Is Gamification the Answer?


In my topic was ‘Video Games and Motivation’ I looked at the research that has been done into the motivational pull of video game play and then linked this to gamification, which seems to be an increasingly popular technique being used in eLearning and other educational settings. From a personal perspective, learner motivation for eLearning is an important issue because its use in organisations is becoming much more widespread.

In a TED talk on gaming, Jane McGonigal said that globally every week people spend 3 billion hours playing video games1 and according to a Digital Australia report, it was estimated that in 2015 the global annual spend on video game activity will exceed $90 billion2. This is a huge amount of time and money spent playing video games! Most people who engage in video game play choose to do so voluntarily, because it is fun and they enjoy it. If people engage in activities because they enjoy them or find them interesting, then these activities are said to be intrinsically motivating. So for most, video game play must be an intrinsically motivating activity. One particular study has shown that motivation to play video games (regardless of the game type) is accounted for by how well the game satisfies our basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness3.

As a term, gamification has existed for a few years and is defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”4. While some have interpreted gamification as turning learning experiences into games or adding games to learning experiences, the intent of gamification is not to create a game but to use elements of game design to increase motivation and encourage the learner to engage with the content. As video games involve the use of technology, it would seem that gamification would be readily adaptable to e-learning modules or virtual learning environments (VLE).

There is no prescribed list of game design elements or number of elements needed to ‘gamify’ learning but I would divide game design elements into two categories:

Mechanics of Video Games:

  • Rules/Goals: there is a defined structure and a clear set of goals
  • Challenge: there are challenges and for many, they increase in difficulty as play progresses
  • Mystery: there is an element of mystery that evokes curiosity in the player
  • Control: the player can regulate, direct or make decisions as they progress
  • Social interaction: having a social experience with other players

Aesthetics of Video Games:

  • Fantasy: an activity that is separate from real life
  • Sensory stimuli: dynamic graphics and/or sound effects to help create the fantasy world
  • Points/scoring system: received for completing parts of the game
  • Badges/Trophies: for accumulating points or completing parts of the game
  • Leaderboards: to rank players against their own performance or the performance of others

While gamification has been met with some criticism, it seems it’s more the application that’s the problem rather than the technique itself. This is because some applications have an aesthetics focus rather than a mechanics focus i.e. the balance between the two kinds of elements is weighted incorrectly. This is demonstrated by only using a scoring system or badges or leaderboards to make learning more game-like. Points and leaderboards assume that everyone likes to compete and be ranked but this is not always the case and if it’s not particularly challenging to accumulate points and badges it won’t be very motivating at all. It’s also lazy from a design perspective, as these things are easy to add-on. The mechanics of video games (while taking more time to design) allow for much more variety in terms of the learner experience. Points and badges and leaderboards will be the same from module to module but more can be done with different rules, goals, challenges, mystery and control options, which results in a different experience for each learning module.

An article that I read recently said, “the key to gamification is turning extrinsic rewards to intrinsic rewards”.  I would say that this statement is problematic because intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are so different. The intrinsic reward is your enjoyment as opposed to an extrinsic reward, which is something separate from the activity. People generally play games because they want to. People generally complete formal learning at work because they have to (it might be compliance training or to address a skill gap). These are the opposite in terms of reasons for engaging in and activity. So even if the learning is gamified, will it have any effect on engagement if the learner is doing it because they have to? Also, gamification would benefit from further research into the motivational gains that many people say result from its use.

So, is gamification the answer to improving learner motivation when learning online? I think it could be but like all learning, it needs to be designed with the learner as the focus. The approach to gamification for a short stand-alone module would be different to a virtual learning environment (VLE). If we want to truly utilise gamification to its full potential we need to design learning experiences that satisfy basic psychological needs. I’m all for embracing new ways of doing things because they work and not because they are popular. I definitely believe that gamification a solution; it might be too early to tell if it’s the solution.

Need help with your e-learning projects? Our content development team can help you add gamification to your eLearning project.


1 McGonigal, J. (2010) Gaming can make a better world

2 Digital Australia 2012, available at

3 Ryan, R. M., Rigby, C. S & Przybylski, A. K., (2006). The motivational pull of video games: a self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion.  30, 347-364.

4 Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R. & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design to gamefulness: defining “gamification”. In Proceedings of the 15th international Academic MindTrek Conference. 9-15.

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