What is Gamification, and are we Using it Right?

old-school-gamerGamification concepts have been employed since the 1960’s, 1970’s or 1980’s, depending on whom you talk to and how you define the term. Others claim that gamification has been in use since 1912, when Cracker Jack® boxes began to include prizes. Whenever the term originated, “gamification” is certainly an important buzzword in business today. Though, perhaps it’s technically incorrect to call gamification a “buzzword” now, as the term made the Oxford English Dictionary’s shortlist of Word of the Year in 2011.

But do we use the word “gamification” correctly? It’s hard to answer that question definitively. Complex ideas, such as gamification, are complex to define. “It’s a terrible buzzword, but integrating principles of gaming and interaction into learning is not a bad idea,” writes Helen Walters in her TEDblog post reviewing Anant Agarwal’s TED talk on “Reinventing Education for Millennials”.

I have been interested in gamification, and specifically the application of gamification to learning, for some time. So I jumped at the opportunity to attend Kevin Werbach’s initial offering of his Coursera Gamification MOOC, and learned a lot about the meaning of “gamification”.


What is Gamification?

The definition of gamification, according to Professor Werbach, is “the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts”.

Game elements include digital objects that make an experience game-like. Some examples of game elements include social graphs, avatars, quests, badges, social discussions, leveling up, leader boards, and points. Without at least some of these elements, one can argue that you do not have a “game”. With only these elements, one can argue that your game is pretty lame.

Game design techniques take the experience to the realm of true engagement. Games (addictive ones, anyway) are more than a jumble of spliced game elements. Games include systematic, thoughtful, artistic, and purposeful design. And, they are designed for fun (hopefully). Fun is critical for a truly engaging experience, as is relevance and application to a real business need.

Non-game contexts are important to the definition of gamification. Full gamification includes applying game elements and game design techniques to "something" that is not really a game, making that “something” appear game-like.

Gamification is Bigger than Learning

Non-game contexts can be found in diverse disciplines, from marketing, customer engagement and business needs, to personal improvement, to social impact. Learning is a subset of the full non-game contexts of gamification. And online training is a subset of learning.

A “game” can refer to anything from finding a prize in a cereal box, to playing a board game, to playing a video game, to playing an immersive military simulation in preparation for an upcoming overseas deployment to the front lines. Technically, gamification does not need to be online or technology-focused.

There’s also a semantic difference between gamification of learning and game-based learning. In game-based learning, learners play a game that encompasses a learning objective(s). When learning is gamified, a game(s) is incorporated within the overall learning agenda.

Learner Psychology

A player has the choice to play a game or not. A learner has a choice to learn or not. As learning professionals, we can create an environment conducive to learning, but we can’t force someone to learn. Ensuring learning success requires an understanding of human psychology.

Gamification, too, requires fluency in psychological concepts, including motivation, behavior, and personality. When creating training of any kind, whether including gamification or not, concepts of learning theory and educational psychology must be incorporated.

Criticism of “Gamification”

The term “gamification” is new, yet games in general are as old as the human race. It’s no wonder that the term is complex to define, understand, and apply.

Critics of the term say that simply using game elements in a non-game context is boring, and creates a false sense of accomplishment. Many so-called gamification endeavors exclude the true artistry of game design, such as storytelling, narrative, and immersive experiences. Gamification in the arena of marketing has been suggested to be “exploitationware". And the critics go on.

Yes, the way that gamification is often applied bears serious criticism. However, perhaps it’s not gamification itself that’s at fault. Rather, in those cases that bear criticism, perhaps the people who incorporate gamification without real purpose are at fault. As in any discipline, a thoughtful approach to the application of gamification is required. Cobbling together random game elements does not make a game —at least not a fun, interesting, engaging, purposeful game that people want to play.

Advice for Gamifying Learning

Gamification is an involved discipline. If you are intrigued by adding gamification to your online training, dig deep to understand what type of games works for the problem that you aim to solve through your training. And, consider incorporating true game design techniques to your training games so that you are not simply jumbling together random game elements without a true learning purpose.

Learning is much more than the textbook. Online training is much more than the hardware and software. And gamification in learning is much more than points, badges, and leader boards.

How do you define “gamification”? How have you used gamification successfully in learning, or online training?

Gauri Reyes is a talent developer and learning leader with extensive experience in roles ranging from software management to managing the learning function in organizations. Her first truly immersive game experience was with Apple Adventure—a game in which coming up with simple two-word commands with absolutely no guidance opened up a whole world of fantasy adventure to the perseverant player. Gauri is Principal Learning Strategist and CEO at Triple Point Advisors and Founder of the YOUth LEAD program. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

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