Gamification involves using game elements to motivate staff to complete a particular task. When gamification was first emerging, it was heralded as the means by which the eLearning industry could catch up with our more satisfying consumer experiences of digital content outside the workplace. From Duolingo to Angry Birds to Candy Crush, we “borrowed” the concepts of the leaderboard and challenges, and we (perhaps) expected our eLearning experiences to transform overnight.

The real story behind gamification and what we need to fix

My purpose in this article is to use Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Education, 2015 as a lens through which to view the progress of gamification and ask some questions about what we still really need to fix in eLearning. Can we draw parallels between poor gamification implementation and the poor state of some eLearning?

If you aren’t aware of the Gartner Hype Cycle, you can read more about it here.

The Hype Cycle is useful for organizations to make informed decisions about when to use modern technologies. Sometimes technologies are overhyped and fail to deliver upon initial expectations. When the cycle moves into the later stages, such as the “plateau of productivity,” we often see better solutions emerging.

A short history of gamification

The computer programmer Nick Pelling in 2002 was first to use the term “gamification,” but it didn’t become a buzzword until 2010­–11.

While it seems a natural fit for learning and training, gamification has also been used to support customer engagement and marketing. As far back as 2010, Starbucks gave custom Foursquare badges to people who checked in at multiple locations. And in 2013, over 70 percent of Forbes Global 2000 companies said they planned to use gamification for the purposes of marketing and customer retention.

In 2015, though, gamification was sliding into the Gartner Hype Cycle’s Trough of Disillusionment—which means that interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters. (Gartner subscribers can view the report here.)

The eLearning garden isn’t in full bloom, either

It isn’t only gamification that’s had its ups and downs. In 2014, the Serious eLearning Manifesto emerged as a response from some of the senior figures in the eLearning industry to what they saw as lack of progress on universal good eLearning quality.

Their argument was that we needed to move from typical eLearning experiences to something more serious. The phrase “serious eLearning” was a parallel to the more well-known “serious gaming.”

From serious gaming to serious eLearning to gamification—as an industry, we are trying hard to drive better-quality learning experiences. But are we making it more complicated than it needs to be?

Playing the wrong game

Poor gamification usually focuses on the endpoints—the rewards, the points, the badges, the loyalty programs. Not enough time is spent on connecting these to meaningful business metrics or goals. Should you get a badge for completing your five eLearning courses on compliance training, or should you get a badge for demonstrating how a particular eLearning course has improved your performance?

Some of the best implementations of gamification focus on helping staff to overcome challenges and to see the real results of their efforts. What if you gamified the efforts and the work your staff covered each week? You might be able to say things like:

  • Based on your blogging this week, Fiona, you helped us secure a new client.
  • You published three articles this week, Fiona; this means 3,000 more people will learn about our brand.
  • If you write three more blog posts that get more than 2,000 hits or 10 comments, Fiona, you will become an “expert in gamification.”

So maybe this is a fantasy on my part, but it is meaningful data to me, and it helps me to readjust my efforts in a significant way.

If you look at some of the first applications of gamification—in the sports industry—that is exactly what gamification does: It provides results, and therefore incentives, to help users adjust their efforts in ways that are meaningful to them.

Gamification can work if designed properly

Allstate’s use of gamification to transform its standard video training for common compliance topics (data protection, ethics, etc.) led to all sorts of improvements. What was its approach?

Instead of videos and quizzes, Allstate developed a game based on selecting a superhero to fight the villain Data Gator, who was intent on stealing customers’ personal information. The leaderboards provided great visibility and a talking point on progress.

The key here was that the game mechanics were explicitly tied to the business goals. Showing leaderboards of how many times customer information was protected is interesting strategy.

So what are we really trying to fix?

Gamification became popular from 2010 onward. I believe it was in response to the ongoing poor state of much eLearning content. Compliance training, in particular, has much to answer for here. Most of it is still “click next,” wall-to-wall text, and race-to-the-finish content. In our practice at Logic Earth, we have adopted seven design principles to address these and other issues:

1. Insights

Staff are busy and need help as quickly as possible with their biggest challenges. Provide an insight into these challenges, pain points, or behaviors, and don’t forget to address areas like motivation and confidence. Find out and address what might hold people back from improving their performance.

2. Visual impact

Vision is our dominant sense. The brain is more efficient at remembering images than reading text. Not all images have an equal impact; they attract our attention like magnets, but the brain eventually ignores repeated “decorating images.” In eLearning, use images to explain concepts, clarify complexity, spark emotions, and give examples that are core to the learning.

3. Scaffolding

The brain is one big pattern-matching machine. To learn and grow, we look for connections between old and new—like a gigantic join-the-dots puzzle. Help people to learn the core building blocks of a subject by providing support structures. Ask questions, model solutions, provide examples, have structured discussions, signpost new concepts, and continually offer opportunities for reinforcement.

4. Pacing

Being aware of cognitive load and pacing helps the learner acquire new knowledge and skills without feeling overwhelmed. Content presentation in user-controlled, navigable chunks helps make the learning experience more meaningful.

5. Relevance

We make stronger connections when new information has personal meaning to us. The more real-life information eLearning content uses, the more efficiently our staff can put that learning into practice.

6. Practice and feedback

Hands-on practice elements, encouraging exploration, making mistakes in a safe environment, and structured feedback should be at the heart of all modern eLearning content.

7. Continuous learning

We rarely learn something new or improve knowledge and skills in a one-off event; staff members need ongoing reinforcement and support as they continue to improve and develop. Develop job aids, checklists, and templates to support your staff. Encourage communities of practice and ongoing collaboration.

Wrapping it all up

Are your eLearning design principles helping drive the quality of your work in the right direction? Your staff members crave and expect learning content and interventions that are both meaningful and personalized to them. Rolling out badly gamified solutions or not adjusting your eLearning content strategy just won’t cut it anymore.

Poor eLearning, like poorly implemented gamification, just continues to give our industry a bad name. Let’s pull together on this one. Don’t let poor gamification replace poor eLearning.


Allen, Michael, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, and Will Thalheimer. “The Manifesto.” Serious eLearning Manifesto.

Everson, Kate. “Allstate Is in Gamification’s Hands.” Chief Learning Officer. July 2014.

Gartner. “Gartner Hype Cycle.”

Lowendahl, Jan-Martin. Hype Cycle for Education, 2015. Gartner. 8 July 2015.

Pelling, Nick. “The (short) prehistory of ‘gamification.’?” Funding Startups (& other impossibilities). 9 August 2011.