The lost weekend Part 1 – an exploration of game-mechanics and gamification on our motivation

It’s three o’clock in the morning.  Where did that last 6 hours go?  

Am I in a time warp and have been bounced forward in a blink of an eye?

No, I’ve been collecting evidence, visiting different venues, asking lots of questions of different people.  I’m very fastidious – I don’t leave a room – or, at least, I revisit it many times, until it’s been thoroughly checked; crawling on hands and knees, shining my torch, picking up any unusual or out of place item I might come across.  It takes some time and I have to go back to the lab and review my case notes regularly.  Something has to tie all of this together.

I’m not alone.  I have my colleague with me. She’s been in the job for quite some time now.  I’m just a newbie and Catherine Willows is there to give me a helping hand if I need it.  It’s only my fourth case and each one has been tougher than the last.  I’m learning fast though.  I’ve already solved the last three by putting all the clues together and analysed the evidence.  It won’t be long before I’m a fully-fledged CSI agent.  But for now, I must put my Wii controller down and go to bed.

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very, good, but
When she was bad, she was horrid.

A rhyme which, I’m sure, resonates with all mums and dads out there.  Seren, a typical little girl, is no different.  To encourage good behaviour, she receives a ‘good girl’ star (Seren is Welsh for star so she loves stars) and pops it in a box on the windowsill.  When she is naughty and doesn’t do what she’s asked, she gets a ‘naughty girl’ token which cancels out the ‘good girl’ star.  Seren knows that if she wants a special treat like a sleep-over with her Auntie Laura, she has to collect a certain number of stars.

Both these true stories are examples of game mechanics in action; one for pure pleasure (the CSI Wii game, if you hadn’t guessed) and one to influence positive behaviour in children.


Why are games so compelling?

Put simply, the key factors for player motivation are the sensory stimulation of game realism, experience striving to overcome challenges, opportunities to explore the game environment, discover new information and a sense of control1.

Games have been around for centuries.  Games and gamification have been applied in the L&D arena in one form or another for a long time too.  L&D professionals have used them to engage learners in the classroom through card activities, case studies, role plays, competing teams etc.

They’ve been used by the military for strategic thinking, the sales industry for customer service and in the health profession participating in online games is said to have improved hand/eye co-ordination in laparoscopy surgeons.  They’ve been used to help us improve our fitness levels.  Think Wii-Fit, the FitBit, Nike-fuel  (unfortunately, the game-mechanics don’t motivate me enough to change my sloth-like lifestyle)

Take a look at how VW used game-thinking to motivate people to take the stairs rather than the escalator with their piano stairs.  The result was 66% more people opted for the musical stairs.

Some might conclude that playing immersive, commercial, collaborative games can equip players for life in the workplace.

The Department of Work and Pensions (UK) developed an online social innovation community with game-mechanics to motivate collaboration called Idea Street 

Amuzo’s play2learn project is developing high-fidelity serious games for sales, compliance and recruitment to name just a few.

Sponge has helped bring gamification to elearning modules for compliance, leadership and public services.


What is gamification?

Perhaps, before we define what it is, it might be worth exploring what it isn’t.  Gamification is…

not the same as game-based learning

Game-based learning, according to Karl Kapp, is using a game or games to teach knowledge, skills and abilities to learners in a self-contained space with a beginning, middle and end.

not just about points, badges and leaderboards…

Using such elements as bolt-ons to boring content can have a detrimental effect on learner motivation, perception and quality of the learning.  Ryan Tracey raises his concerns in his blog post The dark side of gamification 

not a trivialisation of learning..

According to Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, “when learning is wrapped up in a game , more learning occurs.  Those who select a game participate 20% more than those who don’t”.  She also explains that 30% of Axonify learners check the leader board every time they visit the platform – 40% if they are sales professionals.  Fully immersive simulation games have helped learners develop strategic thinking and apply behaviours through trial and error in a realistic, safe environment.

not appropriate for every situation…

To decide on the appropriate type of game mechanics to apply will need a detailed analysis of the situation to establish what knowledge, skills or behaviour is required, together with the relevant instructional strategies.

not a fad…

Gamification is gaining momentum in learning and development.  The younger generation, who have grown up with video gaming and multi-user immersive online environments will no longer accept the read, click next, style of eLearning so often experienced in the corporate learning solutions (although there is a positive change happening).

not just for the young…

In April 2015, Polygon reported on the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) statistics that the average age of gameplayers is 35 and 27% are over 50 years of age (link). Oh, and by the way, I can personally attest to this one!

not just for consoles…

In the UK, according UKIE, over half of the £500m UK app market is spent on games and mobile gaming revenue is up 21% since 2013.  In terms of revenue per download, the UK is more profitable than Germany, USA and China

not just an insular experience…

37% of frequent game players play social games


So what IS gamification?

In his book The gamification of learning and instruction; game-based methods and strategies for training and education2, Karl Kapp defines it as  “gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning and solve problems in a non-game context”  There are two types of game mechanics:

  1. Structural – where the learner is taken through the game to learn the content and applying game elements such as points and leader boards.  There is no change to the game structure itself.  An example is Duolingo, it’s a free app for learning languages where it awards points for correct answers and takes points away for incorrect answers.  This is a very simplistic description for a very popular and successful learning app which is designed for short, regular burst of learning content (and an excellent example of applying spaced learning).
  2. Content – where game elements such as story, characters, challenges and curiosity, together with game thinking to make the content itself more like a game.  The learner interacts with the elements of the content.  An example could be the CSI game mentioned at the start of this blog.


What keeps us playing? 

Why did I stay up until 3am?  The key is maintaining the curve of interest.  It’s about achieving the cognitive flow state.  I like to think of the flow as the perfect storm for immersion.  It’s that sweet place between boredom and anxiety.

According to psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when a person’s skill level is low and the task is too difficult, they become anxious.  On the other hand, if the task is too easy for their skills ability, they become bored and easily distracted.

Success is when skill and difficulty are more or less proportionate.  When they achieve this, the player experiences extreme focus, a sense of active control and become so immersed in the game that they experience a loss of self-awareness and time just disappears.  Yep – I guess I experienced the flow state.

For this to occur, Csikszentmihalyi identified 4 characteristics:

  1. Concrete goals with manageable rules
  2. Set actions within a player’s ability to achieve the goals
  3. Feedback on performance
  4. Reduction in distractions

Earlier, I highlighted that gamification is so much more than points, leader boards and badges.  These do play an important role when implemented appropriately, but they are only some of the 13 game elements involved in applying gamification.  These are:

  1. Characters
  2.  Story
  3. Mystery
  4. Challenge
  5.  Levels
  6. Goals
  7. Rules
  8. Time
  9. Feedback
  10. Chance
  11. Replayability
  12. Aesthetics
  13. Rewards

Although not all of these elements need to be present.  We’ll explore each of these game elements more closely in part 2.  In the meantime, what are your own experiences?  Have you been so immersed that you forgot to eat, pick up your children from school or walk the dog?  What was the game that did that?  Have you experienced them for learning something new? Are you using gamification for your own learning programmes?


1Webarchive Learning in immersive worlds: a review of game-based learning Joint Information Systems Committee, Freitas

2Kapp, K.M. (2012) The gamification of learning and instruction; game-based methods and strategies for training and education  Pfeiffer 1st Ed. (Kindle)


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