The lost weekend, part 2: exploring the thirteen game mechanics

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

In my previous post on gamification, I began exploring the subject and why games are so popular and, at times, addictive.  I introduced you to 13 game mechanics and here I will delve a little deeper into these as identified by Karl Kapp1

The 13 game mechanics

  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


Characters, like in novels, are an important element which helps immerse the gamer (or learner) in the game environment.  They are a vital part of the storytelling.  They help make an emotional connection.

In her book eLearning and the Science of Instruction, third edition *Ruth Clark refers to characters as avatars or agents and their inclusion is part of ‘the personalisation principle’.  Although, characters don’t need to have a human appearance, evidence shows that non-human characters should be human-like.  I like to think of it as the ‘Disney effect’ – how else could you worry for a snowman with a carrot for a nose and sticks for arms as he dreams of the warmth of the sun?

*the fourth edition of the above book was published March 2016

The personalisation principle is similar for gamification.  The learner, when taking on the role of a character (these are called avatars), practises behaviours in the game until they are mastered.  When seeing yourself carrying out tasks and problem solving as a character (a first person view), has less impact than seeing the character doing the same (a third person view).  And, if the learner is able to adapt a character’s appearance to resemble themselves, this has an even greater impact than just choosing a character to become.

Avatars are not the only characters in the game.  Just like in a novel, the avatar may interact with other characters and it is important that the ‘story’ characters help keep the pace going.  Finally, there is another type of character which can have a positive impact on learning in games.  Those acting as mentors (Ruth Clark refers to these as pedagogical agents) provide instruction and encouragements.  These also have a positive impact especially where speech rather than text is used and the language is in a conversational tone. This all helps make an immersive environment.


The story, like the characters, is essential for gamification.  It engages and guides people through the game.  It provides relevance, context and meaning.  When we think about it, all games we play have an element of storytelling. In Cluedo, a murder has taken place and the players look at the clues on the cards to help them decide whether it was Miss Scarlet with the rope in the library. Even a game of chess is a story of kingdom against kingdom and what strategy will help us conquer all.

Because we remember stories better than random facts, the story will help learners relate the game to their own goals making the learning more powerful and enabling better recall in work-based situations.  This is why using scenarios are effective in elearning or classroom settings – gamification takes storytelling to a higher level.  According to Kapp, there are four story elements which we will explore at a later date.

  1. Characters
  2. Plot
  3. Tension
  4. Resolution


Building in mystery appeals to our sense of curiosity and our emotional state.  What will pique our curiosity?  Things which are incomplete, complex or there are inconsistencies.  Also, surprise and novelty will evoke our cognitive curiosity.  Our sensory curiosity should also be stimulated through the visuals, sound and movement.

Building in a sense of fantasy can help the learner experience situations they have not been presented with before.  These, in effect, create metaphors, analogies and vivid mental images which increase and improve learners’ memory.

I think back to my own CSI Wii game example where I only had some of the facts and clues that were hidden in the visual environment. There were inconsistencies in the information I was gathering and I can honestly say, I’ve never before had to investigate a crime but the fantasy elements helped me draw on experiences learned in the game and assimilate to past experiences and knowledge even though I’ve never been at a crime scene in my life.


There are three types of challenges we learn about in Kapp’s book on gamification: conflict, competition and co-operation.  Challenges allow us to use higher level thinking to solve problems and keep our attention going.  We have to be careful to get the challenge level right.

I call this the Goldilocks effect. Her porridge had to be not too hot and not too cold to be just right to eat. Equally, the challenge should not be too difficult as to frustrate the learner, thus demotivating them; nor should it be too easy that they become bored. Neither will help learning happen.  The challenge should be ‘just right’ to maintain motivation and the flow state mentioned in Part 1.


According to a recent survey by TalentLMS the most preferred gamification techniques by learners is that of ‘levelling up’.  That may surprise you – when the question of what we (L&D professionals) at the World of Learning in 2015 thought people who play games would prefer, most hands went up for points or competing with peers.

Having been sucked in by only the CSI game, my own experience was the challenge of getting to the next level in the game.  I didn’t care so much about collecting bugs (entomology was Grissom’s thing) although enough bugs would give me a bonus crime scene to solve; I wasn’t interested in competing against others either. However, points mean a lot to a lot of people, coming second most preferred element in the survey when playing games.  More about rewards later.

Building in levels provides easy to intermediate challenges which cater for different levels of abilities.  Each level will not only introduce new challenges and therefore new learning, but the opportunity to practise skills and knowledge learned in previous levels.  Levels will help the story progress, increasing mystery and maintain the curve of interest- ‘levelling up’ motivates progression and evokes a feeling of accomplishment.


Setting goals provides a clear purpose, helps focus and establishes measurable outcomes for the learner to achieve. In order to get to the next level, the learner may have to achieve a number of measurable goals.  Each level will have its own set of goals which, eventually, will lead to the overall goal.  Goals will challenge the learner and, when achieved, act as incentives to continue to achieve the overall goal.


There are three rules for the player:

  1. Operational – rules on how to play the game e.g. you can’t enter the witness’s office without a warrant and you can’t get a warrant without collecting sufficient evidence
  2. Implicit – these are rules on how to behave and are implied rather than written down.  You could call them rules of etiquette and would be mostly applied in a multiplayer game
  3. Instructional – these feel similar to operational rules but they provide an opportunity for learning


Like goals, can help learners focus and encourages prioritising tasks.   Playing ‘against the clock’ can help speed up mental agility and help us carry out task efficiently – skills which are transferrable back in the workplace.  Taking my CSI game as an example – I was very inefficient in my deductions which was the cause of staying up until stupid-o’clock playing detective.  The reason?  I refused to ask my mentor, Catherine, for help.  I was stubborn and wanted to crack the case myself.  I may have got the killer but maybe at the expense of another victim? Not great if the game is to encourage team working and efficiency.  This links to the instructional rule above.


This is not the same as giving direct feedback in a traditional elearning module. Feedback is constant and seamless.  It will be visual, auditory and possibly multi-sensory.  Learners will experience feedback in relation to where they are in the game, in relation to others and or the goal.  It may emulate the type of feedback people receive in real life if they carried out the same tasks or explored the same environment.

Take my CSI example; I received visual and auditory feedback following every action I took.  If I decided to explore a specific corner of the crime scene by moving the arrow keys on the controller, feedback would be constant and involve seeing (or hearing) different things as I moved towards the destination.  All of which I would mentally digest for later reference. If I chose to collect evidence with the correct tool from my CSI bag, I would see the evidence had been collected.  If I chose the wrong tool, feedback would either be that the evidence wasn’t collected or I may have been told what that tool would be used for to help me re-evaluation and make another choice.

Essentially, constant feedback helps the learner learn from their mistakes and allows them freedom to fail.  I like to think of it as the ‘cause and effect’ principle where everything they do will have a consequence.  Feedback may be visual cues and results of their actions through the game.  Feedback also acts as a guide to help the learner learn.  It doesn’t tell you what you should do – rather, it allows you to work it out and do it differently the next time you encounter the same or similar obstacle.


This is all about how building in the right level of uncertainty influences motivation to continue with the game and, therefore, achieve the goal.  The uncertainty factor, whether it is gaining points or reaching levels, releases dopamine levels in the brain which can increase motivation levels by 50%.  According to Liraz Margalit Ph.D. in her article ‘Why are the Candy Crushes of the world dominating our lives’,

the reward is more pleasurable the more surprising it is and is ‘strongly rooted in our evolution’.

The uncertainty of whether rewards are gained has a positive effect on the emotional aspect of the learning experience which, according to Kapp1, improves encoding and later recall.


When we encourage unlimited replay, we will encourage learning through repetition and practise.  This, as with feedback, gives permission to fail, revaluates decision making and behaviour, encourages exploration and prompts curiosity.

Replayability allows the learner to test out new ideas and learn from mistakes.  It is important to maintain motivation by building in support should the learner continue to make the same mistakes.  For example, rather than tell the learner what they should have done, offer another task which is easier to complete.  This will help to rebuild their confidence, practise the skills and ‘level up’ again.  The next time they level up and are faced with those tasks they failed in before, the same skills will be called for again once they’ve had an opportunity to ‘replay’ and become more proficient.


The quality of the visual design is vital to the overall sensory experience for the learner, even in the simplest of games to ensure that the visual layout is appropriately stimulating.  The quality of the visuals can make or break the success of the game.  If the game design itself is poor, good visuals won’t make it any better; but if the game design is good, well designed visuals will make the overall experience great because the learner becomes immersed in the environment.

Attention to detail is crucial when it comes to aesthetics however, realism is not.  Characters do not to have a realistic appearance to make a connection with the learner.  In fact, if you try for a realistic look and it isn’t quite there, it can have the opposite effect.  Characters and objects can work just as well if they are simplified or cartoon-like.

Depending on the type of content you are building, different style graphics may work better with one than the other.  For example, high fidelity, realistic visuals and authentic environments tend to work better for higher order thinking skills, whereas simplistic game visuals can work best for facts.

Whatever look you go for, the important things to consider is the quality of the graphics and how they work together.


Finally, we come to what some might think of as what really makes gamification.  Rewards are certainly useful game mechanics to consider.  As we read above, they play a part of chance which releases dopamine levels in our brains which, in turn, motivates us to continue with the game.  However, we need to think carefully when building in rewards. Rewards should be integral to the game rather than the focus of the game.  If we are not careful, the learner’s goal will be reward focused rather than learning/goal focused.

Receiving rewards motivates.  There are two types of motivation we should consider: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is where we do something for its own sake or for the positive feeling of achievement.  When we think of intrinsic rewards this is the satisfaction we get from carrying out a task itself not from the results of completing the task.

Extrinsic motivation is where we are motivated by receiving something good or avoiding something bad. For example, extrinsic rewards might be reaching a certain grade or achieving the top 5 on a leader board or reaching the next level.

Link rewards to tasks in the game instead of awarding random prizes or rewards. Extrinsic rewards have a positive impact on intrinsic motivation when they are built into the feedback on how the learner is doing.  It is important to plan for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation when considering a reward system.


To leave you with a final thought from Karl Kapp1: “..the story, the challenge, the sense of control, decision making and a sense of mastery – these are the elements of games that are of the most value”.  So, when considering bringing gamification into your blended approach, focus on these not just rewards, badges and leader boards.

1Kapp, 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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