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Why gamification can be used for engaging learners

(Image credit: Image Credit: Moon Light PhotoStudio / Shutterstock)

The key to an engaging learning experience is how relevant and memorable it is for the learner.  It’s why we focus on the learner experience first and not the learning content.  An engaging game-based learning approach is effective because learners are essentially thrown into an experience with challenges, risks, loss and gain.  If learners enjoy their experience, the benefits can be longer-lasting.

Gamification in a digital learning solution stimulates participation and practice, and promotes learning by doing, not by passive consumption of information. It rewards employees for their achievements and their learning – just like any gameplay situation. And it can introduce a healthy dose of competition, with leader boards, badges and ratings systems, and interactions between colleagues helping to promote engagement with the learning.

What are the main benefits of gamification?

  • It helps to establish a structured ruleset. Games have rules, so gameplay relies on the clarity and adoption of those rules. This makes game-based learning a good approach when common rulesets need to be adopted by the learning audience.
  • It helps to promote constructive competition. People like to measure their performance against a benchmark. By introducing ratings, badges and leader boards, you can encourage competition that can help to motivate individuals and teams.
  • It can stimulate collaboration among teams. Games often encourage competition but that competition can also extend to teams who are involved in joint problem-solving. This lets ‘players’ work with different individuals, and encourages them to look at problems from different points of view.
  • Using gamification during learning encourages repeat practice. Ask most gamers, and they’ll tell you that one of the key experiences of playing a game is trying, failing, adapting and eventually overcoming challenges, in order to win. We face challenges in all areas of our life and develop resilience by constantly picking ourselves up and trying again. Repeat practice (and failure) in learning is a great principle to introduce – it helps us to remember.
  • Gamification demands continuous feedback. People like to try things out for themselves. Use their existing knowledge to tackle a challenge, but corrective and reinforcement feedback is a crucial part of allowing individuals to try and fail in a safe environment. While failure is a key part of gamification, people need to know they have failed and feel inspired to overcome any challenges (otherwise they will stop playing!). The reward system used in gamification ensures that people always know how they are doing. The rules and goals set the boundaries and the failure feedback guides them on how they need to improve.

Why does gamification help to embed learning?

This might sound strange at first, but an engaging game-based learning experience will embrace failure. One of the ways games keep their players engaged is by giving them a challenge, a consequence for failure and a reward that’s worth the struggle.

Too much struggle and you risk the person losing faith in their abilities (or the content) and giving up. Too little, and there’s no thrill in their victories and no motivation to continue and improve. The right amount of struggle is key to its success - difficulty should increase as the course goes on. Research has shown that players who struggled more at the beginning of a game tended to learn faster at later stages as their brains developed new connections to meet the challenge.

If a game-based learning approach is fun and drives competition against other players, it is more likely to encourage people to keep trying until they succeed.  We have seen this in an example we created where learners chose to repeat the learning sequences several times in order to gain access to a fun, competitive challenge. Learners had to overcome various obstacles in order to get a better score than their peers. As research suggests, this competition can get people hooked. When they start to anticipate winning a place on a leaderboard, they’ll experience a rush of dopamine. This brain chemical makes them crave the reward, and drives them to repeat and master the learning to win it.

How can you measure the success of a gamified learning programme?

An immersive, gamified learning programme that replicates real-world examples often surfaces previously unacknowledged talent and ability of the participants. They can make rapid progress, and if they’re scored for their work, it’s easy to see in which areas a person will thrive.

It’s also important that the learning not only allows for failure, but builds that failure into the gamified learning itself. Organisations may resist this as failure can often feel uncomfortable in a learning context.  However, the possibility of failure and the consequences of failing are essential elements and motivational triggers within a game – it’s about risk and reward.

Where do you start?

We have probably all played games. So, if you’re thinking about introducing gamification into your learning programmes, think about what motivates you in a game. Is it a reward for achieving the next level, is it competition (or collaboration) with others, or is it problem-solving in the face of a challenge? Also think about the objectives and what people need to do after the learning itself – that will have a huge influence on the design and overall purpose of the game.

So playing games is the key to understanding how to design game-based learning, whether it’s a computer game, a card game, or even a board game. Explore your inner gamer – you might well find the inspiration you’re looking for.

Carole Bower, Head of Learning, Saba

Carole Bower is Head of Learning at Saba and is responsible for shaping and transforming Saba's digital learning proposition and for the effectiveness of the digital solutions delivered.