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reflections of the team

What is Gamification?

Gamification is HOT. Even though the numbers date from 2015 they clearly show that both organisations and its learners as well as Learning Professionals are very interested in Gamification for different reasons. The optimistic projections in terms of market growth and expected revenue however warn me that this might be a trend that overdraws day to day reality of organisations. Being a Gamer and Learning Professional myself, Gamification therefore immediately triggered my interest but at the same time the caution to approach this trend critically.

Top Gamification Stats according to

Top Gamification Stats according to

Defining Gamification is not easy as there are a lot of definitions to be found on the internet as well as in articles and books. Most of the differences however can be explained by the angle on which authors approach Gamification. In order to make this blogpost comprehensible I’ve limited myself to discuss the definitions of two authors: Karl Kapp & Yu Kai Chou. The reason I have chosen these two ‘guru’s’ is twofold. For one, they both are renowned Gamification keynote speakers and authors who put their ideas into practice. Secondly, their angles on Gamification do not differ that much but they do have different accents.

Karl Kapp defines Gamification as:

“Gamification is the careful and considered integration of game characteristics, aesthetics and mechanics into a non-game context to promote change in behavior. It is most often used to motivate and engage people”

Kapp’s main focus is on the game mechanics and moreover they need to be applied in a “careful and considered” manner which eventually makes it a matter of design that triggers or evokes the desired behaviour. He also distinguishes two types of Gamification: structural gamification versus content Gamification.

Structural Gamification

Structural Gamification is characterized by the use of game mechanics such as badges, point and leader boards. Rewards in general are the incentive to engage and encourage learners to continue. The content of the learning material does not become game-like, only the structure around the content. The learning goals have to be clear from the start because this is the way you can earn rewards. Structural Gamification “drags” the learner through the content and tries to keep him engaged by handing out rewards.  

For me this distinction makes it clear why Kapp does not value these game mechanics that much. Personally I find it less creative and can imagine that I would lose interest after time. Not all learners want to compete with each other over something trivial nor do they want to be constantly rewarded after showing good behaviour. But I think success largely depends on the context in which you use Structural Gamification.

For example, competition is truly inherent to a sports context. The social network sports app Strava for instance is designed for cyclists to track their efforts and share this with their fellow cyclists all over the world. Personally I think Strava applied Structural Gamification mechanics beautifully by not only handing out badges for personal records but also by including general leader boards or boards that you specifically created for your team.                           

The Use of Gamification in app Strava

The Use of Gamification in app Strava

The Use of Gamification in app Strava

The Use of Gamification in app Strava

If you want to be good in cycling, you need to train at least three times a week for 2 hours. This means that cyclists often train alone as you really have to fit in this timeslot in your already busy schedule. After a while you know your own records, those of others and the most popular segments in the app. You really feel motivated to ride out alone to train and simultaneously break your records on certain segments or even become King of the Mountain which means you are the fastest cyclist of that particular segment.    

Content Gamification

Content Gamification on the other hand makes use of game mechanics such as challenge, storytelling, feedback loops, freedom to fail in order to immerse learners from the beginning and even without knowing the learning goals upfront. It is also perfectly possible to add these game mechanics to increase engagement and learning without designing an entire game. Take safety trainings for example. Instead of beginning with the learning objectives or table of content, why don’t you “drop” the learner in a specific work situation (storytelling & challenge). You accidentally dropped a barrel of toxic waste, what will you do?

In my opinion Karl Kapp’s approach to Gamification is rooted in more traditional Instructional Design whilst Yu-Kai Chou’s approach is more to be situated in actual (video)games and more specifically its gameplay and user experience.

For Yu-Kai Chou Gamification:

“refers to the process of adding game-like concepts and abilities to various applications in order to make them more enjoyable, engaging and motivating for the user.”

The user experience takes a more central place in the design and there is a good reason for that. For Yu-Kai Chou learners do not only need to be engaged and motivated but they also have to enjoy it. Gamification is making use of all the addicting and fun elements found in games and apply these to real-world activities such as business. The way we look at motivation and engagement now is different, in other words there is a shift of focus. It seems that for Chou Gamification in a business context is born in this paradigm shift that he distinguishes as a ‘Function Focused Design’ versus a ‘Human Focused Design’.

Function Focused Design

Traditional learning methods are more likely to be found in the Function Focused Design: learning goals need to be achieved and the way to do this needs to be optimised efficiently in terms of time and costs. Assigning compliance trainings on a large a scale through an LMS is a good example of a Function Focused system. It assumes that learners WILL be motivated and engaged.  

Human Focused Design

A Human Focused Design on the other hand acknowledges that people have insecurities, feelings and reasons why they want or do not want to learn and therefore optimises their feelings, motivations and engagement. And according to Chou the gaming industry was the first to master Human Focused Design as games have no other purpose than to please. Even if there are objectives such as saving the princess, all of these are just mechanics to keep the player happily entertained. Chou states: “Since games have spent decades learning how to master motivation and engagement, we are now learning from games, and that is why we call it Gamification.