Use the Behavioral Science Principles of Gaming, Not Gamification, to Motivate Learners

“Gamification makes about as much sense as chocolate-dipped broccoli,” said Adrian Segar at Conferences That Work. A controversial statement, perhaps, because effective gamification exists but, most of the time, it’s applied poorly.

For example, associations have been pushing leaderboards, passports, and scavenger hunts at virtual conferences to get attendees to visit exhibitors. The problem with this type of gamification is the same one you see with gamified online learning. The underlying program—the expo hall or online course—is designed poorly, so no amount of gamification is going to help.

A virtual expo hall that offers a display of exhibitor logos, downloadable marketing collateral, and a text box chat is a yawn for everyone no matter how much you try to gamify it. A few people might play along, but they aren’t usually qualified leads for the exhibitors. They’re just in it for the prizes. This type of gamification doesn’t help attendees, exhibitors, or the association meet their goals.


The difference between learning games and gamification

Don’t confuse gamification with learning games. Learning games immerse people into a learning journey. They feature scenarios depicting real-life situations and give participants repeated opportunities to apply what they’re learning. Game mechanics, like points and badges, may support that experience, but they’re the icing on a well-designed, compelling learning cake, er, journey.

Gamification isn’t an evil practice. When done well, the principles of gamification can enhance the learning experience. But too often, gamification is applied poorly, which is why researchers compare it to chocolate-covered broccoli. Without a strong, underlying design, gamification is a waste of everyone’s time.

The potential problems with gamifying online courses

Gamification relies on extrinsic motivation. The promise of external rewards, like ranking or points, is supposed to motivate participants. These extrinsic rewards can work in the short-term, but the novelty of grabbing points soon wears off and no longer feels meaningful.

Intrinsic motivators, however, lead to deeper engagement than extrinsic motivators. When a learner is intrinsically motivated by feelings of mastery, purpose, and belonging, they’re driven to get the most out of the course.

Understand why you want to use gamification. Is it because it seems like an “innovative” thing to do? What value will it add to the learning experience? We’re big fans of digital badges because they serve as visual proof of a learner’s mastery of competencies, but gaming badges and points mean nothing to the outside world. They merely add clutter to the learning experience. They’re a distraction from the learner’s goal, which is not to get points but to acquire knowledge and skills.

Before using gamification, you must understand your target audience’s motivations and preferences. Competition makes the heart beat faster for some people. It spurs their interest temporarily. But other hearts are beating faster because competition makes them anxious. They rather avoid ranking and judgment, and will resent having to participate.

Some people think gamification is a bit of fun injected into a serious undertaking. Others think it’s gimmicky. Know your audience before deciding to inflict gamification on everyone.


Leverage behavioral science like a game developer

You can apply the principles of gamification to your online course design and delivery without relying on game mechanics.

An extrinsic motivator, like the dangling carrot of a potential pay raise, may drive a learner to your online course, but it won’t provide the internal push they need to persevere when the going gets tough. How can you intrinsically motivate participants so they stay hungry for learning?
Tap into these intrinsic motivators:

•    Autonomy: the desire to control your destiny.
•    Mastery: the desire to improve skills and develop expertise.
•    Purpose: the desire to do something meaningful.
•    Belonging: the desire to feel part of a group or community.


Games are based on stories, usually a hero’s journey. The hero encounters and overcomes challenges as they make their way toward their date with destiny. Design online courses that use scenarios, case studies, and exercises to put learners into a story where they have to assess the situation, make decisions, and emerge victorious. Let them practice autonomy while learning so they can better apply their new competencies in the workplace.


Let learners feel mastery as they solve problems. Help them understand how to apply what they’re learning and have those “aha” moments when they see all the pieces connect. Provide feedback and progress reports on their journey toward mastery. These dopamine hits give them the same feel-good emotions that games do.  

Interactive videos provide a sense of progress within a learning module. Add polling or questions at key points in the videos to encourage learners to keep paying attention and help them see how well they’re comprehending information.

Upon successful completion of the course, recognize their excellence. Find ways for them to feel personal satisfaction for a job well done. Provide proof of their mastery of the competencies taught, if it’s appropriate, with a digital badge.


Reaffirm their sense of purpose by showing them the path forward from here. Suggest next steps, certificate programs, and learning pathways they can follow.


Like a well-crafted game, learning is more enjoyable when done in the company of others, where a learner can discuss, share, debate, and banter with their peers. Learning can and should be fun. A happy brain is a more receptive brain.

A well-designed course doesn’t need the ornamentation of gamification. Build behavioral science principles of gaming into the design of your online course, and learners will be intrinsically motivated to succeed.

instructional design
behavioral science
learner engagement
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