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Gamification, Rewards & Learning

In this article, I'll talk about gamification and its application in learning, and why we have to be careful about using it badly.

Richard Atlas

April 8, 2015

9 Min Read

Hi everyone! Back again, and this week we have a special MarieJoarticle on gamification for learning. This article is made up of the lessons I learned from a talk given by Marie-Jo of 42Comets, a company that provides gamified solutions to training issues in the professional world. Keep in mind the opinionated stuff I say my opinion, and not hers.

Marie-Jo is a wizard who worked in instructional design at companies in the utilities industry and also in game design at Behaviour and Ubisoft, making her a perfect fit for gamification.


There's a lot of buzz around the word gamification, and there's recently been a lot of controversy over whether or not it actually works. This is mainly because for every one time someone does it well, loads of other people are doing it really badly. In this article, I'll try to explain what gamification really means and how it can be used well.

Before we get to that, though, we need to talk about engagement. Not like when you propose to your significant other, although that's cool too. No, we're talking about keeping the attention of players or users. This is true for games, training programs, classes, and pretty much anything where any information is presented and wants to be understood.

Image taken from: <a class= Image taken from: http://www.centercitypediatrics.com/

The keys to keeping people engaged, according to Marie-Jo:

  • Make people think: people are at their most focused state when they're trying to solve a problem (more on this later).

  • Show, don't tell: like they say in all forms of entertainment. When you give everything away, the user will devalue it because they haven't discovered it themselves.

  • Pique people's curiosity: give them something to look for.

  • Get people together, get them to interact: what we talk about with someone will be better remembered than what some media tells us

  • Use rewards wisely! This is hard.

    • Rewards should be used to build skill, and can be used to build habits as well. This is basic operant conditioning, and is extremely powerful. Use timely rewards, and intersperse bigger rewards throughout smaller ones. That is, give small rewards at small intervals which lead up to bigger rewards that come less often.

  • Story drives engagement: we look for story in everything we do, and we're used to learning through stories.

That was the most important thing in the article, so if you need to leave in 23 seconds, read them over again before you do.

So let's say we're engaging people in all these ways. Why are games special in some way, when TV or movies could hit all these points of engagement? Well, that's because the interaction involved in play causes it to be much more powerful than passively watching or reading something.


Before the 90s, play was linked only to survival in animals, as we had seen proof that young animals that played more had a higher chance of survival. This was because play caused an increase in agility, awareness, and other beneficial traits for survival.

In the 90s, studies were done in classrooms and in the military, and it was shown that people performed better on physical and mental tests when taught through games.


It may be shocking to some, but I wasn't the slightest bit surprised to learn that surgeons who play video games (not like the one above!!!) are actually better surgeons than ones that don't. Beyond that, it's been shown in studies that a surgeon will improve their skill more by playing certain video games than practicing with actual surgery tools for the same amount of time.

The same can be said for stroke patients who had issues with their visual cortex (the part responsible for interpreting what the eyes send to the brain). These patients were able to recover by practicing certain hand-eye movements, but it turns out that playing games (ANY GAMES) was better for developing new connections in the brain than the traditional rehab methods.


The key here is that the brain is most active and creates the most new connections when it's in a state of absolute focus, which can be elicited by the uncertainty of obtaining a reward. When the brain is 50% sure it's going to receive a reward, it seems to be in its highest state of attention.

So how do we apply this to training? The goal is to get this high level of focus that we discussed in the realm of gaming, and bring it to the professional training world. There's a huge distinction between pure game and pure training, but anything in between can be considered as gamification. This means setting up scenarios, simulations, and rewards in the same way you would in games. Some of the key things here include things like second chances to answer questions, showing them a map of tasks to accomplish so they can feel like they're "cleaning the map", etc.


But where does gamification fail? Why do we sometimes feel like we're being bombarded with rewards, progress bars, and badges that mean nothing? Case in point: the LinkedIn rating that I see on my profile that tells me that I'm an "All-Star", and that I haven't reached whatever the highest rank is. But... I don't care! I don't even care to find out what I need to do to fill that silly rank ball thing anyway. Why is that?

lack of motivation is at the root of the problem of slapped-on gamification that we see all over the place. This is also the cause for the apparent backlash against the movement, and there's good reason for it. Don't give users rewards for something they were going to do anyway, and don't try to motivate people to do something there's no way they'll do. Do I care about leveling up? Why? Does it help me in some way? What does it unlock? What new things can I do, see, or explore?

The issue is that people slap rewards on to the usual linearly presented information, rather than follow a real reward curve which is necessary for engagement in media:


What defines crappy gamification is taking all these black peaks and adding badges on every once in a while. Why am I performing these tasks? When am I getting a reward? Why do I want a reward? What defines better game models is the idea of timely, overlaid rewards like what we see in red and blue on the image above which give the user the feeling that they're working toward something.


All this to say, gamification is not something we should fear or despise, but it is a tool that should be used carefully and intelligently. Rewards and challenges are the way we learn and the way we experience life, so applying them to training programs shouldn't be something that we avoid. On the other hand, there's a growing trend of awful gamification that is ruining the name for everyone else.

Sorry for the lack of references on the scientific bits, I didn't take down the reference info from the slides!

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