What makes us enjoy the repetitive experience of arranging shapes in Tetris, jumping in Mario, or throwing birds in Angry Birds? 🤷🏻♂️
Game designers understand how to motivate and engage people. They have to. Unlike work, no one is forced to play games. People choose to play games, and they always have the option of playing a different game. This is why the gaming industry has so much to teach us about engaging and motivating people.
Most people associate "gamification" with progress bars, points, badges, and leaderboards, but games are a lot more than that. They're complex systems involving human psychology and motivation, competition and cooperation, narratives and stories, decisions and consequences, and yes, progress, achievements, and rewards. 🏅
This may feel overwhelming, but the truth—and the good news—is that to create a gamified learning experience, you don't need to build complex game systems.
At its heart, gamification is about strategically incorporating game elements and mechanics into non-game experiences to motivate and engage people.
The keyword here is "strategic." A misplaced leaderboard or meaningless badge does not make an inherently boring task appealing and enjoyable. Instead, it makes the design feel disingenuous, and it's the reason why some people perceive gamification as manipulative and deceitful. 😬
If you asked any gamer what they enjoy about playing games, it's never the points, badges or the rewards. Instead, it tends to be a combination of challenges, unpredictability, social interactions, and feelings of power—all intrinsically motivating.
Before "gamifying" your online course, think about your students' core motivations and how you want them to feel. Any game-like elements or techniques must be applied intentionally and strategically to create the desired experience for the user.
The best games are the ones you can start to play before you learn how to play.
Think about Super Mario! 🍄
Instead of reading through instructions, you learn through trial and error. The instant feedback from the game helps you hone your skills through practice.
When designing a learning experience, avoid the urge to give step-by-step instructions and the answers to every question. Instead, think about how you can design learning experiments and a continuous, fast feedback loop.
One of the best examples of this is Ship 30 for 30, where students publish a mini-essay every single day for 30 days. The volume of feedback students get from publishing so many essays in such a short timespan teaches them far more than a thousand hours of instructional content ever could.
The points, the badges, and the player's place on the leaderboard are external symbols of intrinsically motivated actions, and they must be linked to meaningful accomplishments.
One of the best examples of gamification with PBLs (Points, Badges, Leaderboards) is StackOverflow, where I've earned plenty of badges for my contributions over the years.
The ones I'm most proud of are my 7x "Necromancer" and 3x "Revival" badges for providing great answers to old questions. Both badges make me feel smart and accomplished, which I find deeply satisfying and intrinsically motivated by. The least inspiring one is the "Autobiographer" badge, awarded for completing the "About Me" section of my profile—for me, it doesn't represent anything worthy of a reward. 🥱
When implementing badges for your online course or community, make sure they're for "worthy" causes in your audience's eyes.
To avoid worthless badges, you could reframe them as trophies instead. 🏆
You wouldn't offer someone a trophy for watching their first lesson. It's meaningless and too easy. But, you might reward them for submitting their first assignment, leading a group discussion, or helping a fellow student by offering constructive feedback.
Humans are wired for stories.
When a story is good, we become captivated by it, emotionally connecting with the characters and curious to discover how their story unfolds. We pay attention, and as a result, we learn and remember better.
Great games use stories to provide context on the player's mission, giving them a north star to work towards. In the same way, teachers can use stories to make learning relevant and interesting.
One of my readers, Beatriz, shared these thoughts with me:
This weekend, I started watching this tv show on Netflix called The Surgeon's Cut. The first episode tells the story of an ObGyn doctor who basically invented the field of fetal medicine, when he got tired of letting twins die of a condition that nowadays, thanks to him, has a 90% chance of survival, for at least one twin (back in his time, it was a 10%).
It got me thinking about the lecture where I learnt about this condition (called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome), and how the information just washed over me like it was nothing. If the lecturer had started the session with a couple of clips from this episode, I reckon all of us would remember everything about the condition and its treatment, and more than that, most of us would become passionate about studying hard for the test, because we really know what's at stake, really feel it.
Stories, in Medical Education, make the students' effort worth it, even when the end, the real stakes, are still years away. It makes studying and learning relevant, especially when you haven't had the chance to see the specialty in real life before studying it.
If a player is stuck for an extended period, they'll give up and leave. That's why games offer aids and hints to help players get unstuck.
In Candy Crush, you get hint moves in the form of flashing candies, Monopoly has Get out of Jail Free cards, and Escape Rooms offer a limited number of hints for when the players are stuck and out of ideas. ⛓
However, it's important not to offer too many hints or bring them up too soon. A game without challenge becomes dull and repetitive.
Many video games also offer multiple difficulty levels to suit the player's skill level and desire for a challenge. 💪
In the context of an online course, think about how you can present your "players" with challenges that are at the edge of or just outside their comfort zone, and then offer them extra clues they can choose to take advantage of if they're truly stuck.
The best games have levels of mastery (not merely levels of progress), where players unlock new powers and new tools as they progress through the levels.
They also include "power-ups" which give the players a temporary power boost to get through challenges. 🔋
Mario becomes Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog becomes Invincible, Monopoly players earn the privilege to buy lands and build properties, and people in Escape Rooms open doors they couldn't open before.
What if you used a similar system to give the most actively engaged students the "elite" status, extra powers and free benefits?
Here are some ideas:
The important thing is that students cannot acquire these by paying for them. No one can buy their place in the "elite" club. They have to earn it. 😎
What metrics to use?
What metrics can you use to track people's level of progress and to determine your "most actively engaged" students?
In my opinion, merely completing lessons is not enough as it does not signify learning or accomplishment.
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.
I'm still learning, and I'd love to hear your ideas!
Drop me a DM on Twitter and let me know what you're thinking about.