essentially, as the challenge of an experience rises, the skill of the participant must also grow in direct proportion. If a user's skill exceeds the challenge of the experience, they will become bored. And, if the challenge exceeds the participant's skill, they will suffer anxiety. In the graph, an optimal user experience is illustrated in the "Flow Channel" as the squiggly line. This line demonstrates the experience described above where a user is challenged to a high degree with new experiences, and then given an opportunity to demonstrate and master the skill of that experience, before given a completely new challenge to conquer.

In games, the flow channel of the game challenges could be illustrated this way (see Figure 4):

Figure 4: Flow Channel for Games

Generally in games, players are given goals and objectives that get increasingly more difficult as they approach a boss battle (analogous to a test), which occur at the end of levels (similar to modules or sections in eLearning). The challenge of the boss battle is almost always higher than any of the challenges presented prior to it. After a boss battle, the challenge of the goals and objectives that the player is given don't ramp up, rather the player is given the opportunity to master their skills before the challenge ramps again prior to the next boss battle. This keeps the player in the flow channel, thus engaging them in the experience.

With eLearning, the structure of challenges needs to be different than in games.

Figure 5: Flow Channel for eLearning

With learning, the challenge is ramped up immediately after an assessment with the introduction of new material. The learner is presented with new material, which gets increasingly more complex. They are then given a chance to master those new challenges as their skills increase, and after that they are given an assessment that demonstrates the knowledge of that material.

Provide Frequent Feedback

Have you ever used an interactive product, be it eLearning, a game, or a website, and felt lost or confused? It happens to everybody, and it's really frustrating. Maybe you are asked to recall some information that you swear you were never told (or, that you were previously told and you've just forgotten), and you don't even know where to look to find it. Perhaps you didn't know how to progress; you don't know what to do, where to go, or you simply can't find a UI item like a button. Or, maybe you find out that there's an assumption that you need some prerequisite knowledge or experience to even understand the basic principles of what you're doing, and you had no idea you needed this, and you have no idea where to get that knowledge or experience.

As a designer, your job is to make your users feel smart or clever. Especially if what you're designing is a learning exercise. If a learner feels lost or confused, you're essentially telling them that they're stupid, and you're not doing your job as a designer.

With navigation users should know exactly what they need to do next, or what options they have available to them at any given moment in an eLearning product. When you're looking at the screen at any point in your product, take a moment to ask yourself, "If my learner walked away from their computer for several hours, would they know what to do when they returned?" If you look at your eLearning navigation in this light, it's a little easier to find systems that keep your user informed of what to do.

To support information transference, provide links back to essential information previously referenced in your learning or links to supplemental material that is prerequisite knowledge for the current learning. During assessments, explain why answers are correct or incorrect, or provide links to where the appropriate information can be found. Never just say, "That's wrong. Try again."

Measure Progress

An important part of providing feedback to users in games or eLearning is to let them know how much progress they've made. There are many ways to represent this, but the most effective are always represented graphically. Use progress bars instead of percentages or fractions, and feel free to get creative with the visual representation of the bar. For instance, you could use an outline of a head, and as you complete the eLearning exercises, the outline fills in with a graphic of a brain.

It's also important to measure progress at multiple levels. If your eLearning course consists of several modules, and within each module there are several topics, show progress at each of these levels. This can even be done in the same progress bar. For instance, if your course has five modules, you could initially show five star outlines to represent incomplete modules. As the learner completes the topics in each module, the star representing the current module would begin to fill up to a solid color. That way, you're showing progress within the module with each star, and total progress in the course with each filled star.

Something to note on progress bars, you don't necessarily need to display them continuously. In fact, if you show them only when progress is made (when the progress bar changes) the learner's advancement through your eLearning can feel more like a reward (especially if it's displayed with some fanfare), and ultimately the progress bar is more effective. However, if you do this, users should be able to access the progress bar somewhere at any time (perhaps in a top-level, or pause menu).

Character Upgrades

One of the most effective ways to show progress in games is through character upgrades. Look at the characters below (see Figure 6), and it's pretty easy to see the general progress that a player would make with these characters.

Figure 6: Character Upgrades (Image courtesy of Mike Henry of Big Menace Industries.)

For now, this isn't as easy to replicate in eLearning, though I'm hoping someday we'll have better tools to take advantage of this powerful measure of progress. I like to use virtual coaches in eLearning. So, I'd love to have a system that allows learners to earn new virtual coach characters, outfits, and accessories, after completing sections or modules; and they are also given the option to choose the virtual coach that is used in their eLearning along with the option to dress that coach. This character upgrade scenario sets up the basis for a system where users are given virtual goods and characters that they want, and they get to change them in the way they like, which as stated at the beginning of this article are the main components of rewards that engage learners. I believe this system would tap into our natural instinct to collect stuff, and would be an effective motivator to engage learners.

Reward Effort (not just success)

Earlier I suggested highlighting progress bars whenever the learner advances through your eLearning—this is a type of reward. Even though it takes no extraordinary effort on the part of the user to make progress, people generally want to be acknowledged for their work. And if it's presented in a way which is interesting, your learners will feel rewarded, and thus, engaged. One hundred small rewards are better than one big one. However, you should try to scale the reward in proportion to the effort, or risk, that it takes to get the reward. For instance, if you used an animated fireworks graphic to congratulate a learner for a perfect score on a test, you wouldn't want to use that same graphic to recognize that they entered their name into a text field. You may have noticed I also mentioned risk. If appropriate, allow your learners to take some risks, and reward them if they're willing to do so. For instance, if you provide some supplementary material, give your learner a special reward if they take the time to go through it.

Reward Schedules

When thinking about when and where to recognize your learner with rewards, use reward schedules to make sure you're giving them out consistently, and throughout your course. A reward schedule is the timeframe and delivery mechanism through which rewards (pop-ups, points, prizes, level-ups, etc.) are delivered. There are three main components in a reward schedule:

  • Prerequisite; what needs to occur to receive the reward
  • Response; the presentation of the reward
  • Reinforcer; the appropriate reward for the prerequisite (these are either momentary or persistent)

Within any game or eLearning course, multiple types of reward schedules can be utilized either throughout the product, or in limited parts. There are two primary types of reward schedules, Interval and Ratio.

Interval Reward Schedules. Rewards are given based on time. There are two types of interval reward schedules.
  • Fixed: Rewards are given at a fixed amount of time. Generally, this type results in a low level of engagement immediately after the reward that increases as the next reward approaches (e.g. the sunflowers produce sun pick-ups every 24 seconds in PvZ).
  • Variable: Rewards are given at different times; however these times are roughly in the same time period (e.g. the marigolds in PvZ produce a coin, either gold or silver, on average every 24 seconds, at variable time periods).
Ratio Reward Schedules. Rewards are given after a number of actions are completed. There are also two types of ratio reward schedules.
  • Fixed: Given after a set number of actions, including after every action (e.g. in PvZ every fifth level is a bonus level that unlocks a mini-game upon completion).
  • Variable: Given randomly, after roughly the same number of actions (e.g. in PvZ there's a slot machine that gives one of nine reward types each time it's used. For any individual reward, there is a random chance that you will get it on each use. However, each type of reward is weighted so it is given either commonly, uncommonly, or rarely).

As mentioned earlier, there are two general types of rewards: momentary and persistent. Momentary rewards are given immediately upon completing the prerequisite of the reward, and are not tracked. These can be as simple as popping up a "Great Job!" message, or could be as complex as elaborate animations or special effects. Persistent rewards are tracked over the entire product, or even over many products (i.e. courses or games). These rewards can be as simple as points, or can be more elaborate such as unlockable content, or collectable items. Currently, there is a trend to use collectible badges or achievements as a persistent reward. With persistent rewards, you can choose beforehand to show that these rewards are available to unlock, or you can choose to not show them ahead of time. Likewise, if you decide to show which persistent rewards are available to earn, you can either show what is required to unlock the reward, or you can merely let the user learn that there is a reward to earn, but not specify what it takes to get it.

Peer Motivation

From the dawn of mankind, perhaps the most effective motivator known to us is the approval of our fellows. I believe the overwhelming success and influence of social media in our modern-day society, speaks volumes of the power that other people's opinion have on our lives. Especially, when these people are those we respect. Certainly, those that have reaped the success of social media games understand the power of peer motivation. People naturally feel a sense of obligation to their friends and colleagues; if you spend any time on Facebook, you have surely received a Farmville request. And, the makers of social media games have based their entire business on this powerful motivating force.

There are many ways that you could use your learner's peers to motivate your users. Try setting up a closed or private Facebook group and start a community between users of your product. If you'd prefer not to use Facebook, and all of your users have a common email extension, setup a Yammer group. Get your users talking to one another, and give them a common goal or reward; especially if that reward is predicated on group participation, you'll find that your learners will participate.

I mentioned earlier the trend to use achievements and badges. If you decide to use these persistent rewards, I'd suggest you allow your learner's peers to see when they collect these rewards. These types of extrinsic rewards are much more effective if people can use them for bragging rights, rather than just having some extra trophy graphic that nobody else will see.

Other Suggestions

The following are additional suggestions to improve your eLearning that I've drawn from my experience as a game designer, though aren't specifically game mechanics.

Have a Hook. Something that we talk a lot about in the game industry when talking about game concepts is "the hook." That is, the most compelling and unique aspect of your game that can be summed up in less than a paragraph (in most instances, a single sentence). In the game industry, developing the hook is often the very first thing that a designer does in conceiving a game. What's important about this, and how it relates to eLearning, is that you should know what will make your eLearning engaging, before you ever begin production of it, or for that matter, before you even design it. Spend some time putting together an "elevator pitch." That is, a short statement or summary of your eLearning material that outlines all of the high-level features of it, and specifically, what will make it engaging.

Improve Your Presentation. At times, I'm shocked by how some in the eLearning industry think that presentation and art are so unimportant. There are many sources of good creative-commons and royalty-free artwork. However, hiring somebody to produce good quality custom art doesn't need to cost a lot, and the results are often much better. You can hire an agency, but you will pay a lot of overhead. So, I'd suggest working directly with an artist. Most digital artists have a page on where you can register for a free account and find an artist that matches a style your target audience will like. Generally, it's fine to contact these artists through their page and ask them if they are available to do some work. Another good source of cheap artwork are the university art and design programs.

When contracting with an artist, make sure you ask to see a portfolio. You need to make sure that the artist is capable of creating art in the same style that your target audience will like. Each artist has their own style, and it is rare to find an artist that can work well in multiple styles. So, don't assume that just because they've created some great artwork in one style, that they'll be able to create custom work with an entirely different look. Also, if you do hire an artist, you should ask to sign-off on their work incrementally. You should be checking their work early and often, so you can make changes early. Once an artist gets to the late stages of their work, it's difficult or impossible to make changes.

Paper Test. Very often in designing games, developers will mock-up entire sections of the game on paper. There are many ways that we put pencil to paper to test our games: drawing out maps, checking line of sight with rulers, testing enemy placement and movement, or using dice as a random number generators to calculate possible damage scenarios. These are just a few examples of how we test game systems on paper, but one of the most common, and most directly applicable to eLearning design, is paper testing interface design.

When you sit down to design the interface for your eLearning material, sketch out several different design layouts. Take those UI sketches to people in your target audience, and talk them through your eLearning product, asking them to touch your screen mock-ups anytime that you'd require user input. When you do this, pay attention to how long it takes them to make the correct input, and watch their eyes to see where they look first on your screen mockups.

Test Early and Often. Whether you decide to begin your design on paper, or directly on the computer, always test your eLearning as early as possible. Don't make assumptions about how your target audience will use your product; get it in front of them, watch them use it (with no guidance from you), and have them document the experience. Some of the most effective testing I've seen involves putting a member of the target audience in a room alone with a webcam aimed at the tester's face, and another aimed at the keyboard and mouse, accompanied by a screen capture of all input. This gives you a true perspective on how your users interact with your product, and it captures their emotional state as they use it so you can tell whether they actually like it (as opposed to just telling you if they like it). Plus, it takes away the temptation to guide them through frustrating parts.

Another important part of testing is that when you fix a problem, it's really important that you retest it to see if you've actually fixed the problem, and also whether you've introduced new problems. As obvious as this seems, it's incredible how often we'll let something slide under the assumption that the problem has already been addressed.


Hopefully you've found some of these suggestions useful. There are many other ways that game mechanics can be used to enhance eLearning, though I think the suggestions in this article are the most important, and are general enough that they can benefit most eLearning material.

About the Author

Since 2008, Rick Raymer has been designing and managing the production of eLearning software, games, and simulations for the North Carolina Community College System's BioNetwork organization. BioNetwork provides workforce training and education to the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and life science industries. Raymer has designed videogames professionally since 1996; and has produced more than 40 games with titles on every major gaming platform including consoles, PCs, handheld devices, and mobile phones. Before entering the game industry, he created computer animations for engineering, marketing, and training purposes. Raymer has a degree in Industrial Design.


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