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5 Widespread Gamification Misconceptions – eLearning Business

Survival Guide For Gamification

“Gamification is the use of elements of game design in non-game contexts [1].” – Sebastian Deterding, et al

For the scope of this article, let’s agree to the definition above and explore some of the common mistakes when designing and implementing gamification in the context of learning.

Misconception #1: Gamification Of Learning Is Turning Passive Courses Into Fun And Engaging Activities By Gamifying Users’ Interactions

The definition itself from above is too vague. You do need to read the article to understand the definitions of each word: element, game, design, and non-game context. Briefly, gamification is about motivating people to keep engaged in various activities for an extended period of time. Gamification should not be used as an afterthought to entice people to complete courses. It is also clear from the article that gamification and game-based learning are two different approaches (although, the more game elements you implement the more the experience will feel like a game).

Since gamification is about motivation, first you must be clear about what actions or decisions are desired on the job you want to motivate. Do not motivate people to click on items on the screen to collect points for the sake of interactivity.

Misconception #2: Gamification Is The Silver Bullet For Engaging Learning

You will be disappointed while successful applications of gamification in the world may suggest that it is much more complex than you think. Someone smarter than me said this once, “If you think you understand something, try to change it.” Behind every great movie and delicious meal lies complexity. Try to write a movie or reconstruct a meal at home.

So, Is Gamification Worth It?

When motivating behaviors directly (healthcare, commerce, gaming, etc.), the results indicate the answer is yes.

  • After launching its Roblox education program in 2018, Roblox had more than 90 million active users in the following year, reaching more than 650,000 worldwide (Metaari, 2019).
  • Kahoot, a game-based learning supplier from Norway, quickly breached the 90 million user mark and has a 75% growth rate, and is on track to become one of the fastest-growing learning brands in the world (Metaari, 2019).
  • Duolingo, which leverages gamification in teaching languages to users for free via mobile, has grown its user base to over 300 million (Citrusbits, 2020).
  • Microsoft’s gamified operations have led to 3.5 times more engaged employees who used updated product information for selling (Datanyze, 2020).
  • LivingSocial decided to turn its annual reviews into gamified experiences, which resulted in more than 90% voluntarily participating (Mordor Intelligence, 2021).
  • Clothing company Moosejaw implemented a gamified system that increased sales by 76%, made its social media impressions skyrocket to 240,000, and generated an ROI of 560% (eBridge Connections, 2019).

Can we capture the same results in learning design? Looks like we can!

  • Increases student confidence by 20%
  • Improves learning retention by 90%
  • Improves the conceptual knowledge of students by 11%
  • Increases task completion by 300%

Open Mind Vs. Empty Head

At the same time, please follow Edward Tufte’s wise words on novel research findings: “Always approach novel research findings with an open mind but not with an empty head.” What does that mean?

Here’s an example I’ve seen in multiple presentations and blogs: “It engages: It improves retention of learned content by a 90%, thanks to the adventure aspect, which turns learning into an entertaining and appealing activity for the student.”

The same 90% retention rate is mentioned in the following two blogs:

Where Is The Source?

Digging deeper you’ll find the reference to the study. It is a meta-analytical study (examining the outcome of numerous studies), which is a good sign. That means the numbers are not based on one-and-done research.

“The study by Tracy Sitzmann (“A Meta-Analytical Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games,” 2011) states that games are the best way of learning. Game-based learning, when compared to traditional training…

  • Increases up to 20% the self-confidence of the student;
  • Improves conceptual knowledge by 11%;
  • Improves retention of learned content by 90%;
  • Enhances practical knowledge by 20%; and,
  • Generates up to 300% more of completed tasks [2].”

When you track down the source, you’ll learn that the truth is always more complex than the marketing spin.

First, it’s Traci and not Tracy Sitzmann. Second, here’s what the abstract actually says:

[…] Consistent with theory, post training self-efficacy was 20% higher, declarative knowledge was 11% higher, procedural knowledge was 14% higher, and retention was 9% higher for trainees taught with simulation games, relative to a comparison group. However, the results provide strong evidence of publication bias in simulation games research.

Some takeaways from the “open mind but not with an empty head” approach:

  • 9% is not 90% (I believe it was a typo originally and then people just saw what they wanted to see.)
  • The study was examining simulation games. In other words, not chutes and ladders or multiple-choice quizzes with timers, etc.
  • There was strong evidence of publication bias (aka you publish when you see the expected results).
  • And most importantly, for us, learning designers: Trainees learned more, relative to a comparison group, when simulation games conveyed course material actively rather than passively; trainees could access the simulation game as many times as desired, and the simulation game was a supplement to other instructional methods rather than stand-alone instruction.

In other words, people were learning through the simulation gameplay itself rather than a game-like presentation of the content, and when it was a supplement to other learning materials.

But Is This Gamification Or Game-Based Learning?

Finally, this is not even gamification according to the term above. This is game-based learning, as the study specifically looked at game-based simulations with gameplay as the source of learning. There is a general confusion around the terms gamification, game-based learning, serious games, game-based assessments, and gamified learning. My suggestion is to think about these as different outputs or channels on a continuum that you choose based on your goals and available resources.

On the left, there is no gameplay. The more you move to the right, the more gameplay you introduce.

Where To Start?

Always start with the top four layers: the business goals and objectives supported by the performance goals and objectives supported by your learning objectives. Your workplace learning culture may be completely different from the example of gamification you read about. You must understand your audience and the current barriers that hold them back from the desired actions and decisions on the job (authentic context). And finally, without having a solid motivational theory foundation, you will most likely rely on your own bias.

Pick Your Type Of “Gamified” Approach (Sometimes None Of Them)

Only after you should consider if some of the barriers of performance can be addressed by training and what is the simplest approach from the chart that moves the needle. If the playful design on a form can entice people to sign up for something, you don’t need a course. At the same time, if you’re planning to put users through authentic customer interaction scenarios, adding a timer to your multiple-choice questions may not be enough.

Misconception #3: Mismatching Desired Behaviors And UI Interactions

Desired behaviors are the actions you want to motivate. UI interactions are user behaviors your platform can track. They are not the same! For example, don’t award points for any comments to boost social interaction. Would you praise everyone in a meeting just because they say random words? Award comments that have value for others. For example, if you want to increase social interactions on a site (comments, likes, conversation, chat, etc.), look for the value in that behavior in real life: useful and practical answers, conversation starters, devil’s advocates, curators, etc.

Award comments that have value for others. For example, if you want to increase social interactions on a site (comments, likes, conversation, chat, etc.), look for the value in that behavior in real life: useful and practical answers, conversation starters, devil’s advocates, curators, etc.

A common digital gamification mistake is focusing on the volume, therefore, you incentivize that UI behavior you believe demonstrates the desired behavior. If the desired behavior is social interaction, the way you motivate people to like and comment is by giving them points for their actions. This approach can lead to disaster. Why? Because people who always game the system will find out very quickly that they do not need to add value to the conversation. They only need to add comments. And so, you will see meaningless comments just to get more points. This garbage-in, garbage-out behavior in the feed then drives away the majority of users who wouldn’t game the system but now they don’t see the point in providing comments.

What To Do Instead?

Don’t focus on the trackable UI functions as a design framework. If that’s all your gamified platform does, at least limit the points based on time, frequency, or item. If you have a chance to evaluate such platforms, ask about their point system and flexibility of configuration.

A much better question to ask is: How do they measure the value of a post/comment/answer? You can do that by giving points to those whose posts/comments/answers were liked the most or accepted as the best answers by the original poster. In other words, measure the reactions of other users, not the volume of clicks. Stackoverflow is a good example of this implementation.

Misconception #4: Relying On Points, Badges, And Leaderboards As A Gamification Strategy

If you have points, badges, and leaderboard systems (PBL), it is going to get ugly. Competitive people will take over and surely game the system (see #3 above). For example, if you encourage people to connect through private meetings, don’t let users create a meeting with themselves. They’re going to create thousands of meetings with themselves for points (I just experienced this on a gamified event platform). Limit the maximum points either by users or overtime at least (e.g., daily max).

What To Do Instead?

Do not solely rely on competitive leaderboards. Also, not every leaderboard needs ranking. For example, you can create an expert board based on activities/answers in a random order each time users load the page. Be clear about the rules of who gets into the “hall of fame.” Leaderboards are often not actionable, which means you can see your ranking but that it won’t help you grow your skills. The best examples I’ve seen are when designers add actionable insights on what to do to move up on the board.

What about your own leaderboard? What if you could see yourself over time climbing the board instead of comparing yourself to the top performers? It is also a best practice to allow players to switch between leaderboards (daily, weekly, overall, etc.). There are two other major problems with PBLs (see #5 below).

Misconception #5: Uncalibrated Point System

The more effort it takes to complete an action (mental or physical), the more value it creates for the community, and the more points you should award. (Again, use limitations in place.) Online systems often come with default values for activities. You should always calibrate it before rolling it out. If you’re not sure, do A/B testing with two systems and analyze the difference. Users are not stupid. If the most valuable action in a gamified event is to talk to some of your sponsors/vendors, it is obviously a bribe, which leads to the point below.

Bonus Misconception: I Am Competitive, Therefore Everyone Is

Not everyone is motivated by the same thing! This is one of the biggest problems with gamification for learning (besides the fact that sometimes you don’t need gamification at all). You have limited resources so you focus on what you assume your audience will like.

[…] Certain motivational affordances (which otherwise received positive comments) were felt as negative (such as the ones encouraging competition), lending credence to the idea that different player types experience the same affordances differently… (ref. Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification).

Think inclusively about your users. At a minimum, understand the self-determination theory of motivation. Look at the Octalysis framework by Yu-Kai Chou and explore Marczewski’s extended user types.

Consider The Experience As A Journey In 4 Phases: Discovery, Onboarding, Scaffolding, And Endgame

In each phase, your design goals are to move users to the next. Onboarding is the experience before the experience. How do they hear about the experience? Why would they try it? Your goal is to pique interest. Onboarding comes with the decision to sign up and learn the ropes. They may need more handholding here. Provide some quick wins. Show them they’re not alone. Scaffolding is the “gameplay” that takes place throughout the event. This is the longest part of the journey. Use your design smartly to provide something for every type of user. And finally, the endgame is the closing, the mastery of the event. Celebrate the moment. Capture motivation with a call to further action.

Understanding Yu-Kai Chou’s 8 Core Motivational Drivers And Marczewski’s User Types

The core motivational drivers will help you design a better, more rounded journey for your users. As they go through the experience, their needs and their motivations may change. You need to consider that over time.

Monitor The Experience

Gamification experience design is not a one-and-done activity. Start with a pilot with friendlies. Friendlies are people whose opinions you trust. It doesn’t mean friends! Find a good representation of the target audience willing to give honest feedback. This is the best time to involve disruptors (those who don’t even like games), as they are the best to pressure test your dynamics and score system. Tell them to break it! Award them for gaming the system. You had better find it out earlier rather than later in the general rollout. Monitor the activities. Look for patterns over time. If you notice a drop-out, examine your core drives.

2 Ideas For The Brave

1. If There Is A Swag System, Consider Gifting And Exchanging

How can you create more buzz around the experience? Here are some ideas: Let players be creative! Give them tools to create, share, and socialize their “products.” Providing swags? What about adding gifting? Or trading? Team challenges bring people together under a common cause. For example, an individual may get a piece of a puzzle but the real prize is putting it together to reveal a surprise.

Add risks, raffles, auctions, or similar elements to level the field. Think rock, paper, and scissors: balanced power distribution. What about an epic choice that determines a role (healer, merchant, inventor, etc.) with different advantages throughout the experience? These players can feel valued no matter how well they play along.

2. Paired Gamified Social Learning Over Time

Imagine you’re paired with an anonymous colleague (mystery, challenge, epic calling motivations). You both receive the same challenge (social pressure, competitiveness, risk). In the simplest example, this can be an authentic scenario with multiple-choice options. You both select the choice you believe is the right one (choice, learning, quest). Once submitted, the system reveals who your partner is and what their choice was (surprise, feedback). However, it won’t tell you whether either of you has selected the correct answer.

You can now connect using your internal collaboration tools and discuss (collaboration, social learning, negotiation). After discussing your answers, you can both change your mind and submit the final answer (score, risk, streak, accomplishment). (No change is worth the most, changing one answer is less, etc.) Imagine this as a weekly challenge for six months. What’s your best streak? How do you change someone’s mind? Do you care more about addressing these scenarios knowing that you will need to discuss your choice with someone else?

There’s so much you can do to make learning and working experiences worthwhile for all.


[1] Gamification: Toward a definition

[2] Game-based Learning vs Classroom Training. Or Why Learning Through Playing is the Better Option

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