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eLearningInstructional Design

Purposeful Gaming in eLearning

By April 4, 2015September 29th, 2016No Comments
There’s a growing trend that has me both excited and alarmed – the rising popularity of Gamification in eLearning. It’s unquestionable that games are fun and engaging, and can offer many benefits to learning environments. But, there are also significant pitfalls that organizations can fall into while pursuing this latest trendy buzzword.

What’s so great about games?

Before we can talk about why organizations need to be cautious with gamification, let’s look at what makes games so attractive to the learning industry.

Childhood Games

Let’s face it, there is not a single person on the planet that has not played some sort of game in their lifetime. As children, much of our first learning happened through playing a game. We learned how to do basic tasks like identifying colors, shapes, and numbers while also learning how to make friends. This foundational experience of learning through games is the first piece to the puzzle — these games are memorable because we remember having fun and the early lessons that they taught.

HiHo Cherry-O Board Game Image

One of the first games I ever played in pre-school.

Video Games

As with many millennials, much of my adolescence was spent in front of the television playing a slew of video games. It all started for me with my parents Atari system with those sweet 8-bit graphics. From there it was a whirlwind of Sega Genesis, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, PC, PlayStation 2, and the X-Box 360; all in the span of ten years. There was a lot of time and money spent on all of those consoles, games, and peripherals that are now gathering dust in storage.

Video Game Controller Image

Video Game Controllers from 1980-2015

Video games use devices such as scoring, challenges/quests, and achievement badging to motivate the user to complete the game. Online Multiplayer gaming adds a significant boost to the social component of video games was added. For that reason, playing video games are now a major part of the cultural landscape.

The Problem

Although games are certainly effective learning tools, the issue stems from a general misconception around what the idea of “Gamification” means. I’ve talked with many people who think it is simply making any sort of game out of training means that they’re “doing Gamification.” The problem is that gamification isn’t the act of adding games to eLearning, it’s using game-design principles and mechanics to engage and motivate the learners. What’s even more troubling is the growing number of developers that are pushing 3D simulations and other flashy games under the guise of eLearning, simply to capitalize on this latest trend. The fact is simply creating a game and calling it training does not make up for a lack of solid instructional design.

The Solution

So what should be done? It’s quite simple — we need to design with purpose. That starts with a comprehensive needs, or gap, analysis. Too many times I’ve seen this first step rushed, or skipped altogether. Simply saying “We have problem X, therefore we need eLearning” is not what I’m talking about either; you need to ask questions and investigate to uncover what is currently happening and why the problem is occurring. Only then can you decide what course of action will best solve the issue(s) — training may not be the solution, and that’s ok.

But let’s just say that we’ve done the analysis and have identified eLearning as the solution…we need gamification, right? Well, no — not necessarily.

We need to find what type of eLearning will best help the learner achieve the learning goal. A 3D simulation helps to address certain skills and topics, while a scenario-based learning addresses others. The point is that these, and other instructional treatments, serve different purposes. Instead of using a simulation because it’s flashy and impressive, we need to ask ourselves if it truly will enable the learner to achieve the desired outcomes. Unless the outcome is to help someone perform surgery or survive in the wilderness, or something else that requires complex skills and higher thinking, a gamified simulation is not the best bet.

Example: Hernia Simulation Training


How else can we use gamification in our learning though?

Instead of creating a full-fledged game, try using gaming elements to help reward and effectively motivate the learner. Things like thematic progress bars, visible scoring systems for choice & consequence scenarios, and recognizing achievement through badges are a much more versatile and cost-effective way to use gamification. You can use gaming elements in virtually any eLearning context — the purpose being to encourage, motivate, and effectively engage the learner.

Example: eLearning Achievement Badges


It’s not the decision to use gamification that matters, it’s the reason why we use it that makes it purposeful.


Mike Jones

Hi, I'm Mike. I design and develop high-quality learning solutions that focus on outcomes—meeting the needs of the client, their organization, and their learners. As an Instructional Designer and L&D Professional, I have had extensive experience creating eLearning, blended, and traditional Instructor-led Training (ILT) in corporate, medical, and non-profit settings. My passion for lifelong learning and cutting edge technology is only furthered through collaborating with others that are just as passionate about helping people.

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