Given the combination of external market forces and impetus within the instructional design community, sooner or later, every learning-and-development or training department will come to a decision point on gamification. As always with new trends, there are discussions and disagreements regarding the details. So, if you and your colleagues are in the midst of gamifying your approach and methodology, I hope you’ll find value in the best practices that we’ve gathered and synthesized.

Gamification, game-based learning, serious games: is there a difference?

I attribute part of the motivation for the use of games and game-like features in learning to the increasing popularity of sophisticated games via PlayStations and mobile devices.

This has led to a debate over the differences between gamification, game-based learning, and serious games. For the purposes of this discussion in the realm of organizational learning, I propose that gamification, game-based learning, and serious games are effectively the same thing, because, in a corporate environment, all learning relates to strategic objectives and has a serious purpose, regardless of the level of gamification involved. As Karl M. Kapp has pointed out (see References at the end of this article):

  • When you get right down to it, the goals of both are relatively the same. Serious games and gamification are both trying to solve a problem, motivate, and promote learning using game-based thinking and techniques.

It is true, of course, that playing a game for fun, entertainment, or to satisfy competitive instincts is different than having fun, feeling entertained, or satisfying competitive instincts in the context of job-related learning. However, the differences do not significantly alter the benefits of applying game features to (or building games for) learning applications.

Why is gamification gaining traction?

There seems to be three main reasons for the increase in gamification: marketplace forces, the connection between games and learning in children, and rising interest in games among adults. Let’s look at these in a little more detail.

Marketplace forces

Estimates for worldwide spending on games exceed $93 billion in 2013, according to a report from Gartner. That’s up from the $78.9 billion spent in 2012. The report projects that customers will spend $101.6 billion in 2014 and $111 billion by the end of 2015.

The connection between games and learning in children

In addition to marketplace forces, even the most superficial observations of children reveal the obvious connection between games, learning, and retention. Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham tell us:

So, can children learn from games? Absolutely. Research by Dr. Arne May at Germany’s University of Regensburg clearly showed that learning a new task produces a demonstrable increase in the brain’s gray matter in mere weeks. And brain scientists the world over agree that games’ challenge-achievement-reward loop promotes the production of dopamine in the brain, reinforcing our desire to play.

In addition to these remarkable effects, retention is improved. Zichermann and Cunningham continue:

Research by Wouters and others indicates that games vs. text-based knowledge, when tested immediately after the instruction, are likely to have similar results, but when tested days later the game-based knowledge is better retained.

Rising interest among adults in games

So why, in the workplace, do we resist employing the effectiveness of games, and assume that seriousness is a prerequisite for learning? Such resistance is natural, of course, given the general framework of corporate culture; but, as the numbers from Newzoo indicate, a huge percentage of the population, including adults, are paying to play games and, as we just noted, there is a growing body of statistical research showing the effectiveness of games at improving retention.

What the demographics also show is that adults have as much fun playing games as children, even if the form of such fun is more sophisticated. As soon as organizational misperceptions regarding time management and cultural integrity are put aside, gamification becomes an opportunity to improve retention of key content or behaviors.

How to gamify learning?

Once your team decides to use games in learning events, you’re ready to consider some best practices gleaned from others’ successful implementations. Let’s look at some of the basic elements.

Game mechanics and design

  • “… it is the mechanics of a game—not the theme—that make it fun.” (Zichermann and Cunningham)

The first important lesson regarding game mechanics (the way the game works: its rules and operation) is that the structure and dynamics of the game should have an appropriate relationship to the content. For example, if the content objectives are focused on successful techniques for closing a sale, then the structure of the gamified course, module, or lesson should have game mechanics and design elements that relate to sales, such as bonuses, commissions, and other incentives and benefits.

Along the same competitive lines, earning a reward or prize may not be recognition enough for many participants. As Brenda Enders points out, including a means for users to show off their achievements to others provides additional recognition. The most common means of achieving this is with leaderboards. Consider some of these best practices that Brenda suggests:

  • Make sure the leaderboard displays the behaviors and activities that are most important to reaching your learning program’s goals.
  • Use more than one leaderboard in your program. For instance, you may have leaderboards for each region or office location, as well as for individual tasks.
  • Give everyone the ability to search for players. If players can only see the top performers, and cannot quickly find where they stand in the rankings or where their inner circle stands, the effectiveness of the leaderboard decreases.
  • Allow learners to create their own leaderboard participant list. This allows them to quickly see their standings compared to their inner circle.
  • If your leaderboard does not refresh immediately (in learning solutions, many do not), make sure you clearly communicate the updating frequency to the learners.
  • “Wipe out” leaderboards at the end of the week and give everyone a fresh start.

In addition to points and leaderboards, here are some examples from Zichermann and Cunningham of other game mechanics that add to the fun:

  • Pattern recognition—picking out trends or progressions in the gamified content
  • Collecting—accumulating badges or other objects that relate to the gamified content
  • Surprise and unexpected delight—receiving unannounced rewards
  • Organizing and creating order—dragging and dropping or numbering steps in the correct order
  • Gifting—awarding points to other players
  • Recognition for achievement—receiving accolades for your successes
  • Leading others—showing other players how to address challenges
  • Being the hero—saving the deal or coming up with product improvements
  • Gaining status—being rewarded for your achievements

As you probably noticed, some of these functions are more than just game mechanics—they are thematic—which increases our involvement in the content dynamics, where the bulk of the learning is delivered.

Interactivity and feedback

One of the cornerstones of any successful game is interactivity. The engagement level produced by interactivity depends on a number of factors, including the sophistication of the mechanics, the appropriateness of the mechanics to the content, and the challenge of the cumulative experience.

In a compelling interactivity, the challenges presented to a player provide an opportunity to achieve specific goals within the game. When designing challenges, Brenda Enders suggests these best practices:

  • Configure your challenges based on the actions and behaviors that you’re tracking.
  • Reward your learners for completing challenges and achieving the designated goals. Make sure that the rewards you give your learners are meaningful to them.
  • Vary the length, difficulty, and completion time of your challenges.

Challenges can be heightened by generating a sense of urgency, such as placing time constraints on the interactivity, just as with real-life deadlines.

James Paul Gee, chief games scholar at the Center for Games and Impact, Arizona State University and the Gates Foundation, offers some additional considerations, based on his research, that effective games incorporate.

Risk taking: Good video games lower the consequences of failure; players can start from the last saved game when they fail. Players are thereby encouraged to take risks, explore, and try new things. In fact, in a game, failure is a good thing.

Challenge and consolidation: Good games offer players a set of challenging problems, and then let them solve these problems until they have virtually routinized or automatized their solutions. Then the game throws a new class of problem at the players … requiring them to rethink their now taken-for-granted mastery, learn something new, and integrate this new learning with their old mastery. In turn, repetition consolidates this new mastery (with variation), only to face another challenge … (Enders)

Elevate these “freedom to fail” interactions by:

  • Designing multiple attempts into interactions.
  • Providing positive instructional feedback when learners fail on the first attempt; giving opportunities to try again; and, on a larger scale, providing the opportunity to retake the training until they have achieved the goal and mastered the content.
  • Creating a point category tied to how well the learner is meeting the stated goals of the learning.

It is also critical to provide feedback that informs players where they are, ideally against a continuum of progress—using a dashboard or progress bar, etc.—with an unambiguous message that they are heading in the “right” direction. Game levels and other progress mechanics improve this messaging by breaking the larger story arc into smaller, more achievable units. This feedback should be provided for behaviors and actions that the learners choose, and not for their ability to temporarily remember or recognize information (Zichermann and Cunningham).


The most engaging games include a storyline to draw the player into the experience. To start, write a high-level description of the storyline, the characters, and their intent, as well as the settings in which the storyline will unfold. Also, according to Enders:

  • Aim for a compelling plot that creates a sense of tension throughout. The learning moments are achieved by working through the conflicts.
  • Use characters to whom your learners can relate, so that their actions generate an emotional response.
  • Use a variety of characters, each providing a different type of knowledge, point-of-view, or support function regarding the issues. Characters best present content by interacting with each other in a realistic tone of voice.

The importance of a good story cannot be overemphasized. Human beings have an inherent predisposition for learning in this way.


Motivation—in conjunction with mechanics, design, interactivity, feedback, and storytelling—drives widespread engagement and buzz, as well as the successful adaptation of desired behaviors and the retention and application of competencies.

What creates motivation?

Certainly, in “the game of life,” there are many different motivating factors, but within an organizational environment, it is best to begin by quantifying the drivers for employees as well as for clients or customers. As Karl Kapp points out, “When looking at the research, it is important to distinguish between internal and external motivation.”

Some common examples of intrinsic motivations include peer recognition and personal satisfaction, while common extrinsic motivations include career advancement and salary increases.

As you can see, there is a direct connection between motivation and rewards.


In addition to intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, there are other effective means of creating motivation, for example, SAPS, a convenient acronym offered by Zichermann and Cunningham for status, access, power, and stuff.

These motivators are especially effective when there’s not a lot of cash to give away. Status could include a preferred desk or office location, or the use of a convenient parking spot. Access could be as simple as lunch with a CEO, priority or VIP seating, or the earliest possible appointments. Power generally applies to the gamified environment; for example, a good player serving as a moderator of a forum. Stuff—such as small amounts of credit at popular cafes or online retailers, or even company-branded items, such as mugs and shirts—is an additional motivator. Final advice: “Gamification works better if and when we can align intrinsic motivations and extrinsic rewards, and we should strive to achieve that wherever possible.”

How does this translate into choosing the right rewards? Start with determining the intrinsic motivational state of the target audience by discovering the objective that motivates them within the context of the learning, such as the bonuses and incentives in the prior sales example. Then assign an increasing scale of rewards associated with their success, but don’t reveal all of these rewards. When the surprise awards are announced, a new dimension of motivation will arise.


The success of games in the general marketplace has redefined expectations in the learning sphere, bringing with it a paradigm shift in design. I hope that the best practices that I’ve explored here provide a helpful framework to kick-start your approach to the gamification of organizational learning.


Enders, Brenda. “Gamification, Games, and Learning: What Managers and Practitioners Need to Know.” The eLearning Guild, 2013.

Kapp, Karl. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, Pfeiffer and ASTD, 2012.

Zichermann, Gabe and Christopher Cunningham. Gamification by Design—Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2011.