ATD Links Archive
Issue Map
ATD Links Archive
ATD Links

The Four Pillars of Gamification

How to gamify e-learning.

My favorite definition of a game comes from Jesse Schell, CEO of videogame studio, Schell Games and the former chair of the International Game Developers Association: "a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude." While that definition uses a broad brush to explain games, you tend to run into problems if you start to define a game any further.

You might be inclined to think that your e-learning program probably qualifies as a game by this definition. Dig a little deeper, though, and you realize that is probably not the case. How often is e-learning approached with a playful attitude? And I don't mean sticking a quirky piece of clip art at the top of the screen. Instead, a learning game should evoke a sense of playfulness in your learners - an ability to try things out, to experiment, and to fail safely. Typically, our e-learning solutions are so linear and "push" in nature that there is very little scope to play. E-learning solutions are to be worked through, not played with.

So how can we gamify e-learning? Building further on Jesse Schell's work, there are four key areas to game design: aesthetics, story, mechanics, and technology.


A game is only a game if it looks like a game, right? Wrong! Games come in many forms. But games make use of aesthetics in unique and interesting ways. For instance, Call of Duty is noted for its ultra-realistic graphics. But Mafia Wars, one of the most popular games of recent times, is mostly text. This game is all about dispersing scores of information to players and configuring the best way to display that information within a text interface.

While aesthetics help encourage playfulness, if for no other reason than to make something look like a game, they aren't enough to make something a game in and of itself. You don't have to make a 3D virtual world to make a game; you just have to make best use of aesthetics that suit the style of gameplay you want to facilitate.

To be sure, you could move your onboarding program into Second Life to make it "look" like a computer game, but it wouldn't be enough to meet the definition of a game. It is important to acknowledge that aesthetics aren't just about visual appearance; they engage all of the senses. Think sound, think touch.


One of the most oft overlooked aspects of gamification is the story. In my opinion, it's the make-or-break element. Games enable players to take part in stories and influence the outcome. The story is your games reason for being - your problem to be solved. The problem needs to be big enough to warrant a story and it needs to appeal to people's curiosity.

Indeed, games often give players the opportunity to do something that perhaps they couldn't in real life. Therefore, we typically expect a game's story to be something epic or larger-than-life in nature. This doesn't need to go into the world of complete fantasy, however. Increasingly, games are becoming more appealing because of their link into real world scenarios, such as Facebook's social games in which participants compete against actual friends.

Or consider a health and safety program. Previously, the course would most likely have been a somewhat dull, preachy, common sense, information dump. Throw that idea in the trash and start with a new, gamified premise: a quest to save a life. Now that's a story.



Mechanics are the bits and pieces that most people would consider the tools they need to gamify an experience. Game mechanics refer to the mechanisms by which the game itself works, such as scoring points, achieving specific levels of play, accessing cash, awarding badges, and so on. These are the measures by which players 'win.'

Unfortunately, there abounds a level of confusion about mechanics and their presence as an intrinsic or extrinsic motivator. When mechanics are tied implicitly to a game and hold only an endogenic value (meaning something that only holds great value inside the game), they can be seen as a part of the intrinsic motivation mechanism. Monopoly money is the classic example. When you play the game, Monopoly money is vital. When you aren't playing Monopoly, you couldn't care less about its money.

For example, achieving badges within a game is an intrinsic mechanic, as long as there remains an endogenic value for them. If the badges are of no significance within the game and are used as a basis to reward behavior outside of gameplay, they have become an extrinsic motivator and have no real place in your gamified learning. When people play a game to reach some external goal, they are going to lose interest in the game itself.

Be careful with your mechanics and don't let anyone use them as a basis to extrinsically reward behavior. Mechanics help a player to evaluate their competence within the game environment. Don't be tricked into using the same measures to evaluate their competence in real world skills.


All games have a foundation in technology; they just use it differently. Some games require no more technology than a pencil and paper. Others require implementation of innovative and new technology. How you use technology will play into the ability of players to solve problems and the attitude with which they approach the experience.

Deploying your solution on an X-Box is an obvious path to getting people thinking about the experience in a playful attitude - it is on a games console, therefore it is a game. Apps for smartphones offers a nice middle ground; less formal than traditional courseware offered through an, but more flexible than a games console.

What is important is that your technology enables sufficient participation for players to influence the outcome. If players can't interact with the system or other players, then your technology is going to fail you. Social learning platforms have a big role to play here as both systems of consumption and contribution.

Games come in many forms

Often, people are quick to judge what qualifies as a game based on just one of these pillars. But the pillars in isolation are really never enough to qualify a learning offering as a game. It is the combination of the pillars that constitutes the true game experience.

Because the industry still lacks a grand unified theory of "games," gamification is a difficult concept to get your head around. However, it is safe to assume that gamification requires an appreciation of all four pillars. Without this appreciation, it seems likely that your new gamified learning experience won't be as well received as it might be.

Simply slapping the "game" badge on your latest learning offering will not suffice. Be sure to use endogenic mechanics, a compelling storyline, suitable aesthetics, and the most appropriate technology to gamify your learning - and you're off to a good start!

Ben Betts is managing director of

HT2, creators of innovative learning technologies.

About the Author
Ben Betts is an entrepreneur, technologist, and social learning expert. He and his team at HT2 develop products and services for online learning. In his role as CEO of HT2, Ben developed the Curatr Social Learning platform and the open source learning record store Learning Locker. He has worked with Google, Accenture, KPMG, Pearson Education, Oxford University, Cambridge University, BP, Twitter, Nike, Barclays, Shell, Xerox, and many more. Ben writes and speaks about social and peer-to-peer learning around the world, and has made an appearance at TEDx. He completed a doctorate at the University of Warwick (UK), where he studied the application of social learning in the workplace. He also holds an MBA and is a Fellow of the Learning & Performance Institute.
Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.