eLearning content creators want to make sure the educational materials they develop are ingested and retained by users. Unfortunately, traditional learning styles such as listening to lectures or reading PDF files aren’t particularly engaging for users. These methods convey information, but they don’t trigger the brain to create memories or spur enough interest to continue in the course. To resolve this problem, many online learning platforms are designing their courses around the concept of gamification.
Gamification is defined as the application of game elements to other activities in order to encourage engagement. Based on human psychology, gamification encourages us to engage in certain behaviors through our natural predisposition towards games. Through gamification, boring educational content becomes much more interesting and fun to complete.
Have you ever seen someone get really into a video game? You probably have. Everyone loves a good game - but what makes these games so popular? Well, games can be addictive. Games give our brains a burst of pleasure after we complete a quest, move up a level, reach the top of the scoreboard, or receive a reward.
This phenomenon was not only observed by concerned parents; product designers and content creators have also paid attention to it. Gamification has given businesses an edge against their competition with user retention. One prominent example is Starbucks.
One of the earliest gamification strategies we have observed comes from Starbucks’ rewards program. Over the years, Starbucks gave customers the options to collect points in exchange for “free” food, beverages, or special items. Every time a customer makes a purchase, they’re working their way towards a free latte or Starbucks planner in the near future.
Members of Starbucks’ rewards system are more likely to choose the coffee brand over other shops for this added benefit of maximizing rewards. As of 2019, the Starbucks Rewards program has over 16 million members.
Incorporating simple gamification principles into eLearning can also produce effective results. In a study done by the University of Colorado, adult learners in gamified eLearning experiences scored higher in retention, fact-based learning assessments, and skill-based learning assessment. Gamification is a tool that can motivate learners to not only complete assignments, but to crave knowledge and skills improvement.
It’s important to note that gamification is more complex than simply adding points to your eLearning system or adding game-like wording to your content. What gamification really does is to create an interesting, fun challenge that users and learners would stick with until they complete a course.
To understand how gamification works and why it works so well, we need to go back to the very beginning: Imagine being a caveman, who found a grove of delicious fruit trees by chance. For survival purposes, your brain would want you to remember exactly where those fruit trees are so it gives you a burst of happiness. This is how memory gets reinforced.
The burst of happiness you experience is triggered by two positive hormones: dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin is a brain chemical that creates pleasurable feelings. On the other hand, dopamine is closely related to desire, cravings, and motivation. It’s in charge of your brain’s reward system: it helps you connect events with positive outcomes.
Dopamine is also critical in your ability to form memories. When dopamine rushes through your neurological pathways, it sharpens your attention towards details. You become more focused and a tad more obsessed with achieving your goals.
So how do these hormones factor in with gameplay?
Most games, especially video games, are designed to give our brains that rush of happy chemicals. Our brains love the frequency and intensity of the rewards we receive in gameplay, which is why gamers of all ages have a hard time putting the console down. Video games stimulate them and keep the happy chemicals flowing.
Game dynamics also utilize these rewards and positive feedback such as points, badges, or higher level status to build up user motivation. Motivation is what drives changes in behavior. The two types of motivation are intrinsic and extrinsic:
In eLearning, the intrinsic motivation is to complete the course to learn new information and maybe to gain a certificate. With courses that aren’t gamified, there is no added benefit or consequence that encourages users to complete each session.
However, gamified courses offer extrinsic motivation that engages learners to make progress such as badges, points, rewards, and recognition. Not only are users completing the primary task, but they’re also working harder during the session to earn rewards.
The concept of gamification itself is simple, but planning it out or designing content around it can be tricky. Experimental psychologist and Stanford University professor B.J. Fogg has developed a behavior change model that can be useful in creating a gamified structure for your online learning content.
In order for a behavior to occur, three elements must converge at the same time: motivation, ability, and trigger. Timing is important - if these components don’t fire together at the right instance, learners will either lose interest or become frustrated. Your eLearning system must give users motivation to do something, the ability to complete an action, and a trigger to cue the action.
Let’s say you’re on your phone, scrolling through social media. You receive a notification that you have received an email. If you’re in the mood, you are motivated to read an email. The notification is the trigger and being on your phone gives you the ability to check. The most likely outcome is that you switch from scrolling on social media to opening the email and possibly responding to it.
In gamification, the most important part is understanding exactly which behaviors you want users to perform. If you cannot list the behavior you want to see, then you will not be able to design the platform to drive users towards that behavior.
Once you identify the behaviors you want to see, you can better figure out which game mechanics you want to include to produce a fast, intense, and fun learning session your users will crave. These game mechanics are the building blocks that, when combined, drive a complex sequence of user actions that achieve the intended results.
To create a gamified course that enriches the eLearning experience, here are some elements you can include:
A lot of eLearning platforms have already begun to embrace gamification into their systems. Here are three great examples to take inspiration from:
Codecademy is an online learning platform that teaches beginners how to code. Once you choose a topic, you’ll be asked to try your hand at coding right away. This interactive coding simulation gives out real world projects and tailor-made quizzes you can achieve. Instant feedback is also available so you feel accomplished once you complete a coding project.
Memrise is a gamified language learning app that utilizes flashcards to help learners remember new vocabulary easily. Once you complete each level, you will receive information on your speed and accuracy - and get your score compared on the leaderboards for a particular language.
Khan Academy is a popular educational platform targeting younger students to early college levels. The platform encourages learning through special badges, awarding students for specific behaviors or accomplishments. Khan Academy even offers three rare “blackhole” badges which can only be unlocked by an unknown criteria.