Gamification: All fun and games until someone loses the point


I have a confession to make; this was written in anger… It was written at about 8:02am on a Tuesday, while I was enjoying my morning coffee and casually browsing the collection of blogs and other learning related materials that had popped up in my newsfeed during the night. Then, it happened; an article on ‘Gamification’.

Against my better judgement, I opened the link and by the end of the opening sentence I was already huffing and ‘tisking’ in disapproval. About half way through the post I angrily uttered my first ‘WHAT?!?’ and by the end I swear my coffee was no longer tasting as good, the sunshine had turned to clouds and I could feel myself frowning.

This is because ‘gamification’ is a term that is constantly misused and misrepresented. More alarmingly, it’s often ‘experts’ in the industry that are the biggest culprits of muddying the waters when it comes to this term and the concept.

So here I am, a little calmer now, but still typing away furiously on my crusade to help clear up what ‘gamification’ actually is.

Gamification - Beyond eLearning

Firstly, ‘gamification’ is NOT a term that only exists in the eLearning world. It’s a concept that can be applied in everything from classroom teaching, to marketing, to keeping fit and even driving.

For example, in 2012, car manufacturer KIA released their Hybrid that uses gamification to motivate their learners to drive in a more economical way. It does this by saving historic data about your driving style and then challenges you to improve.[1] I even remember reading an article where a manufacturer introduced eco-driver leaderboards. This was so owners of the particular car could compete to see who was the most economical driver. Though there was some concern about this leading to potentially dangerous driving behaviour in the end.

Or another example; Strava. Strava is a website and app that allows people who regularly ride or run to log their efforts, compare them to their friends and track their improvements. There are leaderboard and badges and the highly coveted ‘King of the Mountain’ badge for the quickest rider on a particular stretch of trail. This is gamification at work, motivating me to keep pedalling up the never ending hill even though my lungs are about to explode and have pass out at the top. I have the choice at any moment to stop, but I am motivated to continue because I know that if I push a bit harder, I will beat Brenton’s time from two weeks ago and have a sense of personal achievement.

And let's take this concept back to basics. Remember how in your early years of primary school there was a chart with everyone's name on it, and stars against each name to make various achievements? Yeah, you guessed it; gamification!

So as you can see, ‘gamification’ is not a term that is unique or derived from the eLearning industry. It’s been around a lot longer and there are probably more non-eLearning examples of it being used in our day-to-day lives than many of us would be aware off.

Now, lets look at some of the terms commonly used when discussing this topic.

Gamification, game-based learning and games are three terms that are commonly, and generally incorrectly, used when discussing this exciting topic.

The most common misconceptions I hear is that gamification means using games in eLearning. This is far from the truth, so lets have a look at each of these terms, what they mean at the most fundamental level and examples of each.


This is the concept of using elements that are used to motivate players in games (point scoring, competition, challenges and rules of play) and apply these to a non-game context. When we are talking about using gamification, we are effectively talking about adding an extra layer of design to a task that motivates the user to achieve a certain goal or compete with their peers.

As an example, let’s imagine for a moment that we have a course and throughout the course, the learner is presented with various learning checks. When completing these learning checks, the learner will be provided with contextualised feedback and allowed to move on.  At this point, the motivation for the learner to get the learning checks right is nothing other than their satisfaction of getting it right.

But, depending on the context and goals for the eLearning solutions, we can very simply create more motivation for the learner to complete the learning checks correctly. Imagine that we add a ‘score’ element to the course design. This can’t simply be an abstract score, but something relevant and relatable. For example, it could be a ‘customer happiness’ indicator for eLearning solution focused on customer service. Or maybe it could be a ‘customer health’ indicator for an eLearning solution that is all about food safety and hygiene.

Now each time the learner answers a learning check correctly, they receive points and when they answer incorrectly, they get none. And because what these points are represented as is relevant to the learning and the learner,  all of a sudden there is a new layer of motivation for the learner to try and do their best.

In gamification, we are not creating or using games to motivate the learner, but using the same similar elements to games as a form of motivation. Another important thing about gamification is that it’s not only applicable to the learning space.

(GBL) Game-based learning

This is where you have an actual game that has defined learning outcomes. The key difference between game-based learning and gamification is that with GBL the end solution is actually a game. This game has been designed from the start with set learning objectives so that through playing it, the player is expected to gain an understanding of a topic or acquire new skills.

My favorite example of this was an eLearning solution I was involved in many years ago for a large financial organisation. The brief was to create a solution that use game-based learning to deliver material on the topic of leadership, specifically for new leaders. The solution was a Mario inspired game where the learner progressed through levels as a cheeky character. They were presented with challenges and, depending on how successful they were in completing a level, they would ‘gain’ a team member. There was literally a little follower that from that moment followed the player through the rest of the levels.

The goal of the game was for the learner to gain a team of followers by completing various activities. These activities were aligned with the learning outcomes and we have a game that delivered learning outcomes; Game-based learning.

In short, game-based learning is when you create a something that is a game but has learning outcomes designed into it.


Games are something people do for fun. Their sole purpose is the immersion, engagement and enjoyment of the player. They have not been designed to deliver learning outcomes.

Examples of games are everything from what you see on today’s high-tech console systems, to the ever addictive Candy Crush and Angry Birds and to the unfortunately increasingly rare act of going to the local oval with a few friends and playing a game of cricket.

At the most basic level, games by design are something people do as interactive entertainment.

However, this does mean that games cannot be used in a learning environment.

For example, take Monopoly. Here is a game that was designed for family and friends to sit down and have some fun with no specific learning objectives as part of the design. But, it could be used to help kids learn about things like maths, money and risk. This does mean the line between ‘games’ and ‘game-based learning’ is perhaps slightly fuzzy, as games can be used to delivery game-based learning.

However, the key difference between games and GBL is that ‘games’ are not designed to deliver learning outcomes, but can be used to do so as part of a GBL solution.

The final piece of the puzzle

Now that we’ve covered what the various terms and applications of gamification, GBL and games, I want to touch on the final but very critical piece of the puzzle.


Ultimately when we are discussing gamification and GBL in particular, we are looking at strategies to engage and motivate our learner to achieve certain learning objectives. However, it doesn’t matter how fantastically a solution is designed, if it’s not relevant to the learner then it’s not going to achieve much.

Therefore gamification and GBL should not be seen as a universal way to increase engagement regardless of the topic, desired outcomes or audience type. It has to be used in a strategic and relevant way to ensure it delivers the desired outcomes. If it’s not carefully considered, it could get in the way of the learner achieving what they are already motivated to achieve and lead to disengagement. You don’t want to create a solution that is designed to motivate a learner, who is already self-motivated to achieve the outcome you are after.

The thing about learners is that they can very quickly see through something that isn’t relevant or appropriate, in particular eLearning. You can have a leaderboard for people who have performed the best in their sales training and the most fantastic GBL solutions, but that’s still not going to motivate your graphic designer to complete the training.

When they are looking at the sales training they will be asking themselves...

‘What’s the point?’