In a headlong rush to embrace gamification, eLearning creators can lose sight of their goals. When implemented poorly, gamification can undermine learning and engagement. Avoiding the hazards described here can ensure that gamification serves learning objectives.

Eyes on the (wrong) goal

It sounds obvious: Well-designed corporate eLearning must teach skills or information that is clearly connected to learners’ on-the-job performance. But when structural gamification—applying game mechanics to learning content—enters the picture, designers often forget this fact.

Players—uh, learners—might also lose sight of the real goals of eLearning if they become focused on earning rewards, whether points, badges, and status, or more concrete prizes: The content becomes simply a means to an end. And that “end” has nothing to do with job skills or performance. Employees might keep playing to earn a prize, maintain their lead, or increase their status, but this type of game play won’t help them master and retain job-related knowledge or improve needed skills.

Another problem with extrinsic rewards like points and prizes is that they devalue the content or actual learning objectives. Sebastian Deterding, in his talk “Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right,” offers the example of a game in which players progressed by performing acts of kindness. But people on the receiving end of these gifts were offended that the person did something “nice” not out of caring but to earn points. No “kindness” was involved, making the encounters fake and devoid of value. Gamification is not appropriate for all types of content, and instructional designers should consider both the content and the learning goals when weighing the option of gamification.

Mandatory “play” is not engaging

Managers and instructional designers often turn to learning games or gamification of eLearning content to improve learner engagement with content. That can certainly work, when the gamified content and associated rewards are meaningful and relevant to the learners. But requiring employees to play—forcing engagement—doesn’t enhance learning or improve performance. As Deterding emphasizes in “Meaningful Play,” work is what you have to do and play is what you want to do—even if they are the same activity.

Even attaching extrinsic rewards, such as points and badges, to an activity can make it seem less voluntary, thereby damaging motivation and performance, depending on how the reward is framed.

Proponents of gamification cite the motivational aspect of rewards. In fact, behavioral science states that rewarding behavior should lead to more of that behavior. That is sometimes true: Many individuals are motivated by the chance to earn rewards that are given as a marker of competence or achievement. But this type of motivation tends to be short-lived. “What the studies keep telling us is that rewards, like punishments, tend not only to be ineffective—particularly over the long haul—but often to undermine the very thing we’re trying to promote,” Alfie Kohn, a writer and lecturer on human behavior, education, and parenting, writes in a blog post, “The Bonus Effect.”

The flip side of that argument views rewards as a method of controlling behavior by conflicting with learners’ need for autonomy. Participation rewards, which are given when learners engage in a particular activity, regardless of performance or progress, are regarded as a way to influence or even control learners’ behavior. This type of reward can actually harm those learners’ motivation to engage in the activity, even if the activity is inherently enjoyable: “Extrinsic motivators (rewards) tend to reduce intrinsic motivation (people’s interest in, or commitment to, what they’re doing),” Kohn writes. 

Gamification can’t fix poor content

A fundamental problem with structural gamification is that it often seeks to drive engagement by attaching superficial game mechanics to content that is boring. “Read five articles to get 10 points” is no more appealing than just plain “read five articles” if the articles are poorly written, dull, or irrelevant to a learner’s job. And if the 10 points just get the learner’s name bumped up on a work-group scorecard, well, who cares? Wrapping game mechanics—adding points or manufacturing a competition—around bad content doesn’t improve the underlying content.

Done well, though, gamification can make otherwise dull topics engaging. How? Through content gamification—transforming content to make it more game-like. It might mean adding elements of storytelling to eLearning content or creating characters that learners can engage with or even become. Content gamification builds a compelling story or challenge around required informational content, math problems, or procedural steps. It might set out a series of connected goals that build into something worth achieving.

Some games reward the wrong behavior

Losing the focus on learning goals can, in the worst case, lead to reinforcing behaviors that don’t support those goals or might even be oppositional to them. An example cited by Deterding in his talk is Tumblarity, a tool introduced in 2009.

This tool, on the Tumblr microblogging platform, provided a “Tumblarity score,” which was essentially a popularity score—how many followers a Tumblr account had, how often content was shared. Users quickly found that they could increase their scores by posting incessantly, regardless of content quality. But Tumblr was all about posting creative and thoughtful original or curated content; Tumblarity encouraged behavior that was antithetical to the goals of the community. Users objected and the tool was removed.

Just as rewards can sap motivation and harm performance, rewarding competitive or status-seeking behavior can undermine team performance or collaboration; if a company is seeking to enhance soft skills like empathy or collaborative problem-solving, ramping up the competition might do more harm than good. Instructional designers need to test a game concept carefully to ensure that the rewards are appropriate, that players cannot easily “game the system” to inflate their point totals, and that the rewarded behaviors actually serve learning goals.

Tread carefully to succeed

Instructional designers, managers, and eLearning professionals have found that gamification is hugely successful when implemented thoughtfully. Avoiding these pitfalls, choosing appropriate content for gamification, and selecting appropriate rewards for the target population can lead to greatly enhanced learner engagement and improved performance.