Gamification FAQs

I had a great audience at the ATD International Conference and Exposition in San Diego, CA in May, 2018. The session title, “Isn’t Gamification Just Sugarcoating Boring eLearning Content?,” brought learning and development professionals from all over the spectrum of L&D to get answers. The interactive session started with collecting what questions they had. This blog is the summary of the questions I received via instant polling.

But before we get there, stop and think what you really want to achieve with gamification. Look at the diagram of game thinking (thinking like a game designer) and the various different implementations you may end up with! 

Before the session started I played some Philly Bloco music to set the tone for a “shake your body and soul” session. Philly Bloco is from Philly, my home town. Coincidentally, there were several people in the audience from Brazil. I assume one of you asked the question. The answer may be obvious: the session started. And I can’t sing.

Yes, there is. One part of the confusion stems from mixing gamification, game-based learning, and game-based assessments. The other part is about “gamifying” anything such as learning. By gamifying content, learning designers often mean both gamification and game-based learning (also known as serious games).

While there’s many different take on defining gamification, in the session we introduced one of them:

“Use of game design elements in non-game contexts.” by Sebastian Deterding

This definition relies on the definition of a game. Let’s not open a can of worms here in an FAQ, but here’s a great write up on how you might define a game: Instead, let’s just think about games as a system: a system with rules, elements, players, goals, etc. A game usually has a start and an end. The end most likely is determined by the goal of the game. Between the start and end of the game, there is a GAMEPLAY. That is when players interact with elements of the game to reach their goal. One more important aspect of a game is that it is VOLUNTARY, and one of the motivation that keeps players in the gameplay is FUN.

Think of a bicycle as a system. It has elements (mechanics): cogs, wheel, spoke, etc. Nobody pees in their pants for excitement about spokes. When you get on a bike, it’s the gameplay. You interact with the system. While you’re peddling the elements are interacting with each other. Each element plays a role as you’re biking. This is what we call dynamics. Moving on a bike is more interesting than the parts. But it’s still not what people bike. The aesthetics, the feeling of “flying”, the social element a trip with others, that’s what makes it fun.

Now, learning (as in taking an elearning course) at the workplace usually does not include these three elements: voluntary gameplay for fun. So, it’s a non-game context. Hurray! Based on the definition, we can use gamification!

Gamification means you use game design elements (like cogs, spokes, wheels in the bicycle) in the context of learning. Remember! Nobody pees in their pants about cogs. Game design elements like points, badges, leaderboards are like cogs. You don’t start with cogs. You start with the vision: the aesthetics. How do I want my participants FEEL when they interact with the system (learning)?

This is really crucial: gamification is not about gameplay, it’s about motivation. In marketing, health care, sales, gamification is used to motivate people to DO something. In learning, it’s the same. But that DO is not taking a course. Gamification is not about motivating people to take your boring, irrelevant course. If it’s boring and irrelevant, do something about it first! Let’s gamify MEANINGFUL ACTIONS! Not content.

Let’s try this definition then:

Gamification is using game design elements in a non-game context such as learning in order to motivate people to do meaningful actions or make meaningful decisions followed by consequences and feedback to grow their relevant knowledge and skills.  


Oh, boy… Where should I begin?

I have my opinion but asked this question on LinkedIn to see what others think. Here’s some advice from those who not only talk about it and doing it.

As for where to start, in my humble opinion, you start with action mapping or some similar method to find out whether you even need a course. And if you do, what ACTIONS should people do that help them achieve their goals. If you do not need to change behavior (checkbox training), PLEASE DO NOT GAMIFY ANYTHING. It’s a waste of time and it’s ruining the reputations of our profession.

So, before you run with Game Thinking (notice, it’s the mental approach of applying game design and not the implementation of gamification), let’s crawl with action mapping:

In its simplistic gameful way, Mighty Cards is something you can try here and now.

What to do with Mighty Cards?

Use them to find out WHY people are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing. The cards help you facilitate the conversation between you and various stakeholders. Drill down to the WHYs, so you can design appropriate actions to address them. There are no rules for the cards.

How about this: you give a set to each stakeholder. Write a barrier on the board, something holds people back from what they’re supposed to be doing. Ask your “players” to hide their cards and pick one that is most likely the cause of why people are not doing what they’re supposed to. Count to three and have them reveal their cards: watch what happens! A good conversation!

Or, have your “players” pick one random card. Tell them not to reveal the card. Their role is to argue for the reason they randomly picked (even if they don’t believe it’s a motivation issue for example). By forcing them to think outside their bias, you may discover deeper problems.

You can create and print your version of these cards. Or just order them from here:

mighty cards

LOVE THIS! What’s the question?

Anyway, if you like what I’m saying, if you buy what I’m selling, if you smoke what I’m puffing, here’s my book, Engage the WORL&D! You’ll find it hilarious. Over 18 and not recommended by Dr. Phil.

Gamification is about motivating people to DO things. Motivation generally comes in two flavors: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is about providing some incentives for you to things otherwise you’re not inclined to do. So, in theory, if you raffle out a Mercedes between people who completed a course, you’ll see an uptake in completion. It’s just a little expensive to do with every course. It also creates a vacuum when you remove that extrinsic motivator.

Intrinsic movation is something you really want to achieve, an inner driver to achieve mastery in a skill, for example. It doesn’t need an external carrot hanging in front.

In real life, there’s a gray area between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. An extrinsic motivation (doing something for a prize, for example) may result in intrinsic motivation after because you learn something about yourself. However, often extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation. If someone gives blood for altruistic reason to help out others, their motivation would decline when they’re offered some money for the same deed.

So, does gamification really motivate people to take courses? It may or may not. The bigger problem is that you’re using gamification to motivate people do DO THE WRONG THING. Engagement (which is the first step in motivation) does not start with adding game elements to a course that people don’t want. Fix or ditch your course first!

“…The authors conclude that the starting point in gamifying online education should be learners’ needs, motivations and goals, rather than a platform-centric approach that strives to use technical features to hit some pre-defined performance metrics.”

Hansch, A., Newman, C., & Schildhauer, T. (2015). Fostering Engagement with Gamification: Review of Current Practices on Online Learning Platforms. (November 23, 2015). HIIG Discussion Paper Series No. 2015–04. Retrieved from

I love how this question was worded. Notice it’s not asking the direct link between LEARNING and gamification. It’s asking about the link between ENGAGEMENT and gamification. Engagement itself does not mean necessarily more effective learning, but if your goal is engagement, yes you can use gamification. Just make sure you engage people to do what DOES impact learning and not just random clicks.

“People get engaged when their mind is challenged, not when they have to move their mouse.”

A recent meta analysis (study of several studies) show that gamification resulted in online learning engagement. Although, the effect faded over time. However, this is exactly the trap L&D professionals fall often: not all “gamifications” are equal, AND engagement may not lead directly to better learning outcomes.

However, boredom does not lead to better outcomes either. In real life (outside the theoretical bubbles), there’s a scale between doing nothing and doing the most perfect thing. So, if you can just do something, it’s still better than nothing. But that’s just my philosophy.

If you really want to improve engagement, start with making the courses relevant. Focus on actions and decisions. Challenge learners, provide feedback. That’s how you get to motivation.

My gut reaction is that you shouldn’t use gamification. (On a second thought, I would be curious what experience your audience had with “gamification” that made their appetite go away! )

Here’s what I would recommend: know your audience. Know their problems! Imagine yourself less of a learning content provider, and more like a problem solver. Use game thinking to approach problem solving. That means you don’t start with gamification, or building a game, or a game template to try. You start with the old-fashioned analysis: what is the business goal? what are the performance goals? what behaviors might lead to those goals? what should people be doing? what should people be not doing? why aren’t they doing it? Find the ACTIONS! Not the content.

THEN figure out what is the minimal effort to support those ACTIONS! Do they really need a gameplay? Playing some interactive game? A board game perhaps? While making meaningful decisions, they learn about leadership? Or is it opposite? They don’t need any gameplay at all? Or in between? Sometimes simple gameful design can help without any sophisticated efforts. Use Cathy Moore’s action mapping to find out what actions people need to do and reduce the pile of fluff.

Overall, think of yourself less of a sage on a stage than a conductor in a concert. Your goal is to get out of the way between the music and the audience while supporting each member of the audience.

The other challenge you have with people and gamification is that WE ARE MOTIVATED BY DIFFERENT THINGS!!!

“[…]certain motivational affordances (which otherwise received positive comments) were felt as negative (such as ones encouraging competition), lending credence to the idea that different player types experience the same affordances differently…”

Does Gamification Work? — A Literature… (PDF Download Available). Available from: [accessed Mar 30 2018].

In other words, what game element might motivate you, may not motivate me. You might be a competitive person that turns all rocks and pebbles up just to get on top of the leaderboard, while I’m more like a social gamer who loves helping out others. You earn something rare, and you’re proud of it. I earn something rare and give it someone else. You can’t even imagine how someone would do that…

Think about gamification as a system of balance. If you pack your gamification with competitive elements only, you score big with part of the audience, but others might be completely alienated. Give something for everyone. Andrzej Marczewski has some guidance on game design elements and player/user type experiences:

Badging is a game design element along with many others. The last couple of years badges have become popular. In fact, vendor often bundle them with the points, badges, and leaderboards approach (PBL). As everything in gamification, it can be useful or not so much.

A badge is nothing but a token of achievement. Think of it as a milestone: an observable, positive outcome of a work done well. Now, imagine if you got a badge every morning you show up for work. How much effort did you put into this achievement? If everyone gets this badge every morning they show up, how much is it worth? Nothing.

What if from now on, instead of promotions, you would get badges? Would you love to take them home and proudly share with your family? Sure…

The value of badges depends on how the society views the effort what they represent. If done well, and they deserve respect among peers, badges could be useful in motivation.

Real life application of badges? You may have heard of micro-credentials. The idea is taking on, mostly in the higher education and the tech world. The point of micro-credentials is that you take a course online on a specific skill, and receive a badge that you can display on your profile:

Companies who want to provide digital credentials to their employees that can be transferred with them are using applications like Credly.

I have two examples that is more of a blended learning within ILT. They both belong to the game-based assessment category.

The first one is a trivia challenge we created. Two groups took the trivia questions as an assessment. A leaderboard showed their scores. But that’s not where it ended. We then asked the two groups to create their own trivia questions and answers for the other group. Creating questions is a higher cognitive function that just picking the correct answer.

The questions were approved by the facilitator. The two groups then took each other’s trivia challenge. We announced the overall winner. And didn’t end there. What we did not tell the participants is that we recorded every question and answer in the backend, and we were able to produce a list of topics to review based on the incorrect answers.

The other example I wrote in detail about in an elearning industry article.

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