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reflections of the team

Why start with Gamification?

In April I wrote the blogpost ‘What is Gamification?’ in which I discussed two definitions by two different authors. For both of them the bottom line was clear and since then I define Gamification as:

“Motivating and engaging people by applying game mechanics or concepts into a non-game context.”

For my second Gamification blogpost published in July, I thought it would be a good idea to debunk 5 widespread myths regarding Gamification before trying to answer the question ‘Why should my organisation Gamify its learning solutions?’. With those myths now out of our way, let us focus more on the pros, cons and the viability of Gamification for your organisation.

When reading the title of this post and the definition above, the answer to “why Gamify?” is easy: to motivate and engage your employees. Following that train of thought: why do we need to motivate learners? How can we motivate learners? Though reflecting on motivation is important, it tends to distract me from the core objective as learning professional: ensuring a learning transfer. As more traditional learning solutions are being criticised for not ensuring desired learning outcomes, professionals are looking for solutions that can. Could gamification be that solution? Can Gamification increase motivation? Why could Gamification ensure a better learning transfer?

Why could Gamification ensure a better learning transfer?


“If employees are obliged by the management to undertake training, why should I need to motivate them?”

A valid point, but do you really think the learner in this case will apply the desired learning outcome in his day to day work? Or is his main concern to complete the training in order to soothe management? The learning transfer fails as the employee is motivated for the wrong reasons.

There are two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when something or someone determines a learner to make an action. For example: management obligating attendance in training. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, the learner makes the decision for himself without external influence.

There are several theories of human motivation. My preferred framework to explore motivation and its link to Gamification is the Self Determination Theory (SDT). The most important finding of the SDT is that it proposes three main universal needs involved in intrinsic motivation that, if satisfied, optimizes learning: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Some mechanics used in games tap into these universal needs of intrinsic motivation. Therefore, applying the right game mechanics in a non-game context can trigger a more engaging learning behaviour.

Below, you see an overview of the three SDT factors and their possible game mechanics:

Wout Verhoeven

Wout Verhoeven

But there are also a lot of game mechanics that raise extrinsic motivation, such as points, badges, scoreboards, missions,…This distinction between different types of game mechanics and two types of motivation can also be found and recognised in Karl Kapp’s two types of Gamification:

  • Structural Gamification for extrinsic motivation
  • Content Gamification for intrinsic motivation (see ‘What is Gamification?’)

Gamification desires to combine both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in order to raise engagement.


171017-WV-Why Gamification-Matrix SDT.png

Next to motivation, concentration in general is the optimal state in which the actual learning takes place. This desired state is often referred to as ‘flow’ and is caused by opposite emotions that derive from challenging activities. An optimal flow or concentration can be reached by ensuring a good balance between the scale of challenges and the range of skills.

 A limitation of e-learning from a pedagogical point of view is that it cannot transmit emotions such as anxiety or frustration. For this lack of feeling or emotional interaction, an e-learning needs to compensate and try to stimulate learners with other means. Frustration can appear when a learner does not have the capability or skills to solve challenges. We need to avoid the possibility of frustration by safeguarding that balance in the design of learning solution.

Games know how to do this by putting the player central and building up challenges and capabilities step by step (See Human Focused Design – Yu Kai Chou). Game mechanics such as ‘levels’ or ‘chunking’ succeed in this and give a player a sense of mastery: the player is getting better (capable/skills) in playing the game (overcoming challenges) and is not frustrated nor bored by it. Already motivated and now also capable to overcome challenges, it is more likely that the learner will transfer these newly learned capabilities whenever he faces a similar challenge, even in a different context. However, establishing and safeguarding that balance between challenges and capabilities in your learning solution is far from easy.

Does all of this means that I need throw out all other learning methods?

No. I truly believe that Gamification can increase motivation and engagement and thus ensure a better learning transfer. But this does not necessarily mean that other learning methods can’t. I think it is very important to see in which context it can be used. Depending on the context (learning needs, budget, type of content,…) you will choose a certain design for your learning solution.  I think you should not ask yourself “How can I use Gamification for this training?” but rather “Could the learning outcome be better if we applied game mechanics?”.

Matching your gamification process with the real learning challenges of your organisation is not a piece of cake. Gamification is not only a matter of implementing game mechanics, it is also about knowing how these mechanics interact with each other and the learner. Designing such a training could present some difficulties.

Another argument against Gamification is the cost and time it requires. Most organisations will try to optimize Learning & Development to its function: developing the most efficient way (time, money, impact) to deliver the required knowledge.

Example: Document Retention Policy

On the other hand, if motivation is lacking towards a certain training subject, I would weigh up the costs and benefits of Gamification. In a company I worked for, all employees undertook a training annually regarding document retention policy of the company (records management).

The content of this training is not very sexy, nonetheless important for organisations from a legal point of view. When all employees have to do this training every year, gamifying this training could be beneficial. Not only in costs but also in learning outcomes as they are more motivated and engaged to successfully complete the training.

In a sense, Gamification feels to me as an all-purpose word. If you are an instructional designer it is most likely that you already applied game mechanics in your modules, even though you never named it like that. Games and obviously learning solutions are both rooted in educational theories and make use of its methods. Scenario Based Learning (SBL) where learners are immersed in day to day work situations is a good example. When learners acquire new skills that are practiced in these scenarios, it is most likely that they apply/transfer these learnings in a real life work context. 


As a conclusion, I would say that I do not believe that Gamification is the universal panacea to all your learning problems. However, I do believe that it can ensure a better learning transfer but that it largely depends on the context in which you use it. I see Gamification as a powerful yet complicated learning method, a tool that can be used when all conditions are met. But even then I would explore if there are not any other learning solutions that could guarantee the same outcomes.