Four Ways To Think About Using Gamification – Without Turning your eLearning Into Games

Illustration of dice, a game spinner and game marker pieces.
March 17, 2020
4 minutes
Illustration of dice, a game spinner and game marker pieces.

Interested in gamifying your eLearning projects but not sure how?

If you're not a gamification expert, the jargon can be overwhelming and intimidating. That's why we've created this primer on examples of gamification. You'll find simple ways to DIY-Gamify – sans-programming – with dominKnow | ONE.

The first thing we need to clarify is what gamification isn’t – it is NOT turning all learning into a game.

dominKnow | ONE has plenty of features to help create highly interactive gaming content, like this sample. But there really are very few real-world use cases where a game like this is actually going to be helpful for adult learners.  

Gamification is really about using the psychological underpinnings that make games so engaging to help improve the learning process. And many of these can be employed as design tactics without leading learners to feel they are in a game.

Gamification Feature #1: Progress Mechanics or "PBLs"

Progress mechanics are the element that most people jump to when they think of the term "gamification." They're better known as "PBLs," which is shorthand for Points, Badges, Leaderboards, and other competition and comparison mechanisms.

PBLs are popular examples of gamification. That's because they're easy to layer on top of courses, tasks, skills…whatever it is you're trying to gamify.

And it’s easy to use variables and other tracking and data options in a dominKnow | ONE course to create scores and points.

Unfortunately, what makes PBLs convenient can also make them pointless – or worse, counterproductive. Research shows that when you pile on PBLs for an audience who's organically motivated, gamification backfires.

Several studies of PBLs in learning have found that if you introduce badges and reward systems, intrinsically motivated learners will actually experience a decline in motivation, empowerment, and satisfaction.

When your audience is already interested and engaged, they'll perceive gamification "eye candy" as manipulative or controlling and they'll chafe against it.

This is particularly  critical if you're designing a skill-building exercise for adult learners. They're already motivated to take your course.  It's exactly the wrong context for progress mechanics gamification.

But what else is there? Plenty.

Gamification Feature #2: Give "Players" Choices and Immediate Feedback

In the 1980s, Bantam Books gamified reading for children with Choose Your Own Adventure books…no points, badges, or leaderboards necessary.

What made them examples of gamification? Simple: the ability to make choices and see the consequences at the turn of a page.

Adult learning is an area ripe for this gamification element, because it's great for practicing skills and illustrating practical applications. Not only will it wake your learners up, it can also give them the opportunity to learn from mistakes in a safe environment.

There are a few ways to introduce choice and feedback into eLearning.  

An obvious example is to create the grown-up version of Choose Your Own Adventure: a branching scenario, where learners make decisions and get in-depth guidance on the consequences. You can extend the exploration by allowing learners to backtrack and make new choices.

Alternately, image hotspots can add choice and immediate feedback. For example, they can gamify something as boring and simple as navigation. In a course or module where the order of lessons is trivial, hotspots can be a fun, visual way to offer exploration.  Learners can pick what they want to learn next, introducing a little surprise and (more importantly) disrupting the "next button hypnosis" that can set in during a fixed-sequence course.

Gamification Feature #3: Challenges, Missions, and Leveling Up

Learning is, by its nature, a series of increasingly difficult challenges.

Leaning into this fact can make eLearning less of a slog. An example of gamification using this method can be as simple as renaming courses on a learning path "levels" and assessments "challenges," but there are benefits to taking it further.

Let's think about some of the ways that challenges, missions, and levels often work in gaming.

Game levels build on one another. It's not just that the game gets more difficult. It gets more difficult, and you have to draw on an increasing list of skills.

Some eLearning topics will naturally call back to previous lessons. In other cases, the next lesson won't necessarily involve earlier material – but it can. Making connections to previous material is always a good idea, but testing older objectives in later assessments is a great chance for spaced repetition and review.

Alternately, standalone micro-assessment "challenges" can also serve as reinforcement, similar to the way some games will spring side challenges on players to mix things up and introduce an element of surprise.

Finally, if your learners struggle to carry their new skills into the real world, create offline "missions" to help them bridge the gap.

Gamification Feature #4: Put Your "Players" into a Story

Adding characters and a narrative won't, by themselves, gamify your learning project. But for most topics, it's a valuable addition that gives context to the gaming elements.

When your audience is naturally engaged, it's best to keep narrative elements relevant and realistic. This helps learners draw a straight line to the real-world applications of the lesson. Look for common real-world decisions, mistakes, consequences, points of conflict, and outcomes that relate to your learning objectives, then build a story (and craft your game elements) around those.

This model is one of the reasons we partner with Vado, whose microlearning courses end with real-world exercises to help learners apply their skills on the job.  (The Vado library is made in dominKnow | ONE and available for purchase - you can even purchase editable versions of most courses and make changes and customizations in your own dominKnow | ONE site.)

Excessively dry material might benefit from dramatization or extended metaphor, but you have to be careful to keep focused on your learning objectives. Adult learners will become impatient if you waste their time on unrelated stories.  

Similarly, characters are also valuable tools, best kept realistic. Any characters should actively contribute to the learning, so choose character types that carry real-world value. For example, for customer service simulations, pick difficult "types" who react to the same script in different ways.

When teaching job skills, the most valuable character for your "player" to be is themselves. But asking learners to slip into another character (and therefore, perspective) can be a valuable exercise for topics like HR, management, customer service, and more.

How to Leverage These Gamification Features with dominKnow | ONE

You can execute many of these gamification features programming-free in dominKnow | ONE by taking advantage of our:

  • Scenario Builder for fully responsive branching scenarios
  • Royalty-free stock library of characters and settings for customized storytelling
  • Hotspot and button functionality
  • Sophisticated testing and assessment options to enable gamified quizzes

Interested in learning more?  Contact us today for a free 14-day trial or request a demo from our experts.