This is the second in a three-part series on Gamifiying Your Instruction. (Part one can be found here.) The series is written by Karl Kapp, professor of instructional technology and internationally known author of two books on gamification both co-authored by ASTD.
While the term “gamification” has only been around since 2002 and did not really gained widespread adoption until about 2010, there are still a number of examples of successful implementations of gamification. Looking at these examples, it is possible to begin to build a list of best practices around gamification of learning and instruction.
This article doesn’t exhaust specific examples gamification. Instead, it discusses best practices. To see some examples of gamification, you can check out the following articles:
Also, to learn about some of the effective elements of gamification, see the article Games, Gamification, and the Quest for Learner Engagement.
Here are the 10 best practices (plus a bonus):
1. Identify success criteria first
Before you begin to gamify learning events, make sure you know what constitutes success. Is it 100 percent participation? Is it measurable business results? It is a score on a test?
If success is not defined before the initiative, it is hard to know if or when success is achieved. It is hard to nail down success. It is even more difficult to get everyone to agree that success was achieved. The idea of success can be changed and morphed for both good and bad over time, so make sure at the beginning everyone agrees what success “looks” like—and someone writes it down.
2. Seriously consider alternatives
This may sound strange coming from a gamification advocate, but too many times I have seen easy, simple solutions to learning problems passed over for the latest instructional fad. While I do not think gamification is a fad, I do think that the opportunity for mis-use is vast.
Even if you eventually go with a gamified solution, the process of thinking through alternatives and carefully defending the decision for gamification to an internal or external stakeholder provides a solid foundation to pursue such a solution. And, if an alternative solution is a better fit, use it. Only use gamification as a learning solution when it makes sense and resonates with learners.
3. Create a tie to business needs
All training and learning initiatives should be tied to a business need but gamification even more. You need to make sure that you are legitimately moving the needle on business needs and not just using gamification as a crutch to support content that is meaningless to the organization or individual.
4. Create a story/context
A particularly powerful way to motivate individuals is to give actions and ideas meaning by framing them within an appropriate context. Explain why the learners are earning points, who they are trying to save, why they are searching for a treasure. Remember, gamification works well when it is within a context—create a reason why learners should interact with the content you have created.
5. Use science to advance learning
There are two powerful mechanisms embedded in many gamification efforts: spaced retrieval and retrieval practice. Retrieval practice requires learners to recall information rather than simply re-read or re-listen to it.
A review of scientific literature reveals that the benefits of retrieval practice have been known for at least 100 years, and they have been demonstrated with many diverse groups . Retrieval practice alone can provide improved recall performance by as much as 10-20 percent. So, ask learners to recall content and act on that recall—answering questions about content is a great way to have retrieval practice.
Spaced retrieval involves providing learners with a quiz or course content spaced over time. It too is among the most robust findings in educational psychology research . It turns out that the greater the amount of spacing between retrieval events, the greater the potential benefit to retention (24 hours is optimal).
Spaced retrieval helps learners retain access to memorized information over long periods of time because the spacing promotes deeper processing of the learned material. It also avoids two inherent problems with mass practice (learning all the information at once); the problems of learner fatigue and the likelihood of interference with preceding and succeeding learning.
6. Make scoring and winning transparent
First, make the scoring easy. Avoid complicated algorithms or formulas. The learners should be able to directly link their actions and activities to a score so they know what they need to do to be successful. Second, determine what happens in various scoring scenarios ahead of time. Run various scenarios to see what happens—what is a learner gets every question wrong or right or skips every question. Yes, it might be a scenario that will never happen but, if you can imagine it, the learners will do it. You want to know of any potential problems ahead of time, not during the process.
7. Keep the rules simple
Complexity is not an ally in creating gamification. When developing gamified solutions, a tendency of the design and development team is to add complexity, avoid that tendency. Also, provide a tutorial level or experiences so that the learners are able to learn the rules in the beginning with little to lose. You don’t want the experience to be about who knows the rules the best, you want it to be about who learns the most.
8. Keep leaderboards small
No one wants to compete against the world’s best. Except, of course, if they are the world’s best. Otherwise keep leaderboards small. If possible, allow the learners to choose their own friend to place on a personalized leaderboard or structure the leaderboard by department or territory to allow individuals to contribute to a larger goal.
Consider only showing a relative position on the leaderboard. This might mean showing the five scores above and below a learner’s score. But remember, regardless of what you show the learners on a regular basis always allow access to the top scores (don’t hide anything from learners).
9. Use levels and badges appropriately
Use levels to guide learners through linear content and tie each level to a specific learning objective (usually a terminal objective). Let the learner know how many levels they are going to need to complete before the learning is over.
Badges, on the other hand, are good for showing non-linear progress. Badges can be tied to either terminal or enabling objectives. Also, if possible provide a place where learners can “show off” badges to leverage the social effectiveness of gamification.
10. Playtest the gamification experience
Before releasing the gamification program to all 10,000 employees in your organization, playtest it with a small pilot group. You will find flaws, cheats and shortcuts you never imagined. Humans are among the most creative creatures on the planet, they will find things you didn’t anticipate. Learn about those elements beforehand, conduct a playtest (or two or three).
Bonus: monitor learner progress
Once the gamification event is launched, you cannot sit back and let it unfold without monitoring. Most gamification platforms provide rich backend dashboards that allow for a close inspection of the process.
Take advantage of these dashboards. Look for players moving unusually fast or slow through the content and then find out why. Look for people earning more points than you thought possible, look to see if interest is waning or if all the learners are getting something wrong or too much or too little time is being expended. One advantage of gamification platforms is that they provide rich, real-time data—leverage that data.
In the next post, we answer the question: “How can you make learning more intriguing with gamification?”
Want to learn more about game design? Join Karl and Sharon Boller for the LearnNow: Game Design event, September 22-23 in Atlanta or December 8-9 in San Francisco.
 Larsen DP, Butler AC, Roediger HL. (2009) Repeated testing improves long-term retention relative to repeated study: a randomized controlled trial. Med Educ. 43: 1174–1181.
 Dobson, J. L. (2013) Retrieval practice is an efficient method of enhancing the retention of anatomy and physiology information. Advances in Physiology Education. 37: 184–191, 2013; doi:10.1152/advan.00174.2012.
  Carpenter SK, DeLosh EL. (2005) Application of the testing and spacing effects to name learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 19: 619–636, 2005. And Cull W. Untangling the benefits of multiple study opportunities and repeated testing for cued recall. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 14: 215–235, 2000. And Cull W, Shaughnessy JJ, Zechmeister EB. Expanding understanding of the expanding-pattern-of-retrieval mnemonic: toward confidence in applicability. Journal of Experimental Psychology Applied. 2: 365–378, 1996.