When I first heard the term ‘gamification’* I had the sensation of a spider wiggling down my shirt at a picnic. It’s in the same league as ‘monetization’ and ‘level set’ and, ‘incubator’, words coined to make professionals sound, well, professional. I’m not against jargon in general; shortcuts are good if they are pithy and have substance. Not so ‘gamification.’ Defined originally as ‘funware’, it demeans both game playing and education. For the most part, game playing aims at developing recall. For lower level objectives, I suppose this would be tolerable if it weren’t distracting from higher-level intellectual outcomes.

For clarity, Games are well-crafted stories built in digital form with learning objectives frequently placing the learner in real life decision-making situations. They use the best practices of education and peda-androgogy and because they are dynamic and built to the same standard as say ‘World of Warcraft’ I find them admirable. I wish there were more and were applied with greater frequency but they are, as you might expect rather pricey.

Gamification is not Games. They’ve be clearly invented by instructional designers/educators in lust with technology. I have a wonderful cliff near my house they can be lobbed off. Its parallel in the public school universe is extrinsic reward schemes granted to students for showing up for class on time, good behavior and completing homework. In other words…as I see it, bribery. (I know this is contentious). I know there are many gamification fans and supporters out there and I respect your desire to improve public and corporate education. Just prove that the time, energy and money pays quality learning dividends and I’ll rethink my position.


Let’s set the record straight: If game design is used to make learning through technology more interactive and engaging, count me a fan. When gamification means achievement badges, reputation points and virtual currency, contests, Farmville, or systems for rewarding the acquisition of knowledge or skills—especially in a professional enterprise—I raise an eyebrow at the quality of employees and the (lack of) management resources that sees the need to move them to action with these techniques. A little immature, don’t you think? Reward systems are best used, and have been employed as marketing tools by product managers and marketers to move stuff off the shelves or entice people into chasing a purchase. Wrapping this around new metrics like ‘engagement analytics’ purveyors believe they can empirically demonstrate positive results—commercial and educational. Gaming is a tool that’s become a practice morphed into an industry with commercial drivers. (By the way, note I have not given any space to naming these enterprises…I’m not shilling for them. Look them up if you’d like but don’t be swayed by the hot graphics, testimonials and the robust claims).

Frequent readers of this blog know I am a skeptic. So using any metrics, I challenge Gamification builders to reveal learning performance improvement by users in their real work achieved by Gamification techniques alone. And within a reasonable time period.

A last point: In a learning environment, game interactions become not just exploitations of the basic human trait towards distraction, but will defocus the learner from the real content to be transferred.

*(The term may have been first coined by Nick Pelling in March 2004 for his gamification consultancy startup Conundra Ltd, via I presume Pellings’ was a commercial venture process.

Seth Godin has recently written, “Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.” (Emphasis is mine).

In any learning environment, this is the common process applied, whether called A.D.D.I.E. or an analogue:

  • There are Problems
  • Preferred solutions are known and become objectified targets
  • Learners acquire knowledge and skills to practice solutions, first guided and then independently
  • They revisit decisions to modify solutions were they learn they have fallen short
  • Recap: A summation of the learner’s solutions aligned to the preferred solutions
  • Look back: Review for changes in performance shortly after the learning and at intervals as necessary

Here is a brief taxonomy of learning techniques in use now and when designed to meet objectives quite useful. They also obviate the need for games and reward systems. Also, while most are part of traditional computer-based elearning they can easily be designed as disruptive, via migration to tablets/smartphones.

Low Level Online Learning Interactions
These are used primarily as checks for understanding, previews, and reviews. Once coded the content can be dropped in matching desired outcomes.

  • They include– Rubber Bands, Fill In’s, Drag & Drops, Matching, and both verbal and visual constructions are typical. The names are generic with many names for similar actions
  • The media has traditionally been Flash when built locally
  • Off the shelf products, e.g. Articulate, Captivate, Camtasia, Lectora, and other rapid authoring tools support basic interactions but are somewhat superficial given the need to employ these in a variety of environments
  • Mass market availability permits any instructional designer with knowledge of the tools to design for a series of learning based checks

Mid Level Interactive Techniques – as Guided Practice

  • Scenarios: For instance: Replication of ‘Office Events,’ Selling, Soft Skills, Application Use (Step by step w/correction)
  • Simulations: For example: Decision Making > On point, real time type action –oriented Sims with feedback loops for self-correction
  • Media: Static Images w/Voice Over, Avatars w/Voice Over, Simple Animations, Flash, HTML5 Most are one-offs where the content is very specialized, e.g., healthcare, though most can be generated using an authoring template.

Higher Level Techniques – Best used when moving from guided to independent practice

  • Virtual Realities w/Active Role Plays as Real Time Events
  • Stop Action Realities – Decision/Crisis Points
  • Real actors/real dialogue, built as a ‘digital shorts’
  • Could be avatars as actors but roles and actions are true to life and specific to the client’ need
    Media: Video, HTML5, Flash
    Quite a few of these become fully realized Games as the content is completely bespoke – custom made for each experience.


If these are done well, and have meaning and utility for the delivery of knowledge, skills and behaviors, in content as diverse from salespersons to management training, the concept of gamification is superfluous – rendering it cartoonish and beneath the intellectual and cultural status of the learners.

The reality is elearning is best when it is highly interactive with an emphasis on true situations. Gamification, with its emphasis on rewards for achievement is not a learning tool. It is an attempt to motivate; to actually move learners from passivity to those who are committed to the topic at hand. I trust that well designed instruction requires neither badges, awards nor competitive scoring to create effective learning uptake and performance improvement. Let’s do a great job of developing compelling elearning and leave the Gamification on the shelf where it belongs.



  1. Pingback: GAMIFICATION – PLAYING AT (NOT) LEARNING | Digital Delights |

  2. Rich,
    Interesting take on the word “Gamification” but I am not sure I agree with you 100%, I think Gamification needs to mean more than “funware”. It is a term that, I believe, can have great potential to enhance learning in multiple ways. Here is a post I did a while back on the word that I think you may find interesting.

    I think games can be a tool in the instructional designer’s toolkit just like lectures can be a tool or elearning a tool, no one tool fits every need but for certain needs game-based thinking and game-mechanics (Gamification) are good and effective tools.

    Thanks for your thought provoking post.

    • Karl –
      Thanks for sharing. Of course, I’m pushing the boundaries to make a point. Games have value when used appropriately as you aptly say. And that’s the key isn’t it? You don’t use a hammer to kill a fly and you don’t build games just for fun when there’s learning – which is produced under fixed budgets and delivered with time constraints – to be created. I take exception to lazy ID’s who cop to the idea that fun will bring people to learning when well-constructed interactive elements can be so much richer. And here’s the clincher — many business leaders are quick to blow elearning off the plate when they sniff the idea that fun is involved. In a sense, this economy demands close attention to what learning designers can deliver when every dollar and resource is scrutinized in the C-suite.
      Thanks again for responding!

  3. Rich,

    Agreed, games are yet another tool in the toolkit and they must be used appropriately to be effective. Lazy IDs are bad news and too many times, they “sell” people on game elements that are meaningless. Thanks for your insightful post on the topic and your diligence and focus on keeping learning meaningful.

    Take care

  4. Pingback: GAMIFICATION – PLAYING AT (NOT) LEARNING « Wonderful Brain | Gamification in Schools |

  5. Rich,
    Interesting article. I have been doing a lot of research on the use of Gamification in Corporate Education and have to agree with you on the point of if gamification is only about badges then we do need to question the quality of employees and managers. Have you read the series of articles by Michael Wu on the subject? Here is link to the articles:

    • Rebecca –
      Thanks so much for the link. Clearly Michael has turned the subject into a manifesto loaded with great information and quite naturally his critique and opinions. More importantly his illustrations of Gamification examples are well crafted and actually elegant. Here’s the rub. Michael is, and writes as an academic. If Gamification remains as an ped-androgogical strategy or technique the controls that ensure they are used appropriately fall under the aegis of the institution or the instructor. However, in the corporate world where too often ‘get it out the door’ and into the the hands of users or clients is more often the mantra, Gamification can progress down that slippery slope to cheap games. Since I no longer hold an academic post and live in the world of enterprise my sensitivity to Gamification is informed by observation of that very scenario. So I am a skeptic I suppose–and will remain one. Ars gratia pecuniae, I believe rules.

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