How to Use Gamification the Right Way

Five years ago, gamification was the new marketing buzzword. However, as it caught on, its meaning fell off. Companies “gamified” everything for sales. Albertsons and Safeway created a lottery game called MONOPOLY, for which shoppers’ chance of winning the grand prize of a million dollars is more than two trillion to one. One Atlantic article called gamification “exploitationware,” claiming that:

“[Gamification was] invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is video games and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business.”

Ten years later, I have to admit that the idea of gamification is so watered down. Game designers and developers think it’s become a silly marketing word that, to outsiders, means nothing and can be applied to just about anything.

However, there is a genuine utility of gamification in the right circumstances. This article seeks to replace the field’s diluted conception of gamification with concrete teaching applications to help businesses train and retain their employees.

It's Not About Creating a Game

Gamification is about taking the core mechanics of gameplay, like a timed challenge or beat-the-clock scenario, and applying them to better engage and motivate people to achieve certain behaviors or goals. In this sense, gamification doesn’t mean “to make something a game” so much as “to implement the fundamental mechanics of a game.”

For instance, the goal of a timed challenge is to force a user’s response. If a person knows something, their brain will immediately retrieve the correct information when under pressure. You don’t need to create the next World of Warcraft to capitalize on this natural human response.

While successful gamification of eLearning doesn’t necessitate avatars, dashboards, scores or any number of common video game elements, it does require three central gaming tenants: establishing trust, building motivation, and defining smart objectives. By applying these foundations the right way, you can engage and motivate your employees to drive meaningful, profitable behavior changes.


Over time, the user must learn that the game isn’t going to take a blind sharp corner where you know nothing at all. In the same way, you would receive a random extra life to help you complete a difficult level in a game, eLearning gamification must protect the employee’s trust and reward their effort with predictable progress.

Trust doesn’t require a perfect outline. The iconic video game Super Mario relied on the gamer’s instinctive knowledge of reaction and response more than any set guidebook. In much the same way, eLearning often teaches without an explicit instruction manual. Lessons are applied, common sense and incremental. Sure, you’re not learning math or compliance policy for that matter… but you are learning spatial differences, color/shape match types, and making use of your hand-eye coordination skills.

You can apply gamification toward employee learning and development by setting training agendas ahead of time. You also need to give employees sufficient time to finish course material and tasks, and allot employee autonomy for training modules so they feel trusted with the material, self-sufficient and therefore intrinsically motivated.


Once trust is established, eLearning gamification uses ever-increasing challenges to motivate the learner. These challenges must be optimally frustrating, containing enough difficulty to ward off boredom without being so hard that people give up. For example, Super Mario would first present a small cleft to jump over, then a larger one; two killer turtles, then five. In video gaming, this is called scaffolding. In e-learning, a similar incremental experience yields new knowledge or increased ability–the equivalent of a leveling up in a game. The success of these tactics can be explained neurologically.

“When we achieve goals, dopamine and other mood-boosting neurotransmitters are released into target structures of our brains,” said Jack Makhlouf, Chief Learning Architect at ELM. “The pleasure motivates us to pursue additional rewards.”

Another useful motivational method is imparting small chunks of information at a time within the same landscape to build toward a larger goal. In gaming, this is called cascading information learning; in e-learning, it’s called micro-learning. Both of these techniques rely on progressive knowledge building to prevent the frustration and burnout associated with too many challenges or too much information at once.

You can apply motivation for your employee learning and development easily. As your employees learn, reward them incrementally as they successfully apply lessons. Increase challenges to retain attain and maintain motivation.


Just as chess and checkers teach the subtle art of warfare tactics and strategy, eLearning Mind uses shrewd techniques to teach internal business processes that fulfill the needs of both employees and employers. The goal is fundamentally the same for both mediums: to teach. No matter the genre, or gameplay style, games teach.

To give the user a sense of purpose and accomplishment, designers of either material must mold the content with smart objectives. Game designers create elaborate stories, missions, and goals players can work towards. Likewise, by the end of the teaching module learners should feel like they can use the information presented immediately in some shape or form, thereby improving their performance on specific metrics.

You can assign meaningful objectives to employee learning and development by following a few steps. First, provide employees with an agenda. Then, offer a predefined training purpose, or allow them to specify their own reasons for completing training. Then as employees undertake training and draw closer to the set purpose, they’ll become more satisfied and motivated; in consequence, they’ll perform better.  


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Written by:
Andrew Fayad is the CEO, co-founder, and managing partner of eLearning Mind, ELM is a creative design agency focused on digital education for Fortune 500 companies.
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