Gamification of eLearning is hailed as a way to drive engagement, motivation, and performance—but if overdone, it can actually decrease all of these.

“You wind up devaluing the thing itself if you shift too much of the emphasis to the game,” said Guild Master and consultant Julie Dirksen of Usable Learning. She cautions that excessive gamification and emphasis on awards can reward the wrong behaviors or values. “If I am gamifying your involvement in a learning management system, I’m telling you that the reason to engage in that learning management system is to get points or badges,” Dirksen said. “When really, it’s probably better motivation to say, ‘This could save your life in this safety circumstance, and that’s why it’s really important.’”

Another potential drawback: Not everyone enjoys competition; emphasis on the game aspects of learning rather than the opportunity to improve their skill set or performance can turn off some employees. “The problem is, you don’t know, in your target audience, whether or not competition is a good motivation for them,” Dirksen said. “When you use competition as a motivator and you get people in your target audience who really don’t like competition, it can cause you to demotivate the behavior for them.”

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn takes the extreme view that competition is inherently dysfunctional. Based on his 30 years of study, he said, “I have been unable to find a single example where competition, I believe, is ever healthy or sensible. At work, at school, at play—it is never necessary to set things up so that you have to fail in order for me to succeed.” Speaking to podcast host Dean Bokhari on The Meaningful Show, “The Case Against Competition,” Kohn emphasized cooperation over competition and said that competition:

  • Undermines psychological health and increases anxiety
  • Damages interpersonal relationships by setting up a dynamic that requires one person to lose in order for another to succeed
  • Reduces interest in the actual learning or performance task by shifting focus to the reward
  • Harms creativity, innovation, and performance

“Competition is as destructive to the bottom line as it is to the human beings who are engaged in the working and learning,” Kohn said.

That certainly doesn’t mean that games and gamification are all bad. Collaborative or cooperative games can be as enjoyable as—or more fun than—competitive games. And, when done well, gamification can engage learners.

Noncompetitive games

A “Deconstructing Games” session at FocusOn Learning 2017 analyzed social voting games, such as Apples to Apples, What Do You Meme?, and Cards Against Humanity. These are all games that include card sets and ask players to answer a question, make and defend a choice or position, or group words, images, or items—and explain their choices. There’s no “right” answer, and social voting games give players a chance to explore different possible responses to a situation—or solutions to a problem—as a group.

In other noncompetitive games, all the players cooperate to work toward a shared goal; they compete against the game rather than against one another.

These types of games have potential benefits in corporate training and learning: They provide opportunities for colleagues to get to know one another as they practice and improve soft skills like negotiation, clear communication, listening to others, and cooperation—all valuable skills for project managers and teams, leaders, and anyone who works with others.

It’s not all soft skills, either; the content on the cards can teach and reinforce facts, vocabulary, and concepts that apply to players’ jobs. Colleagues can learn and solve problems related to the topics on the cards and learn from the discussion around questions raised or choices made in response to content on cards.

Getting gamification right

Lennart Nacke, research director of the HCI games group at the University of Waterloo in Canada and an associate professor, describes five “gamification languages”—of which game mechanics is only one. The others are goals and challenges; quality of content and context; incentives; and voluntary interaction. “Knowing all the languages allows you [to] travel around the world of gamification without problems,” he writes.

Rewarding employees or learners and adding elements that incentivize participation definitely have their place in eLearning, as do other elements of gamification. But successful gamification requires more than just adding a few game elements on top of content. Sebastian Deterding, a designer of user experience and games, identifies three key “ingredients” that are often missing from gamification:

  1. Meaning—Games or game elements must connect the activity to the learner’s goals or interests. Simply accruing points is meaningless; earning “bragging rights” for winning a badge that the players and their community don’t value is equally meaningless. A game must be based on meaningful goals.
  2. Mastery—Learning becomes fun when mastery of a skill or learning information is done via interesting challenges. Deterding says that pairing a goal with rules that determine how one may or may not pursue the goal is what creates interesting challenges. To keep players engaged, the goals must get progressively more challenging, and there must be a mix of achievable short-term goals and longer-term goals. This provides some success as well as opportunities to fail, learn from that failure, and continue advancing toward a larger goal.
  3. Autonomy—Play is voluntary, and “if you add an if/then reward to a specific activity, you curb the felt autonomy of the person,” Deterding said in a Google Tech Talk, “Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right.” Placing contingent rewards on an activity can devalue the activity and demotivate participants. The “core element of autonomy is easily damaged if you slap some extrinsic reward on an activity,” he said.

Dirksen also emphasized the problematic nature of some rewards. “Rewards as an acknowledgement for real accomplishment, as just a way to say, ‘You did something awesome, and we’re acknowledging that’—post hoc rewards rather than contingent reward—is fine,” Dirksen said. But gamification that makes rewards contingent on performance can backfire. “Typically, if you bribe people into a behavior, they’ll only do the behavior for as long as they’re being bribed,” she said. “A lot of times, the bribes need to get bigger over time to continue the behavior.”

As with most things, moderation is the best approach. “A little bit of gentle gamification around a one-time behavior probably isn’t so bad,” Dirksen said. “A consistent shifting of focus to gamification as the reason to do something—as opposed to ‘this will make you a better professional; this is tied to your identity; this tied to things that you value’—it can turn into a bit of an arms race around ‘I need to keep upping the stakes in order to keep getting the behavior that I want to see.’”