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Level-up Learning: Five Levels of Gamification Design

adult learning business objectives corporate training e-learning game design gamification Nov 29, 2018

by Jonathan Peters, PhD
CMO, Sententia Gamification

There is an oft-quoted and perhaps overused prediction by Gartner that 80 percent of gamification efforts are destined for failure. (At least that was the prediction in 2014.) Given the prevalence of the Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule), we could say that, hypothetically, only 20 percent of gamification efforts in the Learning and Development space will be successful

Why will so many gamification efforts be unsuccessful if not outright failures? Could it be that designers and instructors simply slap some game mechanics on a program and declare it gamified? Instead of examining their programs and learners, and then strategically interweaving game mechanics, they settle for some points, badges, and leaderboards and wonder why they see very little changes. That’s like placing a cherry on top of a dish and declaring it a sundae. That one ingredient does not magically convert Brussel sprouts into a delectable dessert.

This is why, at Sententia Gamification, we have a five-level process for creating successful gamified learning programs. Each level builds on the one before it, and like a game, you can’t jump ahead (that would be cheating). Each level consists of six stepping stones. If you follow each stepping stone, we basically guarantee a successful gamified learning program.


To give the process a memory hook, let’s use the acronym GAMES:





              Synch It

Let’s discuss each of these levels. And because most people skip over the G and A levels and jump straight into the E level (game mechanics), I’m going to put most of my emphasis on those two levels.


Level 1:  Goals

This level can be summarized as the WHAT and the WHO of design. Before we begin to gamify a program, we must first know what we want to accomplish (where we are and where we want to be) and who will be “playing.” Without knowing these two foundational components, it doesn’t matter what game mechanics we throw at a program; we will never be successful. So, let’s dig a little further into the WHAT and WHO.

In my opinion, Gartner’s prediction was wrong not because he was off in his numbers, but because most organizations don’t have a metric for success or failure in the first place. In other words, how would you know if a learning program failed if you don’t have a definition for success?

You’d probably be surprised by how often companies are unable to tell us their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for a learning program. When we ask them, what behavior changes they’d like to see in their learners, we get responses like, “We want them to work better together,” or, “We want them to be happier at work.” And it’s a rare organization that can tell us how they will measure success for their learning programs in business terms.

In other words, we can’t measure a Return on Investment (money, time, effort) if we don’t have a method for determining what a return is. To use a traditional business as an example, a return would be higher profits for the company. We would begin with a company’s current profits and then lay out a plan for achieving the profits they desire.

Once we understand profit goals, we can establish KPIs that are needed to reach that goal, such as leads, conversion to customers, price and frequency of sale, and margin. Progress in these Key Performance Indicators can be measured, and we can chart progress or lack of progress over the coming weeks and months.

What if we applied the same discipline to learning? What if we had specific and measurable goals for our programs? If we did, we would then be able to analyze what KPIs (behavioral changes) we will measure to know if we are on track.

The good news is that game mechanics can provide feedback loops that let us know if we are on track. Quizzes and traditional methods for measuring learning rely on memorization and short-term recall, but certain game mechanics allow learners to demonstrate that, yes, they understand what is being taught and that they are able to take that learning and apply it to their work and professional lives.

So as boring or tedious as it may be, before we begin to gamify a learning program, we need to invest significant effort in defining our business goals for the program, what behavioral changes we want from our learners, and what we will measure as an indicator of performance.

You chose the Learning and Development profession, but isn’t it true that you usually design for and deliver to people who are not in your field or department?

The problem is we tend to create learning programs and environments that we enjoy. It’s what Stephen Reiss, PhD, labeled “Self-Hugging.” He said, “Not only do we think everyone should be like us, but that they are like us.”

Reiss’s empirically-based taxonomy reveals that each of us places different priorities on certain core drives. For instance, we have found that L&D professionals tend to place more emphasis on the Curiosity core motivator than the rest of population. What does this mean for the programs they create? Well, they are more driven by learning and knowledge than people for whom they create learning programs. So, while they enjoy learning, the people in their programs do not. And because of self-hugging, L&D professionals will not anticipate other people’s resistance to, if not disdain for, information, knowledge, and learning.

Therefore, before we begin the process of creating a program, we first need to understand who our learners are, what motivates them and, ultimately, what they consider fun. Remember, they are the learners; we are creating programs for them.


Level 2:  Adventure

Since the moment humans first developed complex language, they have been telling stories.

Why? Because it’s how we transfer information from generation to generation, and it’s how we socialized each generation. It is difficult to retain a list of all that will harm us, but a vivid story will not only help us remember that sabretooth tigers and white berries are dangerous, but we can also easily pass this information to others. Similarly, a list of, say, ten commandments, cannot cover the nuances of what defines a “lie” and the consequences of breaking that cultural norm. But a story about how Sally lied, and the consequences she faced after telling the lie, not to mention what we now think of Sally, is something that will not soon be forgotten.

Before the Gutenberg press, there wasn’t a convenient way to distribute information and knowledge. Yet even today, with vast information a few clicks away, we still tell stories. In the workplace, gossip has more of an impact on a person’s behavior than an employee manual. And it doesn’t matter how important your learning program is, if employees tell each other how stupid the training is, it will not be effective.

Story gives a context for information, it aids in memory, and it allows listeners to apply the lessons learned to different applications. Studies show that when we hear or read stories, oxytocin is released, causing us to be more empathetic to others and more likely to help our peers in the workplace. Also, inside of games, we expect at least a thread of story. Some stories within games are rather detailed (Grand Theft Auto), others provide mere outlines (why are those birds angry at the pigs?).

What if, instead feeling dread before beginning a learning program, the learners were eager to hear the next installment of your narrative?


Level 3:  Method

While the first two levels of our gamification process may feel strange, and they may stretch you a bit, the Method level is one that will be more familiar to you. Here is where we decide how we will deliver the program. You probably already understand the differences between instructor-led learning and eLearning; you probably already have your preferred platform for delivering online programs; you have also created some amazing programs on your preferred platform.

This is also the level where we look at learning activities. As Monica Cornetti says, “Learning happens when the instructor shuts up.” If you’ve been in the L&D field for more than a couple years, you probably already have your go-to learning activities, and you probably have sources for more learning activities when you need to mix things up a bit.

Because you are probably comfortable examining how you’ll present your programs and the inclusion of learning activities, I will move onto the fourth, and most exciting level: Engagement.


Level 4:  Engagement

Finally, we are ready for game elements, mechanics, and dynamics! We have to travel through the territory of the first three levels to prepare ourselves to apply game mechanics to our programs. To quote Monica Cornetti again, “The fundamentals are the building blocks of fun.” If we have not laid the proper ground work, we will not know which game mechanics to apply to our learning programs.

If you ask an LMS company if their product supports gamification, they’ll likely say, “Yes, we have points, badges, and leaderboards.” In truth, they simply slapped a couple mechanics onto their platform. It’s like saying, “Yes, we have ball and a bat, so we have baseball. In reality, baseball is made up of lots of elements and mechanics; there are bases that have to run in a specific sequence, balls and strikes, outs, a leaderboard, boundaries, positions, and so on.

In the field of game design, practitioners have identified more than 300 game mechanics. Three lessons here: First, that means there are tons more mechanics available to you than just points, badges, and leaderboards. Second, not all of those 300 mechanics are applicable to learning programs (I’ve identified 120+). Third, and most important, less is more. Just because you have 300 or 120 possible mechanics doesn’t mean you should use them all, or even a dozen of them.

Instead, you need to be strategic in which game mechanics you use and how you use them.

What games did you play as a child? Seriously, I want you to, right now, visualize the specific games that absorbed so much of your time as a child.   

Isn’t it true that while you loved those games, you had certain friends and classmates who weren’t excited to play with you? Maybe you had to coerce your siblings to play. This was because certain game mechanics appeal to your motivation profile; meanwhile, your kid sister or brother was drawn to very different game mechanics.     

The effectiveness of a mechanic is dependent upon the player’s motivation profile. A person who is highly motivated by social contact, for instance, will not complete your online program unless you have a mechanic that allows chat between learners. Your highly interdependent learner will want to work with teams, while the low interdependent motivated people will roll their eyes at teamwork, much like your older brother or sister did when you asked them to play with you.     

To make this a little more tangible, only certain profiles are attracted to leaderboards, and many people are turned off by them. High vengeance people want to win, and they appreciate the opportunity to see who is on top and who they have to conquer to be there. High power and status people might like leaderboards if the leaderboards represent achievements they value. Meanwhile, high acceptance motivated people may find leaderboards disheartening if not threatening.      

The point is we must match our mechanics to what motivates our learners. That is why, at the first level of this gamification process, we took so much care to identify our typical learner. If we had skipped that step, we wouldn’t know what game mechanics would entice and engage them, nor what mechanics will de-motivate them and cause them to resist our learning program. 


Level 5:  Sync It

If you’ve carefully leveled up through the GAMES process, this final stage will simply be a matter of play-testing your program. This is the level where you look at all your hard work and make sure your program makes sense. Do you have a single narrative that weaves all the way through? Do your mechanics motivate your learners? Are your mechanics strategically applied? Do your learning activities support the material, and are they synced with the narrative and game mechanics? Is progress clear to your learners, and are you measuring the correct things?      

One of the disciplines of game design that I’ve enjoyed applying to Learning and Development is the concept of iteration; we don’t have to get it perfect the first time out. In fact, we wouldn’t expect our programs to be perfect until you’ve tested them.      

Therefore, in the final level, you create a paper prototype or alpha version of your program and test it with a portion of your target audience. Observe where they engage and where they disengage. What do they enjoy, and what appears to be a grind for them? Do they need feedback at certain stages? Where do they become frustrated? Finally, are your mechanics engaging?      

When you’re satisfied with the results of your tests, you are finally ready to roll out your program.      

But you have one last stepping stone; after all of this effort, you finally must ask, “Is it FUN?”      

After all, fun is in your DNA… and ultimately even serious people doing serious work should find your learning programs engaging and fun.

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