Confusion about gamification

In the learning and development world a lot of people are confused about gamification and the difference between gamification and game based learning. Both have a place in the learning process, just think of it as a way of blending multiple ways of conveying knowledge.

I make the distinction that in gamification, the person stays in the original process whether that is learning, being productive, exercising, etc. Game elements are added to make the experience more enjoyable and when done well it should also nudge the person forward based on motivational driver, this requires a good understanding of the users. Imagine a progress bar, to indicate how complete your profile is on LinkedIn or how far you have come in a course or in gaining a competency.

In game based learning the learner steps out of the learning process and into a game environment. Note that an LMS is not a game environment. The game can be a serious game, which is a game that doesn’t have entertainment as its core objective. Most commercial games on the market have entertainment as their key objective, think Candy Crush, Overwatch, World of Warcraft, etc.

Both gamification and game based learning will have commonalities, both draw from game design and great games have a good idea about the motivational drivers they want to encourage. The differentiator is simple in my view, if you step into a game world then you are entering game based learning, if you stay in your learning management system, course or lesson but game elements aid you in your progress.

Is one more effective than the other? In my view, that depends on the individual. I love games and gaming, I have often introduced games in training to bring home a more complex concept and then debriefed after playing the game about what the lessons were. Those lessons can vary from how you showed up and played, the emotional experience, where you had choices and consequences and if you played different, would you have a different outcome. Games however may not suit everyone and everything. Learning preferences will vary and for some topics, where practise and explanation is required, I would see gamification as more effective. A game may create the awareness, that you have something left to learn, the learning process then often requires practise.

For example Duolingo, the language learning application is a gamified course. You are still learning words, grammar, etc. so you stay in the learning process. You receive instant feedback on what is right and wrong, you also receive positive endorsements on completion and the premise is that if you practise a little every day you will improve. For language learning practise and increasing vocabulary is helpful, the game mechanics supporting this is the winning streak of practising a little every day and the energy around various groups of words. You can also test out, when something is too easy and you believe you have already mastered it. It allows me as the user to go as fast or as slow as I choose and to see my progress. With progress I unlock further new lessons, which here makes sense because you build on your vocabulary and grammar so unlocking makes sense.

What makes me seriously worried is when I see the same game mechanics used over and over again for every course in a curriculum without any reflection about the learner and their motivations. Just slapping some game mechanics on something doesn’t make it more effective or it would be pot luck that it happened to be in a sweet spot where it did really encourage the user.

The claims that neuroscience is what makes games and gamification more effective are no different to practising on a regular basis. Enhancing neural bridges through repetition and seeing material from different perspectives through different voices or modalities of learning can have the same effect. The motivation to stick with a course or practise can be enhanced by tapping into the motivational drivers of users, that is where I see gamification working. The experience can be more fun and more akin to what we are used to in the world outside of education or work with our social media and gaming apps.

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