Next level eLearning? A critical look at gamification

If you watch children play, two things you might be amazed at are their stamina and enthusiasm. The same holds true for people playing computer games. Apparently, there are people who become so absorbed in the game that they forget to eat and drink and can do without sleep for quite some time. Apart from tremendous engagement and motivation games may also encourage collaboration and create loyalty, e.g. through points systems.

Recognising the positive effects of games, the e-learning industry adopted serious games and gamification as methods for delivering learning. At the moment, gamification, “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts“ (Deterding et al. 9), is one of the major trends in e-learning. Towards Maturity, for example, reported that among top organisations employing e-learning 27% used “achievement goals, badges or points systems” to reward learners. By, 2017 these figures are expected to double (Towards Maturity 46).

Badges, leader boards and points systems seem to be the elements that are most commonly associated with ‘gamification’. Yet, they are by no means the only ones that cause games to work so well. What do games really have to teach us about how people are motivated and learn? And where are the pitfalls?

Vector gamification concept

Why do people get hooked on games?

Apart from offering rewards, such as badges and points, and creating competition amongst players as reflected in leader boards, games engage people by presenting a problem and thus providing a challenge. This makes people curious. They can now explore problem-solving strategies in a safe environment without suffering negative consequences if these strategies fail. Thus, games enable people to experiment.

If the game is designed well, the challenges will be difficult enough for players to really make an effort, yet easy enough to still be manageable (Deterding 299). Rising to such challenges gives people a feeling of competence (Deterding 299) and growth as they become better at what they do. This growth is reflected by rising to the next level which can again be considered a reward.

Moreover, games are often embedded into a story, which creates context. Why is it important that the players kill a boss? The story shows players that they are fighting for a higher purpose, something bigger than themselves. This is what game experts call “epic meaning”. In order to rise to a challenge, sometimes, players have to work together on a solution thus satisfying people’s need for relatedness (Deterding 299). You can find more game mechanics in the Gamification Wiki.

Are there any pitfalls?

Despite all the excitement about gamification one major difference between games and training persists: People who play games do so of their own accord while employees usually have to take part in a training. Often, gamification is therefore used to make allegedly stale content more palatable (Deterding 300). But why do we consider the content boring in the first place? If employees have to learn it surely the information must be relevant to them. So instead of simply inserting a badge-system we should rather think about how we make clear to employees why the course is important for their work and how it might make things easier for them. Maybe the problem is not even that the relevance of the content is unclear but that learners lack time, a quiet place for studying or some other resource for learning. Thus, we should properly analyse barriers to learning before patching up low involvement or transfer with game elements.

Targeting the barriers of learning first seems even more important as some game elements can have negative effects. Rewards can diminish or even destroy people’s intrinsic motivation (Kohn 69-72). Learners who are motivated by badges or points instead of the contents focus on what they have to do in order to receive the next goody and hence do not actively process the contents of the course (Dirksen 148). Moreover, people might show the desired behaviour in an e-learning scenario because they get points for it. But will they still be doing this in ordinary life when they know that they will not be rewarded with a badge (Kohn 17)?

career ladder

Another pitfall is competition. Not all people enjoy competition but prefer cooperation and an exchange of ideas. Some people may even feel stressed by competition (Dirksen 148). Moreover, it seems counterproductive to foster competition in a WBT while in real life, many companies aspire to establish a work environment in which people collaborate and generously share information.

Consequently, games can teach us a lot about what motivates people and how people learn. Yet, just because games have these positive effects this does not automatically entail that we should unthinkingly adopt their mechanics for training people. Rather we should think about how we can create the effects of games through our training programmes: How can we create a sense of purpose and inspire collaboration and growth in a WBT, for instance? It may be more taxing to answer these questions than awarding badges. Yet, the answers to these questions may provide for more sustainable learning – and for more engaged people who feel taken seriously and supported as professionals.


Deterding, Sebastian. "The Lens of Intrinsic Skill Atoms: A Method for Gameful Design." Human-Computer Interaction 30 (2015): 294–335.

Deterding, Sebastian, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke. "From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining 'Gamification'". In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, September 28-30, 2011, Tampere, Finland, ACM. 2011. 9-15.

Dirksen, Julie. Design for How People Learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2012.

Gamification Wiki. “Game Mechanics.” <>. 5 Oct. 2015.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Thanekar, Pranjalee. "Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification." Upside Learning Blog. 21 May 2015. <>. 7 Oct. 2015.

Towards Maturity. Modernising Learning: Delivering Results. 2014-15 Towards Maturity Benchmark Report. Nov. 2014. <>. 5 Oct. 2015.

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