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A few years ago I was using an LMS in a blended environment and I was dismayed at the lack of learning that was occurring from the opportunities I had spent so much time creating.  At the same time, I was watching the complete dismantling of a large distance education school next door, where poor success rates and enrollments ultimately slashed a staff of over forty teachers down to the mid-teens.


As I searched for motivational and engagement tools to improve learning in the LMS, I came across the concept of gamification and I dove into it with great expectations.  Gamification is where game mechanics such as point, badges, and leaderboards are brought into non-game contexts to improve motivation and engagement, and ultimately learning.  I read the research, followed industry leaders, and adopted the existing gamification frameworks with my learners, but over time I still wasn’t seeing the results I wanted.


Lucky for me, living in Vancouver gave me great access to a well-established video game industry.  I met with a number of video game studios to learn about the strategies they use in-game design to keep people coming back for more.  Those conversations were fascinating and brought to light the obvious problems I was finding with existing structural gamification systems.


A major problem with gamification in learning is reward fatigue and indifference.  This is related to learner personas but for the most part, the learners get tired of earning the same digital rewards and often aren’t interested in them.  This problem arises from the fact the rewards are static, prescribed, and arrive in a systematic way that becomes predictable.  Furthermore, the rewards are typically generic, have little to no personal connection with individual learners, and do not allow the learner any choice.  These systems make me think of what I say to my kids when they receive rewards etc. they may not be happy with: “You get what you get, and don’t get upset.”


Badges are another commonly used gamification strategy, and there are numerous options available to most LMS systems.  Badges make sense in terms of displaying earned qualifications and even progress on a learning path, but there is little use to them as a singular motivational tool.  If learners do earn badges, I’ve always wondered what they do with them.  The learner can see it on their dashboard, but unless they post it somewhere else and show it off, it’ll sit there collecting digital dust.  Do your colleagues share their badges with you, or do you share yours with them?  Maybe I need to spend more time cruising my feeds to see all those digital stickers but it certainly doesn’t seem like many people are putting their badges on display.


Leaderboards have long been hailed as an effective gamification strategy and there is now lots of evidence they can actually be detrimental to learner motivation.  Again this comes back to the learner personas.  Are your learners uniquely competitive, or are they more social and collaborative?  Most groups of learners are not competitive, so adding a pure ranking system to their learner environment might be interesting to a few people at the top, but most learners will resort to the feeling of “what chance do I have being at the top?” and be turned off from the whole experience.


If you’re using structural gamification, here are some suggestions to improve the impact it has on your learning program:

  1. Identify the exact learning behaviors or actions you want to gamify.
  2. Provide immediate feedback to the learner when these learning behaviors happen.
  3. Create a dynamic reward system that can change over time, is tailored to the unique interests of the audience, and allows learners to choose their preferred rewards.
  4. Offer learning paths towards mastery and incentivize learners to go above and beyond what’s minimally required.
  5. Use time constraints and limit the number of rewards available (scarcity).
  6. Add elements of uncertainty.  Random chance is a powerful and intriguing game mechanic.
  7. Use verbal praise in combination with your feedback system.
  8. Look to add a reward system that enhances the learning and/or development of the learners.
  9. Only use badges to recognize competence or capabilities.
  10. Be careful when using leaderboards.  Know your audience before you use them.