What does the word “engagement” mean to your organization? When you talk about institutional competitiveness, or the need to nurture expertise, how does engagement factor into that discussion?

For businesses, learning institutions, and even graduating students, future success increasingly depends on the cycle of developing and enhancing valuable skill sets. Maintaining the motivation needed for that kind of sustained growth can be incredibly difficult. Fortunately, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the video-gaming industry has a number that just might help us get there: three billion.

Engagement trends

Every week, Americans willingly spend over three-billion hours of their leisure time playing video games. Numbers in other developed countries lag only slightly behind. And while we still tend to think of games as an aptitude of the young, those hours are increasingly spread out over a lifetime. Well into our retirement years, the average American continues to spend the equivalent of a full workday each month playing video games, with no signs of slowing (Figure 1).

Figure 1: It’s not just the young who spend a lot of time playing video games!

Opportunities to support learning

If organizations want to embrace a philosophy of ongoing personal and professional improvement, then any opportunity to tap into the sources of this kind of long-lived motivation warrants consideration.

A growing body of research on the subject has identified three distinct needs that engaging gaming events meet: cognitive, emotional, and social. By drawing a direct line from these influencers to our own designs, we can reap some of the intrinsic motivational benefits of game design without sacrificing rigor or content.

What keeps people coming back for more?

No one wants to sacrifice learning in the name of making their modules more “fun.” And fortunately, that’s not a consequence we have to risk. These seven simple practices can help promote learner engagement without reducing the learning potential of your learning modules.

  1. Mirror real behaviors. (Motivated levels: social, cognitive) When we use words like “virtual” or “simulation” we often imagine them in terms of the visual experience. However, research supports behavioral realism as being more important to player immersion than graphical realism. (See the References at the end of this article.) Mirroring behaviors means designing the simulation so that users can make exactly the choices, and get exactly the responses, that they would in real life. In a real working situation, for example, a nurse will almost certainly be able to ask a patient questions about their history with an ongoing ailment, and may gain key insights by doing so. Conversely, failure to do so may risk dire consequences. The freedom to experiment, and to learn from failure, is a part of the learning process that can really shine in a game-based design. It’s also a part of what makes a game engaging: success is success, but failure is just a chance to try again (Figure 2).

    Figure 2: Serious games are a perfect environment for testing a theory or plan of action

  2. Grow as you go. (Motivated levels: emotional, social) The earliest stages of any game are typically made up of very short, very simple “wins.” On paper these brief successes can look unnecessary, or even silly, upon first examination. But they accomplish several important things: they allow players to become accustomed to the mechanics of the game before facing any real cognitive challenge—they introduce the content (or support background-knowledge recall) and help us understand how we will be engaging it in the future, and they allow us to see what it looks like to be successful within the game.

    This policy is also a good place to focus your differentiation planning. Depending on your design, it may be possible to use a learner’s successes early in order to determine their initial understandings of the content, and to appropriately adjust the difficulty at which you will engage them later on.
  3. Stick with content-centered actions, and content-centered results. (Motivated levels: cognitive) As our ability to develop experience-mirroring simulations grows, it will be increasingly important to remember that incorporating game design is a lot like incorporating multimedia: we must never lose focus of our outcomes and goals. It should not be possible for students to make decisions or create consequences within the simulation that are not directly connectable to the understandings or skills we are trying to nurture.

    Gamification doesn’t need to sacrifice learning in the name of presentation. In fact, as our first rule above illustrated, the exact opposite can be true.
  4. Set goals within goals. (Motivated levels: cognitive, emotional) Just as a program outcome might be fed by any number of smaller-step course or lesson objectives, or a process might be broken down into step-actions, games often utilize multiple small goals within larger ones in order to focus player attention, support progress awareness, zoom in on a single piece of content, or allow players to feel a modicum of control. In many (perhaps most) games, big objectives are consistent, broad, and controlled. The steps to completing those objectives, however, often exist as short success-failure events. Furthermore, the way that players progress towards completion may be influenced by player strategy, whether or not they were successful at certain small-task events, or other factors. In that way, games exhibit behaviors similar to a branching quiz or learning-object task menu: player behaviors, successes, and choices all influence the feedback they get and the experiences they have.
  5. Don’t over-reward. Working online makes it so easy to deliver personalized reward, it can be easy to forget that our best-case scenario is one in which we create learning objects that people want to engage in. When people are motivated out of interest, challenge, or curiosity, the result is different than if they are motivated by a point or rewards system. They demonstrate an increase in critical thinking and creativity, and are more likely to continue through increased challenges or return and reengage the object at a later date.

    Keep in mind that reward is different from feedback, although the two can sometimes feel equivalent to the end user. A successful learning game allows students to experience feedback in a variety of ways, some of which will be celebratory.
  6. Find a balance between competition and completion. Men and women are drawn to very different task types in games and simulations. Finding a healthy balance between the two extremes is essential to creating learning that engages all learners.

    Statistically, men are more likely to be drawn into a game that establishes a sense of competition. This competition may come in the form of another player, a fictional opponent, an outside force, or even one’s own previous successes. Women, however, tend to prefer games that convey the experience of success. Often, this success can occur within a game that has no specific end goal (for example, The Sims), but where their actions can result in a sense of betterment or accomplishment.
  7. Maintain perspective. Regardless of how you approach topics like reward, goal-setting, feedback, or correction, make sure that the learning object always communicates progress in a simple, visual way. This doesn’t have to mean a progress bar, or other basic tool. Instead, consider using the game’s inherent physical appearance to communicate progress. For example, a “start your own business” game on a tablet computer might start off with a barren, simple room, which then slowly fills up with other employees and equipment as the student experiences success or personalizes the business’s behaviors and mission statement. (See Game Dev Tycoon for an example.)


The strategies above are about more than just getting students to come back for more. They are also about increasing the chance that they will have learned something. Video games that fail to support players in the right ways can produce anxiety, stress, and frustration, just as learning programs that fail to effectively support students can result in the same negative responses. Successful designs will support users on both fronts, creating an experience that they both learn from and want to repeat.


Ryan, R. M., C. S. Rigby, and A. K. Przybylski. “The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach.” Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2006. http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2006_RyanRigbyPrzybylski_MandE.pdf

Ryan, R. M. and E. L. Deci. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology. Vol. 25. 2000. http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_IntExtDefs.pdf

Lucas, K. and J. L. Sherry. “Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation.” Communication Research. Vol. 31 No. 5. 2004. http://icagames.comm.msu.edu/cr.pdf

Funk, J. B., M. Chan, J. Brouwer and, K. Curtiss. “A Biopsychosocial Analysis of the Video Game-playing Experience of Children and Adults in the United States.” Studies in Media Literacy and Information Education. Vol. 6 No. 3. 2006. http://utpjournals.metapress.com/content/h2g0732025831q89/fulltext.pdf