This is the third in a three-part series on Gamifiying Your Instruction. (Catch up with Part One and Part Two.)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.

For many people, the term “gamification” conjures images of leaderboards, earning points and obtaining badges for learning specific content. While all of those elements are part of gamification, I think the real, long-term benefits will occur when instructional designers mine other, richer game elements and apply those to learning—elements that draw learners to play games and continue playing games in the first place.

Here are eight game elements that, when applied to learning, make it more engaging and motivating:

Element 1: Mystery

Mystery exists when there is a gap between known and unknown information and the person experiencing the gap realizes information exists to fill that gap but they need to find it. In essence, mystery is the “what happened and why” element. For example, not knowing the location of a hidden key to open a door or not knowing where to find information about the company’s safety policy.

Mystery arouses curiosity within the learner, and can motivate the learner to fill in gaps and locate discrepancies in information. When borrowing this element from games, don’t tell your learner everything; leave gaps the learner must fill. Let them know that the information exists, but that they need to look for it. Think of titles like “The Mystery of the Ineffective Leader” or “The Case of the Industrial Accident.” Use mystery to draw in the learner and encourage her to explore content from several angles.

Element 2: Action

Good games start with action. Right from the beginning the player must do something. Run toward a shelter, find a map, or begin collecting pieces of the Triforce. Seldom in a game environment is the player forced to read an exhaustive list of objectives, review terms, and understand policy before taking the first step. Many games start with tutorial levels that engage the player immediately.

When designing learning, follow the same format. Don’t start with a list of objectives; start with the learner making a decision, moving from point A to point B or selecting a plan of action. Involve the learner immediately in the learning process, and don’t have them read content for the first 10 screens. Action and interactivity engages learners.

Element 3: Challenge

Humans enjoy overcoming challenges. It runs in our DNA. Game makers have leveraged this by challenging players at every opportunity—from the beginning of the game until the end. Learning modules need to start with a challenge. For too long, e-learning modules have spoon-fed learners with easy objectives, step-by-step instructions, and ridiculous multiple-choice questions. Stop the madness. 

Start learning with a challenge: something that is difficult, that requires deep thinking, and that cannot be achieved by guessing. Pose a difficulty scenario. For example, open the e-learning module by telling the learner they are auditing a client and one day during lunch an employee working in the organization enters their office and accuses the vice president of embezzling.  The learner is now challenged with figuring out what to do.

Element 4: Being at risk

In a game, a player could lose a life, be required to start over, or lose all the gold coins collected because of a wrong move. The player has something to risk when taking an action or making a decision. In contrast, most learning environments involve no risk—accept dying from boredom. When people feel something is at risk, they pay closer attention, focus their energy, and are engaged with the task at hand.

Learning needs to be the same. Force a “question run” in which the learner must get five questions in a row right. If they miss one, they get five additional questions. If they get them all right, they are done. Can the learner be required to start over if he makes an incorrect decision? Can there be a limit on the number of attempts—the risk being more tasks to accomplish if not done efficiently? Be clever and think of ways that learners can be at risk. Could the learner get “fired” in the learning scenario? This is safe risk like the risk in a video game of losing a chance, missing out on a special trinket, or having to re-cover old ground. These are all ways that put a player at risk and can be incorporated into learning modules.

Element 5: Uncertainty of outcome

Closely related to risk is putting the learner in a situation in which they can’t predict the outcome. When playing a game, you don’t know the outcome in advance. Are you going to make it to the next level? Can you find all the hidden jewels? Can you solve the mystery? Or will you lose everything and have to start the level over?

In a learning module, the outcome is more certain. I’ll tab through these screens, encounter a multiple-choice question, get 85 percent correct on the quiz, and pass the course. Predictable. Instead, add an element of chance into the learning process. Have the learner “bet” on the confidence of an answer or give him a 50/50 opportunity to get an easy or hard question. Uncertainty adds suspense, intrigue, and focuses the learner’s attention on the task at hand.

Element 6: Opportunity for mastery

One thing games allow a player to do is demonstrate mastery within the game environment and, more importantly, to themselves. A player conquers a level, displays their prowess at solving a puzzle, or shows how well they know the game board by collecting all hidden treasures—all visible signs of mastery.

In many learning designs, the only chance to show any mastery is to answer quiz questions at the end of a module. People like to have a sense of mastery. They like to know that they know the content. Give them a chance to apply their newly learned content, ask it in different ways, and see if they can express their own knowledge. Give the learner a series of difficult problems, once they solve one problem, give them a visible reward like a badge and have them move on to the next difficult problem increasing the difficulty level until the final “boss” problem.

This is an almost impossible problem, but since the learners have been demonstrating their mastery all the way, they should be able to solve the problem and master the content. Even if they fail at the last question, they still have visible, tangible evidence of their mastery through their badges.

Element 7: Visible signs of progress

Games let you see how you are doing.  When playing Pac Man, you know how far along you are by observing how many dots are left on your screen. Throughout the module, give learners visible signs of moving through the content. This can be in the form of a badge or achievement or moving to a new level or even changing the look of the player’s character when they achieve a learning objective. Provide clear evidence that progress has been made. Don’t leave “progress reports” until the end. Include them often within the instruction.

Games provide progress bars, levels, and coins to collect—all items indicating the player is closer to the end goal. You can even have a non-player character appear and provide a “status report” to the learner. See the article Show the Learner Visible Signs of Their Learning for a more in-depth look at this subject.

Element 8: Emotional content

Somehow in recent years, we’ve managed to divorce instructional content from emotional context. We create sterile bulleted lists of “dos and don’ts.” We assume people make decisions about adhering to policy based on rational algorithms and not normal human emotions. We have stripped learning modules of humanity and replaced it with policy, terminology, and models.

Games do the exact opposite. Games fill a player with emotions ranging from frustration to elation, from sadness to anger to enthusiastic happiness. They bring out the “human” in us. Games are not afraid of human emotion; games embrace and encourage emotion. It would be a breath of fresh air if our learning modules borrowed from games and put the critical element of emotion back into learning.  Humans are quite adept at recalling learning when the learning is tied to strong emotions. 



Further reading

  • Wilson, K. A., Bedwell, W.L., Lazzara, E.H., Salas, E., Burke, S.C., Estaock, J. L., Orvis, K. L., and Conkey, C. (2008) Relationships between Game Attributes and Learning Outcomes: Review and Research Proposals. Simuation Gaming 2009 40:217. DOI 10.177/1046878108321866
  • Jones, B., Valdez, G., Norakowski, J., & Rasmussen, C. (1994). Designing learning and technology for educational reform. North Central Regional  Educational Laboratory. [Online]. Available:
  • Schlechty, P. C. (1997). Inventing better schools: An action plan for educational reform. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 


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.