Gamification of Learning – Lessons Learned

Last week, two of my colleagues and I delivered a talk at the 2014 DevLearn conference.  The talk was a case study of a specific leadership program and how we used game components to enhance the experience.

We focused the presentation on the case-study, but I have some lessons about gamificaiton I’d like to expand on.

Games support Learning, Learning shouldn’t support Games

Gamification is all the buzz these days.  It should be – there is some fantastic work being done in this area, and the lessons should be incorporated into the learning environment.  But like any trend, there can be a tendency to put the cart before the horse.

If I am asked about gamifying a learning program, I always steer the conversation away from games towards instructional design.  I want to understand the audience, learning objectives, learning modality, and all the other non-game considerations going into a learning program.  Only then do I want to discuss adding game components.

The biggest pitfall in gamification is simply trying to turn a learning program into a video game.  Learners do not want to play a platform jumping game to get to quiz questions.  Your game can look flashy and fun, but you are almost guaranteed to make a subpar game which distracts from your learning objectives.  Your audience will resent the wasted time.  Please don’t build Super Mario Brothers.

Incentivize Desired Behaviors

The game components should hyper-focus to incentivize desired behaviors.  As part of your instructional design process, define the behavior you want to see.  Your game mechanics should encourage those behaviors.

Our recent project was for a leadership program.  We wanted to see our learners:

  1. Show up to each session
  2. Participate in class
  3. Share content with the class outside the class
  4. Read articles, watch videos outside of class
  5. Complete special assignments outside of class

Our game mechanics were simple – just points, visible badges, and leaderboards.  We made sure we gave out points and badges for each behavior we wanted to see.  So if participants showed up to a session, they were given points and a badge.  If the learners contributed something meaningful in class, the facilitator could issue badges and points.  For sharing and reading content, we gave out points.  Completing special assignments resulted in badges and points, but if the learner completed all special assignments, there was a bonus badge and points.

The badges and points are low-hanging fruit for gamification.  You can add badges and points to almost anything without fundamentally altering the learning program.  We found they worked best when the badges and points were:

  1. Visible to the entire cohort
  2. Used in class by the instructor
  3. Clearly defined to the learners so they would aspire to display the desired behaviors
  4. Tied to some prize, competition, or other incentive to participate

Don’t Distract

Game mechanics should not distract from your the learning process.  I want the learners to be excited about what they are learning because there is some incentive to be enthusiastic.  If the game gets in the way of learning, the game will reduce interest in learning.

We had several opportunities to incorporate our points/badge system into the classroom, but we decided against it.  During part of the learning program, we had the learners role play with each other.  We decided that we just wanted the learners to focus on the activity instead of getting credit.

Adapt Quickly

Despite all of our planning, some of our activities produced unintended consequences distracting from the learning process.  Especially during a pilot, we found it important to constantly take feedback and reevaluate how we offered incentives.

We offered points to the learners for posting articles to their cohort.  We also offered points for reading the articles other participants posted.  In our minds, in addition to incentivising class contribution, this had the side benefit of tracking what content the learners were consuming.

Unfortunately, what we actually incentivized was spam.  A few learners found they could earn unlimited points by spamming articles.  Other participants could earn points by clicking the participant-posted links.  Other participants began clicking the links without reading the articles.  We accidentally created an arms race between producing and consuming spam.  The participants who didn’t join in the post/click fest were left behind in points and disincentivized from participating in the rest of the game.

We took feedback from our users regularly and identified the issue quickly.  We didn’t want to limit legitimate contribution, but we didn’t want to incentivize spam.  The solution was simple – allow unlimited submissions, but only offer points for the first submission.  By limiting points but not submissions, we kept the free-flow of information without incentivizing undesired behavior.