ATD Blog

What is Gamification? and Why it Matters to L&D Professionals

Monday, January 9, 2012

In my last posting I mentioned the idea of "Gamification" and Anna thoughtfully pointed out that we need to " define what "gamification" means to learning development. " I couldn't agree more and I have spent the last year exploring that concept to see what Gamification does mean to learning and development professionals. 
For more on this, see my posting In Defense of the Term Gamification as used by Learning Professionals on Kapp Notes, and be sure to read the insightful and provocative comments. 

So on this posting, let's define Gamification.

"Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems."

Now, when most people think of "gamification" they think of rewards, points, and achievements and how artificially incentivizing people to do things based solely on rewards is a losing proposition (and most of the time it is), so let's look at the characteristics of video games that are useful, exciting, and engaging in terms of learning and, it turns out, in terms of video game play.  

Here are few examples of game-based thinking we can apply to our instruction, this is an abbreviated list. I explore many more in The Gamification of Learning and Instruction which will be out in May and in my talk at TechKnowledge 2012 - coming up shortly.


Games are interesting and motivating because they have a story, they provide a context in which actions need to take place. Many learning courses provide no context, no reason for actions. We need to use story elements, plot, characters, resolution, scene setting to help put learning back into context. Training, and the educational system, has removed training or learning events too far from the actual application of the knowledge. Stories bring context back. Additionally, research indicates that people remember facts better when they are in a story than when they are presented in a bulleted list.



Another element in games is immediate feedback. When you play Pac Man, you know right away how you are doing; you visually see the number of dots left to be eaten and how close the ghosts are to cornering you.  From a learning perspective, feedback is a critical element for facilitating learning. Providing frequent opportunities for students to respond during a lesson helps with learning as shown in research. Most of our learning courses do an extremely poor job of providing immediate feedback. Additionally, the feedback typically is not based on action or activity, it's based on knowledge - how well the learner could "temporarily" remember what was covered earlier in the course. This isn't meaningful feedback. Gamification can provide, in the form of points or "health" or "lives" feedback on progress.

Games provide meaningful and immediate feedback far more effectively and efficiently than a classroom instructor. Game-based thinking and mechanics can help learning designers think about continuous corrective feedback.

Freedom to Fail and Chance

In an instructional environment, failure is not a valid option. In games it's encouraged with multiple lives and attempts. Games overcome the "sting of failure" specifically by doing things like giving multiple opportunities to perform a task until mastery and through the introduction of chance or randomness (two elements that schools and corporations work hard to eliminate). In fact, research indicates that gaming uncertainty can transform the emotional experience of learning improving engagement and, more importantly, improving encoding and later recall.


Games do a great job of providing personalized experiences. In many games I can choose an entry point of easy, intermediate, or difficult. Most online learning experiences are developed for "one-size-fits-all" with no consideration of different skill or knowledge backgrounds. Why can't we design learning to accommodate different skill levels just like video games?


Two things I'd like to mention before signing off for this post. First, notice I did not mention points, rewards, or achievements. We can apply game-based thinking without having the elements of points or rewards. We don't need to use points or rewards as motivation - however, we can use points and rewards as feedback on progress. So, let's not abandon all mention of points or rewards because we fear they may undermine intrinsic motivation, the research is not as specific on this point as many would like. In fact, some research indicates that intrinsic and extrinsic rewards exist side-by-side in classroom environments and that they are not, indeed, opposite ends of a continuum.

Second, when I mention "gamification" people often caution me that we must "get it right" or we can cause a lot of harm and that getting gamification right is tricky. I don't disagree but designing any type of learning event effectively is tricky and, unfortunately, learning professionals often mess that up.

One example is the continued, unscientifically supported use of learning styles. So, I don't believe the argument that we should abandon the use of gamification because it is hard to do and because we might do it wrong. If that was the case, 40% of all corporate learning could have to be thrown out because the objectives are wrong, the instructional strategies are wrong and the assessment of knowledge is wrong. You don't throw out a method because in some cases it might be incorrectly used, instead, we need to educate people on the correct usage of the concept.

Gamification is an exciting addition to an instructional designer's toolkit but it should not be foreign or strange to learning and development professionals we have been using many of the techniques for years (check out the last link in the resources list)..

OK, this post is already longer than I anticipated. 

Here are some resources to further your thinking on the subject and if you are going to TechKnowledge, look for my session on Wednesday, 01/25/2012 from 11:00AM -12:15PM, Room Miranda 7/8. The description title of the talk is What Research Tells Us About 3D Avatars, Storytelling and Serious Games for Learning and Behavior Change.

About the Author

Karl Kapp, Ed.D. is a professor of instructional design and technology at Commonwealth University, Bloomsburg Campus. He is an internationally recognized expert, consultant, and instructor on the convergence of learning, technology, and business. Follow him on LinkedIn at and email at [email protected].

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.