Blog Post

3 Mistakes You Shouldn’t Make with Gamification

Dr. Julia Huprich
June 9, 2021

A few years ago, prior to joining the team at Intellum, I had an opportunity to create and lead a large, impactful learning program. I was intensely enthusiastic about incorporating gamification into this program, because I had heard from L&D thought leaders that this was an effective way at creating engagement. 

I was determined to give out awards, badges, points -- these were all good, right? Gamification was trendy and fun and I just knew that people would love participating in a program that rewarded them for learning new skills and adopting new technologies and platforms. 

The problem is, that belief wasn’t based on sound learning science and to be honest, it wasn’t exactly right.

Some people did enjoy earning badges -- that was for sure. But fast forward a few years later, and the gamification elements I designed for the program aren’t really used anymore. Why? After years of studying gamification, motivation, and the psychology behind engagement as part of my PhD program in Learning Science, I realized something crucial: I had made several key mistakes in the implementation of this gamified learning program by listening to high-profile (and vacuous) L&D thought leaders and not relying on impactful, evidence-informed learning science practices. 

Want to avoid making the same mistakes? Dive in. Let’s talk about what I did wrong. 

Mistake 1: I didn’t understand the true meaning of gamification.

Circa 2015, I thought that gamification simply meant giving users badges, points, levels, or gold stars. (Don’t judge me! It’s a common mistake!) 

Thanks to my studies in learning science and evidence-based strategies, I know that gamification in training and development is the careful and intentional incorporation of game design elements into a non-game context (like a learning program). This definition comes to us from Sebastian Deterding, a professor, researcher, and “deliberate designer of playful and gameful things.”

Let’s break down the concept of game design elements. Try to think of gamification examples you may know of. Here are a few worth noting (although there are more, and not every gamified system uses all of them): 

  • Goals. Karl M. Kapp, another gamification expert, tells us that the goals in a gamified learning program need to be well-structured and sequenced so that players understand what they’re working towards (and ideally why those goals are important). There should also be incremental goals that lead to one larger, terminating goal. 
  • Rules. These may or may not be explained to the learner, but a gamified system should have rules (otherwise, what’s driving the gamification?). 
  • Reward Structures. This is where the badges, points, trophies, and gold stars come into play. Note that they’re only one component of a gamification strategy. We’ll talk more about them later. 
  • Feedback. This one is pretty critical. Learners should know their progress towards a goal and should receive information about how to achieve the outcome you’d like for them to achieve. More on that in a minute. 
  • Levels. These can serve as motivational games -- enabling a learner to “level up” throughout a learning program.  

This isn’t an exhaustive list, by any means, but should be enough to get you started. 

Mistake 2: I didn’t understand my users. 

I know that one size doesn’t fit all, but like many program managers, I didn’t diversify my gamification strategy to meet the needs of a heterogeneous population. 

Users have different needs, different motivators, and different interests. I now know that, while one gamification element can motivate some users, that same element can actually de-motivate others. It’s why I recommend the usage of something like the Gamification User Types Hexad Scale (shown in the graphic below).

Gamification Hexad Scale

By surveying your users, you can determine which types they are and thus design your gamification techniques for training accordingly. There are 6 gamification user types supported by empirical research: 

  • Philanthropists are users who are motivated by a purpose-driven game or learning journey and thrive when they have opportunities to share their knowledge with other players.
  • Socializers are motivated by opportunities to connect with other players. Chat rooms, teamwork, social competition, and networking will engage these users.
  • Free Spirits are motivated by autonomous gameplay -- these users thrive on exploring, customizing their own learning journeys, and finding Easter eggs. 
  • Achievers are motivated by progress. These users enjoy the challenge of learning new skills and completing tasks on a platform. We all know an Achiever -- they’re always out to prove themselves. 
  • Players are the most common type of user: they’re motivated by extrinsic rewards like goals, certificates, awards, and trophies. If there’s an opportunity for them to earn coins to buy a real-life item or rise to the top of a leaderboard, the Player type is all in.
  • Disruptors are not common, but they’re out there; these user types are motivated by change and like to push boundaries. They often prefer to remain anonymous and wouldn’t necessarily be motivated by things like leaderboards.  

Wondering what your user type is? Review the following statements. 

Which set of statements resonates with you the most?

It makes me happy if I am able to help others. I like helping others to orient themselves in new situations. I like sharing my knowledge. The wellbeing of others is important to me…if these sound like you, then you may be a Philosopher user type. 

Interacting with others is important to me.I like being part of a team. It is important to me to feel like I am part of a community. I enjoy group activities…if these sound like you, then you may be a Socialiser user type.

It is important to me to follow my own path. I often let my curiosity guide me. I like to try new things. Being independent is important to me…if these sound like you, then you may be a Free Spirit user type.

I like defeating obstacles. It is important to me to always carry out my tasks completely. It is difficult for me to let go of a problem before I have found a solution. I like mastering difficult tasks…if these sound like you, then you may be an Achiever user type.

I like to provoke. I like to question the status quo. I see myself as a rebel. I dislike following rules…if these sound like you, then you may be a Disruptor user type.

I like competitions where a prize can be won. Rewards are a great way to motivate me. Return of investment is important to me. If the reward is sufficient I will put in the effort…if these sound like you, then you may be a Player user type.

(Adapted from Tondello, Wehbe, Diamond, Busch, Marczewski, & Nacke, 2016, The Gamification User Types Hexad Scale)

Mistake 3: I didn’t understand the goal of gamification.

What’s the purpose of implementing gamification for training? According to Kapp, the primary goal of gamification isn’t to award badges that people can display on LinkedIn; it’s to engage users

Engagement can take a few forms, including cognitive, behavioral, and emotional, and in learning, we often use gamification in education to encourage behavioral engagement -- ultimately, we’re trying to drive the learner to do something specific. 

That’s why a generic approach of issuing badges and points doesn’t work -- you might be gamifying something, but it’s probably just the completion of certain learning activities, and if that’s not tied back to something that matters for your program or organization, you’re wasting your time (and your learners’ time, too). 

So, before you think about incorporating gamification into your learning strategy, answer this question: what is it you want the learner to do? Those trackable, measurable behaviors should tie back to your program goals and, ultimately, your business goals. These quantifiable actions can then serve as the framework for your gamification strategy. 

Once you’ve identified those goals and you know your user typologies, there are 3 additional steps to developing a gamification strategy that truly works for your organization:

  1. Quantify user actions. Translate the desired behaviors into point values that users can track, ideally in a dashboard or on their profile
  2. Create meaningful rewards. Create a sequence of incremental goals for users, with reward structures that meet the needs of your users and drive learner engagement
  3. Communicate progress. Develop a structured feedback system to encourage (or discourage) specific user behaviors, to communicate goal statuses, and to alert the user about potential rewards 

Most importantly, don’t make (yet another) mistake that I did and launch a program and walk away; monitor your system and track your analytics to ensure that your gamification strategy is working. If it’s not resulting in the changes that you want, it’s possible that it’s not resonating with users. 

We encourage you to do some research to find out why; talk to your users, run A/B tests, and iterate!

Mistakes I Won't Make Again With Gamification And Why it Matters

Research has shown that a well-developed, intentional gamification strategy can result in improved engagement, enhanced learner performance, and increased collaboration. 

Whether you’re in the customer education space, an employee learning role, or somewhere in between, gamification can be an important part of your learning strategy -- as long as you avoid these common mistakes. Don’t be like me (circa 2015); instead, try the following: 

  • Select the appropriate gamification elements for your learning program
  • Understand your users’ motivations and how they’ll be motivated (or not) by different elements 
  • Tie the gamification elements back to the specific, measurable user behaviors you’d like to promote -- those behaviors should support the goals of your learning program and lead to an ROI for your organization

At Intellum, we pride ourselves on building products that draw from empirical research in learning science and using evidence-informed principles (like gamification) to enhance your internal and external learning programs. 

If you’d like to learn how you can incorporate the science of learning into your practice, I’d invite you to check out Learning Science Weekly -- this newsletter synthesizes recent research, extracts key findings for practitioners, and best of all, includes pictures of adorable pets.

About the Author

Dr. Julia Huprich headshot
Dr. Julia Huprich
Vice President of Learning Science
Dr. Julia Huprich was formally the head of our Learning Science initiative to establish evidence-based practices in corporate learning and customer education that drive real-world results.