Getting started with gamification for corporate learning

Read time : 7 minutes

Are you struggling with learners’ engagement? In that case, you must have encountered gamification in your search for a solution.
The use of games or gamified elements has become widely popular to increase learners’ motivation and learning impact. What is gamification truly about, and how to get started?

Wait, is this game-based learning?

Gamification and game-based learning are closely related in the sense that they bring similar benefits such as fostering engagement and motivation from learners.
Gamification is the process of incorporating game elements and game design techniques to non-game contexts or activities to increase engagement. However, behind that term are concepts originating from motivation psychology and behavioral sciences.

At its core, gamification is nothing more than the application of behavioral sciences

Why is it called gamification then? I’m glad you asked. Games are well ahead of the pack when it comes to hooking users and drive them to accomplish certain actions, hence why they have been used as a source of inspiration for many other fields, from marketing to education, to achieve the same result.
Game-based learning consists of learning through games: it is the process of learning by using games as a learning tool, existing ones or specifically developed ones, to achieve defined learning goals, referred to as serious games.

Different scopes

The main difference between gamification and game-based learning is that gamification in the context of learning uses game mechanics and applies them to existing learning courses and content; while game-based learning uses existing actual games or specifically developed games to learn.
Gamification has a more holistic approach incentivizing all or certain aspects of the learning journey. It allows to use game mechanics to foster motivation on a larger scale. Game-based learning can rather be seen as a standalone activity embedded into the journey, more targeted, focusing on the learning of a defined skill or behavior.
We can say that game-based learning always includes gamification elements, but gamification cannot be equated as game-based learning. Another way of saying this is that game-based learning is an extreme form of some elements of gamification, effectively turning the learning experience into a full-fledged game.

Gamification is about points and leaderboards, am I right?

Gamification has long been, and often still is, seen as limited to mechanics such as an achievement system slapped onto existing learning courses in an attempt to motivate learners to complete their trainings. While these are technically part of gamification and not inherently wrong when done properly, sticking to these elements barely scratches the surface of what gamification is about.
A convenient framework to explore this is the Octalysis framework developped by gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou. The Octalysis framework identifies, believe it or not, 8 core drives for motivation :
  • Meaning
  • Empowerment
  • Accomplishment
  • Social influence
  • Unpredictability
  • Scarcity
  • Ownership
  • Avoidance
While these would certainly warrant a (series of) blog post(s) to go further in details, it’s important to recognize the way these can be categorized.
Extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation
As the name indicates, an extrinsic motivation comes from external factors. The activity is carried out because there is something to gain by doing it (e.g. a badge), or to lose by not doing it (e.g. well.. your job). Conversely, an intrinsic motivation is driven by the activity itself, being rewarding on its own without external intervention.
White hat vs black hat
Now what’s with these hats? (Trivia: this hat-based terminology comes initially from the hacking community, white hats being the ethical hackers and black hats being the… slightly less ethical ones).
White hat drives focus on instilling positive emotions – feeling empowered, accomplished or pursuing a noble quest. On the other hand, the black hat drives generate motivation by fear or struggle. It’s important to note that, while these do not sound like the most pleasant feelings, they are useful when used properly, and are effectively widespread in our everyday lives – who hasn’t bought an item because this fantastic discount was about to expire?

The importance of the motivation drives

No action is ever taken by any individual without a certain motivation powered by one of these drives.
In the worst possible case, an employee would only take a mandatory training because they would otherwise risk losing their job. This would correspond to a strong level of Avoidance drive combined with a total absence of any other.
As bad as it sounds, this is fairly common and tends to lead to the infamous speedrun technique, where the “learner” starts the e-learning, smashes the “next” button as fast as humanly possible, and closes it about 3 minutes later after brute forcing the typical conclusion quiz. We’ve all been there.
Thankfully, gamification came up to save the day. Does it?

Imbalanced, as nothing should be

As mentioned above, gamification has gained significant traction in corporate learning through what is now referred to as PBL: Points, Badges & Leaderboards. These are fairly easy to implement and do bring improvements, certainly compared to the gruesome scenario described earlier. These techniques, generally leveraging the Accomplishment and Ownership drives, yield however suboptimal results for two main reasons.
1. PBL as the new standard
The very fact that this initial level of gamification has been widely implemented, including outside of the education context, makes its novelty fade away to a point where it can be welcomed by a shrug more than by screams of joy. This is further worsened by the younger generations entering the workforce with much higher standards in terms of interactivity.
2. Overly extrinsic approach
In today’s typical corporate learning approach, extrinsic motivation elements are overwhelmingly taking over the intrinsic ones. This lack of systemic focus on instrinsic motivation, notwithstanding the fantastic creativity of instructional designers trying to create genuinely engaging content, harms the overall learning results. The cause of such an imbalance is to be found in the ever-increasing availability of extrinsic-oriented gamification elements from many providers and learning systems, while enhancing intrinsic motivation often means strolling down the path of serious games, drastically increasing the budget and time required. aims at solving this by creating custom 3D learning experiences or offering off-the-shelf content.

Examples of gamification elements in digital learning

Using an engaging narrative introduces a story immersing learners in a situation. There is a situation, a problem, a challenge and they can act upon it. Bringing up a problem to be solved by the learners’ own actions – as well as what would occur if said problem is not solved – creates a powerful sense of meaning.
Branching choices
A meaningful feeling of being in the driving seat goes a long way in fostering engagement. Again, oversimplistic ways to implement this, such as the click-to-reveal tiles, can and do backfire. However, allowing the learner to discover the content from several angles, be it from conversation choices or by not presenting all the elements in a rigid sequence, empowers them greatly.
Challenges and immediate feedback
Challenges allow to assess learners on their understanding and retention of the learning content and should show the immediate consequence of their answers. It is an important tool to provide constructive and immediate feedback to the learners. To ensure it does not cut the learning flow, it must be integrated in the overall narrative to keep the learner engaged.
Levels and progress system
Airing the content up is a common challenge for instructional designers to avoid information overload. Using a clear progress system lets the content be assimilitated in a structured and staggered way, where it is unlocked once previously presented concepts are well understood by the learners.
Points and awards
It wouldn’t be fair to not include the most common gamification elements. As for many things, it is critical to ensure that these points and awards are designed in a way that properly relates to the overall learning objectives. Granting awards for trivial actions quickly discredits them in the eyes of the learner. Similarly, awarding many points for seemingly small actions and vice versa could lead your audience to question the point (no pun intended) of that system.


The selection of the gamification elements in the design of your trainings should be based on the goals of your organization and your learners, as well as on an understanding of the perception of your training programs by your audience.
A training that is of utmost importance for your business while being intrinsically boring (hello, compliance e-learning)? Better double-up the gamification dose!
A very practical matter that directly relates to your learners and that they absolutely must know about to perform their job, right here and now? This scores already high on several drives (empowerment, ownership, relatedness) without the need to pour in much additional gamification.

Ask yourself : What will drive your audience to take these trainings? “Just because they have to, it’s mandatory” won’t yield great results

Regardless of what elements you choose to implement, they need to be designed carefully to effectively increase engagement. Focusing on positive intrinsic motivation drives to design human-focused trainings can help reduce the gap between what employees have to do and what they want to do, instilling the willingness to complete their learning journeys.