Seven Key Elements of Gamification, Plus or Minus Two

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

gamificationA little while ago I wrote a reaction to a post about 8 steps to make your course less boring, and at the end of it I promised to post my own list. Here it is.

I will qualify this list by saying that my interest is in gamification for learning – I currently have no interest in gamification as marketing or for business more generally.

Good gamification is not about adding badges, or leaderboards, or even about a narrative that makes each learner the“hero” of their own story. A good gamification design draws upon the best aspects of games and incorporates those into the very core of the course design. Good gamification is about altering the fundamental ways in which learners can progress through a course, demonstrate mastery, and earn grades.

I’ve decided to use George Miller’s “Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two“, so my list consists of 9 things. 5 are essential; 2 are nice to haves; and the other 2 are optional …..

  1. badge01FLEXIBILITY: This is a big one, and there are two main approaches: one for how to get through the content, and the other for how to demonstrate mastery. Giving learners choices is key to helping them take ownership of their own learning.
      Most traditional courses are presented in a linear fashion. If there’s a course textbook, then it is common for the course to follow the textbook from beginning to wherever the course ends. In fact textbooks are often selected specifically for their fit with a pre-determined linear progression through the course ‘content’. The truth of the matter is that many subjects don’t actually lend themselves to a nice linear progress through a series of topics. Laying out a course map that identifies key concepts, topics, and skills and then creates links between those that rely on each other allows for learners to choose a variety of paths through the course material. It also helps both the instructor and the learners see how topics are interrelated. If they are struggling with concept ‘D’, and it relies on an understanding of concepts ‘F’ and ‘P’, then perhaps going back to those and working with them more will make a second crack at topic ‘D’ work out better.
      Most traditional courses present the learner with a specific set of tasks to complete. These usually include a set number of assignments, quizzes, tests, and exams, possible papers to write, and sometimes smaller activities or credit for participation. Many courses have hard deadlines for assignments?—?some even reject submissions if they are late, no matter how well they were done. In order to earn a perfect score learners often need to get a perfect score (or an ‘A’) on each and every item. A bad day, technology failures, or a forgotten assignment can cost them an ‘A’, even though they have mastered the material. This kind of grading is often more about compliance training than measuring subject mastery. A flexible achievement path is one that provides the learner with multiple ways to demonstrate mastery. It also allows for a learner to make up for a missed or inadequate assignment by providing alternate assignments, re-submission, and flexible deadlines whenever possible.
  2. REWARD STRUCTURE: Points for things done well/right.
    Grading should be cumulative rather than reductive. Scores should not go down, only up. Sure you can take away points, but unless your intent is truly to punish the learner for something (and there might be valid reason for doing this), then taking points away in a context where people are earning points for demonstrating competence is effectively saying the learner has UN-learned something. That doesn’t make any sense. Unless there is an extremely good reason for it (like this is a crucial element of a life-saving procedure) there should be no single quest that can result in a learner failing this course.
    Make your rules clear, and make sure everyone know what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. Connect all required activities to the course objectives. Your rules should be laid out at the very start of the class, and most, if not all quests should be available, along with their assessment criteria right on day 1.
    Also make sure that it is possible to earn a perfect score. A gamified system is never graded “on a curve”. If everyone in the class earns enough points to qualify for an ‘A’, then everyone in the class should get that A.
    Quest is simply another word for the tasks that the learners are to complete. It doesn’t really matter if you call them assignments, learning tasks, quests, or something else, although I have found that using the word “quest” has opened up possibilities I would not have considered when I called them assignments.
    Each quest should connect with at least one node in your learning path map. If not, you seriously have to ask yourself why you are asking your students to do this. You can use game vocabulary here, or not, depending on your audience. The use of game vocabulary (i.e. naming quests according their type, such as ‘defend’, talk-to’,’epic’, etc.) can help to underscore the fact that the approach in this course is different from what most of the learners will be used to.
    Feedback must be timely. In a game, players watch their scores change immediately as they perform various tasks. Having a variety of both large and small quests allows learners to do do little things to increase their score (and confidence). If these are not assessed quickly and their scores adjusted appropriately, you undermine the motivation to complete the tasks?—?especially the smaller ones.
    Badges, when used, need to be connected to meaningful achievements. They should not normally be used for things everyone will do. Badges should not be a surprise. Take a lesson from the Boy Scouts on how to do badges well. Each badge should be associated with a clear set of criteria for how they can be earned. You may even allow for several ‘grades’ of badge (bronze, silver, gold, for example). If you are not going to do badges well, then you are probably better off not using them at all.
    Leaderboards have been a common external motivational tool (weapon?) in marketing and sales for decades. They drive competition, but it is not clear that they actually drive learning. Competition tends to motivate extroverts, but it tends to DEmotivate introverts. In many formal educational situations, you will not be allowed to associate grades or scores with learners by name, so be very careful with how you post and use leaderboards.
    Many people associate avatars or game characters as essential elements in games, but in a gamified learning context, the use of avatars should be optional in most cases. However, avatars can be a mechanism that allows for the publication of achievements via badges and leaderboards?—?so long as the real life identities of the avatars is known only to the individual student and the instructor. Avatars can also be treated more casually as simply profile images. If they are to be used as profile images, then having some connection with the real person (appearance, hobby, etc.) can help to build or strengthen a sense of community. This can be especially helpful if it is an online course.
    Finally, narrative or storyline, although it is often one of the first things many talk about when they talk about gamification, it is probably the most expendable. Unless you are teaching a course where a narrative is a natural fit (such as a literature class, or a case-based course) imposing a narrative on a course can easily backfire. A poorly designed narrative is almost guaranteed to disengage your learners, which is exactly the opposite of most people are trying to achieve through gamification. If you are going to use a narrative for your class, make sure that all of your topics, quests, and other activities tie in to the narrative, or you run the risk of falling into the same old trap of assuming that a game-wrapper will somehow magically increase engagement. It won’t.

You may have noticed that Levels aren’t included in the list. It’s not that they aren’t useful, but they should not be allowed to stand alone. When used, they can form support structures for both the learning path and the quests. Levels can be determined simply on the basis of how many points the learner has earned, or they can be more complicated, allowing for certain rewards and quests to be unlocked only once a particular level is reached. They can serve as a useful mechanism for ensuring the completion of certain tasks before others are attempted.

There is more to this of course?—?MUCH more?—?and there are specific ways in which these elements can be implemented effectively. It is very easy to get carried away and create a very complex system. It is extremely important to remember that most people play games voluntarily while very few people will be taking your courses simply because they want to. This means you must remain sensitive to the extra load being placed on your learners by the gamification system. Keep it relatively simple so learners can get started quickly and so they can spend time on the course content rather than learning the rules of your game.

For more details on how to do this, stay tuned for my upcoming books:
Gameful Learning: A Practical Guide for the Classroom
Death to Deadlines: Gamification and Other Subversive Thoughts on Formal Education
Game On! The 4 C’s of Gamification


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Seven Key Elements of Gamification, Plus or Minus Two — 7 Comments

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