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3 Ways to Define and Apply Gamification in Learning

Updated: May 22, 2020

Gamification is a nebulous term. To unlock its value in the learning and training space, we must first define it before we can understand how to apply it.

To that end, here’s a question for YOU:

When you think about gamification in the context of training, what comes to mind? Choose your answer below.

  • If your answer is, “A game you play for fun, like Angry Birds or Halo” scroll down to #1.

  • If your answer is, “Something that involves points, badges and leaderboards” scroll down to #2.

  • If your answer is, “Something that applies game principles and psychology as well as layered game mechanics” scroll down to #3.


Mindspace Advanced Gamification


1. Sounds fun, but not exactly where we were headed. Go back.

2. This could work, but there’s a better option. Go back.

3. Boom! You’re on the right path. Continue.

The way we think about gamification at Mindspace, especially when applied to learning, is something we call “Advanced Gamification.” We'll talk more about this concept later, but not everyone thinks of gamification in learning the way we do. That’s okay. There are pros and cons to some of the different ways people perceive or define gamification.

Here, we’ll lay out the pluses and minuses of three different way to apply gamification in learning so you can determine which works best for you and your organization. If you’re thinking about making the leap to providing gamified learning experiences, it's important to know a bit about each of these three approaches.

1: Shall we play a game (for fun)?

You’ve probably played a few phone- or console-based games, and I bet there are

some you virtually obsessed over. Maybe you loved old mobile classics like Fruit Ninja or Candy Crush, or perhaps you were a console junkie who just couldn’t hit the pause button on your Skyrim quest. No matter the case, you can't deny that many entertainment games are exceedingly popular.

The pros

The fun meter

  • There’s no rival to fun when you play a game for the pure enjoyment of it. Well-crafted entertainment games certainly motivate players to stay engaged for relatively short bursts of time, and it’s even possible to teach some basic concepts in the midst of the entertainment bonanza. Typically, however, what’s taught is directly related to the gameplay itself since the purpose of the game is purely for entertainment.

The cons

The junk food effect

  • Many learning games that take the entertainment approach are the equivalent of junk food; there’s a lot of sugary eye candy, but it’s mostly empty calories. There’s very little substance with these kinds of learning games, and when you try to shoehorn learning content into the experience everything feels disjointed. A learner might read a bunch of boring content on what appears to be a poorly designed PDF and then suddenly be prompted to putt a ball into a hole and answer a question. There’s no cohesion between the learning content and the entertaining game. The game is literally a distraction from the learning. Ultimately, the core game itself gets in the way of learning.

The quality hurdle

  • The game industry has set a high bar when it comes to producing quality games designed for fun and entertainment. Games that are hastily developed and sent to market ultimately fail to gain traction and are replaced. Audiences today have a low tolerance for less than premium experiences on the gaming front. Training departments don’t have the budget, knowledge, or resources to build games for entertainment that compete in this market, so it’s not recommended to pursue this option for bringing gamification into your learning and training programs.

2: Collect ’em all: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards


Chances are high that you’ve played a PBL-based game without even knowing it. PBLs are probably the most popular and well-known form of gamification, and they show up in things like loyalty programs. Your favorite coffee shop, for example, probably allows you to earn points or collect stamps that you can redeem for a free cup of coffee or some other types of items. That’s a PBL-based “game” right there and yet it doesn’t look anything like a console-based video game.

The pros:

The simple life

  • PBLs are so popular because they’re quite simple to ideate and execute. All you have to do is determine what behaviors you want people to take, assign a point value to those behaviors, spin up some cool badges or stamps, and you’ve got the bones of a PBL game.

The competitive spark

  • Leaderboards play an interesting role in PBL-based gamification because their presence awakens a competitiveness in people that sparks motivation. No one wants to be at the bottom of the leaderboard. And while some people become very competitive with others to reach the top, many people see the leaderboard as a challenge to self. Can they, regardless of their rank on the leaderboard, push themselves to improve over time? Competition is a powerful motivator and PBLs can certainly unlock this important (and valuable) attribute.

The cons:

The fatigue factor

  • PBLs are great for delivering a short-term boost in engagement and motivation. The newness and excitement of implementing a PBL system almost always captures the attention of the audience, so you’ll likely see an uptick in performance against what’s being measured. In the long run, however, repetitive tasks and rewards can become less motivating if they’re not actively changed and managed on a regular basis.

The content decay

  • When used in the context of learning, PBLs do a good job of drawing learners’ attention to the featured content upon launch of the PBL campaign. The problem, however, is that failing to keep the content fresh kills engagement with the PBL system beyond its initial launch. Once someone completes the content and earns points, what’s next? If a long-lasting content strategy or publishing schedule hasn’t been developed so you can sustain points or badge accumulation, your PBL system will die a quick death. This is probably the biggest issue we see with clients who want to pursue a PBL approach - they haven’t considered how to keep content fresh.

It’s worth adding a little more context here about PBLs. They’re the most popular type of gamification requests we see, but they’re a shell of a game experience. Gamification pioneer Yu-kai Chou, in his book, “Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards,” says:

“Many ‘experts’ of limited experience are only familiar with how to implement PBL mechanics and even though these sometime create value, most of them completely miss the point of engaging the user. It is not unusual for users to feel insulted by shallow shell mechanics."

If you ask any gamer what makes a game fun, they won't tell you it’s because of the PBLs. They play it because there are elements of strategy, because it’s a great way to hangout with friends, or they want to challenge themselves. The points and badges are often an added bonus that’s nice to have depending on the context.”

PBLs have their place. In fact, they work well for things like initial onboarding where content is set, duration is relatively short, and there’s a definitive end to the experience.

You can’t simply assume that bolting on points, badges, and leaderboards to existing content will do the trick in all cases.

3. Gamification in disguise: Advanced gamification

The third way to apply gamification to learning is the one we love most. We call it

“advanced gamification.” It’s not about fun for fun’s sake or points for points’ sake. Advanced gamification is about three things:

  1. Discovering and evaluating needs and motivations of the learning audience

  2. Applying the principles, mechanics, and psychology of games to content

  3. Focusing these elements on meeting key learning or marketing objective

When we're able to do this, we can thoughtfully weave the pieces together to build an immersive and advanced gamified experience.

The pros:

The custom edge

  • Advanced gamification is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is not a boxed or bolted-on solution. Applying advanced gamification to a learning or training program requires a custom approach each time because it is largely influenced by the audience and content it serves. It requires up-front discovery work about the learning audience and their needs, the game mechanics that are designed to satisfy those needs, an evaluation of the current learning content (if it exists), and an exploration of the audience’s internal and external motivators, and a determination about the appropriate level of opacity for the final gamified product. And that’s just to get the strategy portion started. Though advanced gamification is an involved process, this custom approach yields one-of-a-kind learning experiences that are tailored to your learners, your brand, and your content.

The long-term play

  • Advanced gamification lends itself to longer-term engagement than PBL-based approaches and avoids fatigue with one or two repeated game mechanics. When done correctly, multiple and layered mechanics work together with the content at different points during a learner’s journey to keep them engaged over time. While short-term engagement might make sense for limited onboarding programs, many other types of training require longer-term engagement to be effective. Skills, customer handling, and product training are such types.

The cons:

The price factor

  • Custom approaches to advanced gamification can definitely be expensive. However, it’s short-sighted to give in to sticker shock if you haven’t wrestled with the cost of employee turnover, poor customer experience, or lack of product knowledge by customer-facing employees. It’s not unusual for an advanced gamification project to range between $500,000 to $1,000,000. If that scares you, dig into your some of the costs I mentioned above and see if it pays for itself in one quarter, six months, or one year. If it does, you’d be smart to consider the spend as an investment.

The time crunch

  • There’s a classic conflict often experienced when developing any kind of learning or training program: speed vs. quality. Even if budget is available, clients often believe they can bring their gamified vision to life quickly AND at a level of quality that surpasses learners’ expectations. Having both rapid development and five-star output isn’t a realistic expectation. Quality takes time, and that’s the other potential downside of taking an advanced gamification approach. It simply takes longer to develop a robust gamification strategy and build out the UI/UX to support it. Depth of content certainly impacts how long development might take, but we generally find that well-crafted advanced gamification initiatives take about six months to develop. Plan ahead, and this downside doesn’t have to be a pain point if you want to entertain an advanced gamification approach.

The End

Whether you’ve already tried baking gamification into your trainings or not, it’s important to know the different ways it can be applied to the learning space.

Instead of just seeking fun or bolting on points, badges, or leaderboards, consider how more advanced gamification principles can help guide learners to a better understanding of your material through a cohesive gamified experience.

And if you don’t know where to start, we can help.


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