WTF is "gamification" (and do you need it)?

~ 3 min read | Category: Newsletters

It was my son’s birthday last month, and he got a Nintendo Switch.

(For the uninitiated—which until very recently included me—that’s a handheld game console.)

It’s an expensive present, and we wanted to make sure he fully understood the implications.

“If we buy you this, it’ll be the only present you’ll get from Mummy and Daddy, okay?”


“And it’ll be part of your Christmas present too, so it means you wouldn’t get another big present at Christmastime. You understand that, right?”

“Yes. I understand.”

“So you’re absolutely sure this is something you really, really want, and that you’re not going to get bored with it?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay then…”

So we got him the Switch.

His favourite game is Animal Crossing, which puts you on an little virtual island. You can build a shelter, go exploring, and interact with nature. It’s very gentle but very immersive.

And it’s full of little challenges and rewards.

For example, you can dig up fossils and sell them, then use the money to buy useful items from the shop, like a wet suit that lets you go swimming.

I can see why my son keeps going back for more. There’s always something extra to do and something new to earn.

And “gamification” is a big trend in online courses at the moment.

The idea being that if you reward your students for the behaviour you want to see in your course (like completing lessons), they’ll do more of it and make more progress more quickly.

(Rewards are typically things like celebratory animations, recognition on a leader board, bonus content being unlocked, etc.)

So… is this something you need to think about for your course?

Well, it depends who you ask.

The pro-gamification argument goes like this: “These days students don’t just want information, they want an experience and unless you use gamification to create a more motivating, engaging experience, your course will fall flat.”

The anti-gamification argument says: “It’s a gimmick, a passing fad, and if your students can’t make progress without regular treats like some kind of lab rat then you’ve got to wonder how motivated they are in the first place.”

Here’s my take on it:

  • Self-doubt is a huge obstacle for many students and so anything that encourages action and celebrates their progress is only a good thing
  • If your course is poorly designed and built, no amount of gamification is going to fix it—in fact it’ll probably only highlight the problems
  • For certain topics, gamification risks trivialising the student journey. (If you’re helping people deal with toxic relationships, a points-based leaderboard may not be the best idea.)

So here’s what I recommend…

Forget about gamification to start with and just aim to create an engaging and effective course that gets results without all the bells and whistles.

Then, look at introducing some gamification to give things a little boost.

If your chosen platform doesn’t support it, don’t worry. Even if it’s not baked in, you can usually piggyback existing features to get some of the benefits.

Longer term, I do think the trend will pass. But I also expect that basic gamification features will become more common as course platforms evolve.

But what do you think?

See you soon, Glen


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