All About Gamification: Engage the WORL&D!

Start out with Game Thinking in mind and not with a solution in mind! And now, engagement is discussed in my book as well:

What Lies Beneath?

Learner engagement is one of the most elusive challenges instructional designers face daily. On the surface, it seems to be an easy problem to tackle: let’s make learning fun! The problem, however, lies beneath the surface. Literally, in how our brain receives, registers and processes information, how we are motivated. Research shows that games can be effective in raising learner engagement but only if applied properly. This article provides a framework of a systematic approach of game thinking for instructional designers to go beyond the surface.

What is the purpose of the framework? Who’s the audience?

The WORL&D is a systematic approach to game thinking for L&D professionals. The purpose of the framework is to provide guidance on implementation of game thinking in practice. The framework considers game thinking for L&D the overall action-driven instructional design approach, while gamification and game-based learning the actual implementation of that thought process.

The WORL&D framework is asking, not whether instructional designers should design and implement EITHER gamification OR game-based learning (discrete), rather how to define the angle (continuum) that supports the performance goals most efficiently.

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The angle of implementation within the WORL&D framework can very between 180 and 0 degrees. The closer the angle to 180 degrees (left), the more your implementation looks like pure gamification without gameplay. The closer the angle is to 0 degree (right), the more your implementation looks and feels like a serious game with gameplay. In any case, the purpose of the implementation is learning, NOTentertainment.

The focus of the WORL&D framework is not definition of gamification and game-based learning but the user experience. Let’s stop for a moment and ask: does the user care about the exact definition to get engaged? I believe the answer is no.


Karl Kapp distinguishes between Structural and Content gamification. In structural gamification, you do not change or redesign the content itself. Content gamification, on the other hand, has added game mechanics inside the course.

  • Structural Gamification

Think structural gamification as external incentives (often referred to as extrinsic motivation) to complete a course, for example. You’ll get a badge if you pass a course; you’ll get points for watching on-demand video clips, etc. The content inside the course or video has nothing to do with the external gamification effort.

  • Content Gamification

Content gamification, on the other hand, is about altering or designing the course itself to make the user experience more engaging and motivating. This time, the course has additional game mechanics such as levels or quests to complete, for example. You may stumble upon an Easter egg, some unexpected surprise that makes you want to explore more. Content gamification requires much more effort to do it right, but it can also balance the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. There’s still no definite gameplay, the course itself feels like a game but usually there’s no win or lose end status.


On the right side of the WORL&D, users now experience gameplay. Nicole Lazzarotalks about gameplay as the key to understand different types of fun users experiencing when playing a game. Gameplay introduces new elements: a start and an end with a clear result of a win or lose state. Note that not all games are competitive. In fact, the best game implementations for learning are collaborative, since that is more likely a desired behavior at work. While gamification feels more like a process that is gameful, gameplay is an event with a distinct start and end.

  • Gamified Assessments

Gamified assessments are games users are playing to reinforce previous knowledge or skills. It’s also used for pre-assessments to analyze where the knowledge or skill gaps are. While gamified assessments have a feedback loop, their main purpose is NOT to teach something new but assess or reinforce already gained knowledge or provide practice for skills. Think of Jeopardy games, quizzes and other experiences in class.

  • Serious Games

Serious Games are the very end of the WORL&D on the gameplay side. The sophistication and complexity of these games may vary from tabletop through immersive 3D environments. Overall, the goal is to learn through the user experience while interacting with the content. The engagement factor does not come from the number of game mechanics applied to learning. In fact, including multitude of game mechanics may even backfire. Remember, the ultimate goal of the WORL&D framework is for users to learn not to be entertained. The fine balance of engagement and evidence-based learning is key to achieve a successful implementation. Expect lots of iterations and playtests before the final product!

TIP: there’s one major factor often overlooked when gamifying learning: maintenance. Unlike games, learning content changes all the time. Keep in mind that the maintenance cost, required resources and flexibility of the gamified solution all contribute to the success in the long run. One of the best approaches to complexity is to create a gamified framework, where content is somewhat separated and can be easily updated but the two seamlessly work together for the user.

What else should I know?

Overview of Underlying Principles in the WORL&D:

This is a high-level overview of related areas of motivation, user types and player’s journey from the world of gamification.


Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is the theory of motivation. Design your learning to reach a balance of motivating forces: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. Gamification expert, Andrzej Marczewski, proposes the RAMP approach for intrinsic motivation: Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysisframework comprises 8 core drives that motivate users. Daniel Pink’s Drive is also essential to understand to get beyond the surface. Design the experience to balance external and internal motivating factors for all user types.


Art and Science: game thinking is the art and science of motivation and engagement via applied game elements and design. I had a chance to attend the G.A.M.E. (Gameful Approaches to Motivation and Engagement) summit with Kevin Werbach (held at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania) in 2015, where researchers pointed out that current meta-analysis on gamification studies is inconclusive. At the same time, practitioners stated that we don’t have 60 years to wait for a proof. You may not design the perfect solution today, but if it’s working better than what we have now, let’s do it!


Action-driven: this may be challenging for instructional designers when working with SMEs and stakeholders. Gamified solutions require the user/player to make decisions, act and receive meaningful constructive feedback (positive feedback loop). The engagement comes from interacting with the content, NOT from the content itself. Games are engaging but watching people play games may not (although, there’s for that). How do you boil down content to actions? Use Cathy Moore’s action mapping process.


Start out with Game Thinking in mind and not with a solution in mind!

Focus on the user experience: does actual gameplay support your performance goal or not? If not, do not complicate the learning risking cognitive overload. Decide if users will actually play a game! Design. Create a prototype and playtest. Tweak. At the end, you may end up with a gameful/playful activity that is quick, flexible and just as effective. If you start a project with the end goal to build a game, you will build a game. And you might not need it at all.


Users’ needs change over time. A brand new learner may need hand-holding first, but after a while, you may alienate them by treating them still as rookies. Kevin Werbach,Amy Jo Kim and Yu-kai Chou have their own versions the multi-phased journey over time: Exploration, Onboarding, Scaffolding and Mastery. Each phase has its own purpose and needs based on the player’s journey. Another thought-provoking approach is overlaying the flow theory with the player’s journey, explored by Andrzej Marczewski.


Start out with game thinking in mind and not a solution in mind to beyond the surface!

Apply action-driven instructional design and decide the angle that supports best the performance goals. You may end up with gamification, game-based learning, simulation or just a gameful/playful activity.


Marczewski, A. (2015). User Types. In Even Ninja Monkeys Like to Play: Gamification, Game Thinking and Motivational Design (1st ed., pp. 65-80). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nacke, L. E., & Dixon, D. (2011, May). Gamification: Toward a definition.  In Proceedings of CHI 2011 Gamification Workshop, (pp. 1-4). Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Kapp, K. M., Blair, L., & Mesch, R. (2013). The gamification of learning and instruction fieldbook: Theory into practice. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Kim, A. J. (2011, March 23). Gamification 101: Designing the player journey[Video file]. Retrieved from

Nicholson, S. (2012, June). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI.


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