Gamification is all the rage. It’s used in marketing, health, employment, training and many other fields. So what is gamification, how can a Learning Management System (LMS) be gamified and, when you get down to it, why does it matter?
What is Gamification?
Gamification is the use of game mechanics and design features in non-game contexts, meaning in areas that aren’t meant primarily for entertainment. Gamified elements are intended to engage and motivate people and encourage them to achieve certain goals.
Gamification is sometimes considered synonymous with game-based learning, where learning content is incorporated into an actual game and learning occurs through game play. The two concepts are certainly related. Game-based learning can be seen as the extreme of gamification, with all game mechanics applied to education.
However, game-based learning is mostly implemented at the course or learning event level, while gamification can be applied to an entire LMS more easily. I will therefore focus strictly on gamification of the LMS for now.
Introduction to Game Mechanics
I’ve defined gamification as the use of game mechanics in an LMS, but that doesn’t really explain what it is. It simply gives rise to the questions:
- What are game mechanics?
- What role do they play in a Learning Management System?
Wikipedia defines game mechanics as “constructs of rules or methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay.” They include everything from turn-taking mechanisms to resource management to quests to point accumulation. You can check out a list of 24 game mechanics examples here.
LMS Gamification: 7 Key Game Mechanics
The gamification elements chosen for use in LMSs tend to be fairly simple. Games can take a long time to learn, and LMS users want learners to devote their learning efforts to the content, not to using the LMS. The most common elements in eLearning and LMSs include:
Each of these game mechanics is described below.
1. Reward learners with points
Points are the most basic game scoring mechanism. Learners earn points by progressing through a course or to mark an achievement. Points are usually tied to some other reward; when learners get enough points they get a badge, level up, appear on a leaderboard or exchange their points for more tangible rewards.
These findings bring with them a series of challenges. Instructional Designers are faced with requests to develop learning programs that are shorter and more concise. Learning “chunks” are becoming smaller and smaller because it’s more difficult to engage learners given all of these distractions. Training needs to be flexible. Learners want to be able to learn on their own terms. Millennials are resourceful. They don’t wait around to find answers and are quick to type their questions in to a search engine.
2. Reward accomplishments with badges
Badges are awarded for accomplishments. Learners gaining a badge earn the right to display it alongside their username. Of course, this means they need somewhere to display it and an audience to appreciate it. A gamified LMS should display badges on leaderboards and when learners interact, such as in forums or messaging apps.
3. Level up
“Leveling up” is a central feature of most computer games. It usually occurs when players gain enough points, complete tasks or reach key points in the game, and it means that the game is going to get harder.
Leveling up should unlock new opportunities: new courses, new skills, new fields to explore.
In a gamified LMS, learners can level up by completing prerequisites and gaining access to new learning materials. Or, they might advance through levels by earning points (think credits) for simpler modules and unlocking progressively more challenging ones.
4. Display progress bars
Progress bars are a visual indication of what learners have accomplished, and how much is still to come. The bar can advance steadily as learners move through a section or module, or it can jump forward as they complete tasks or assignments.
5. Compare learners in leaderboards
Leaderboards are essentially high score tables. They can (and should) be used to show the learners:
- With the most points
- With the most badges
- At the highest levels
- Who have made the most progress
As with badges, the benefits of leaderboards are status and bragging rights.
6. Offer rewards
Points, badges, levels, appearances on leaderboards and even the advancement of a progress bar are just some of the many rewards learners could be offered. E-Commerce oriented LMSs might offer course discounts when learners earn a number of points or reach a particular level. Organizational training programs might offer branded merchandise as a reward.
There is a fundamental debate about when and why learners should receive rewards. One position is that it is important to reward effort as well as actual achievements. Learners should receive some sort of acknowledgement for simply progressing through the learning material. While successes must also be recognized, rewarding effort can prevent the struggling learner from feeling like the loser in gamification.
There is also an argument to be made for rewarding only real achievements, such as passing an evaluation, and not progress alone. If a learner rushes through a module without learning anything, have they really done anything worth rewarding? Is it behavior you want to encourage?
An LMS that supports gamification effectively will have flexible reward schedules and rules, allowing you to decide what you want to reward and how to reward it.
7. Encourage learners interactions
Learner interaction is sometimes considered a component of gamification. It certainly isn’t unique to game play or even involved in all games, but it is a prominent feature of many popular games.
As Rick Reymer notes, peers can be powerful motivators whether learners are cooperating, competing, discussing new skills and new ideas, or just showing off their accomplishments. The gamified LMS must provide opportunities for these interactions.
4 Motivating Elements of Gamification
So now we’ve covered what gamification is and how it might look in an LMS. That still leaves one very significant question: why bother?
Learner engagement is the goal of gamification. There are many benefits of gamification. Effective gamification increases learner motivation and changes learner behavior. Engaged and motivated learners should pay more attention to what they are learning, move through material more quickly and complete more modules or courses.
1. Make learning fun
The most obvious element is fun. Gamification is used to make learning more enjoyable. Most people enjoy competition. They also like to learn about themselves, at least when what they learn is positive.
Self-tests proliferate on social media, covering topics ranging from personality to emotional IQ to “what do you know about” just about anything. Many elements of gamification, like these self-tests, provide metrics about learner performance and how the learner compares to others.
2. Create competition
As well as being fun, competition is inherently motivating. There are people who will only put so much effort into learning, but will move the world in order to beat the other guy.
3. Bring a status
Status must be handled cautiously. While the prospect of achieving high status is motivating, having low status can be discouraging. The key to managing learner motivation is to focus on successes rather than failures and emphasize opportunities for advancement.
Status is linked closely to competition. Humans have an innate desire for status within our communities. It’s one of the reasons we’re so interested in those self-tests I mentioned earlier; they tell us where we rank compared to others.
Knowing our status is nice, but broadcasting it is better – at least if it’s high enough. Social displays of learning statistics are crucial to leveraging status as a motivator. Many game mechanics build or showcase status: leaderboards, badges, points, levels.
4. Encourage Cooperation
People generally feel an obligation to groups they are members of. The desire to “do your bit” and “not let the team down” will motivate learners to engage with the learning program.
Gamification can also use the inclination to cooperate to engage learners. A gamified LMS should be able to track group statistics. This way group goals can be set, either competitive, like which department can score the most points during a certain period, or non-competitive, asking groups to meet a set target.
5. Self-motivate learners
Even when intrinsic motivation is higher, rewards can still play a role. Well-motivated learners can become frustrated if their efforts are ignored and not valued. Rewards are a way to recognize and acknowledge learner performance.
Who doesn’t like being rewarded for their work? Rewards are particularly important when intrinsic motivation is low. Indifferent learners might be willing to begin a learning journey if they see other potential benefits. Hopefully, and with well-designed learning content, the indifferent learner will become a self-motivated one once they have the chance to see the advantages offered by the program.
At the beginning, I asked what gamification was, how it applied to LMSs and why it might be used.
Gamification is applying game elements, the mechanisms that make games work, to efforts in other areas. Many game elements are well-suited for use in a Learning Management System. An LMS that incorporates game features provides opportunities for engaging and motivating learners and thereby increasing their participation in the LMS and the learning programs it supports.
 See Rick Reymer’s article “Gamification: Using Game Mechanics to Enhance eLearning” at https://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2031772.
 See Sharon Boller, “Using game mechanics and game elements in learning games” at https://www.theknowledgeguru.com/learning-game-design-white-paper-announcement/