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It’s hard to have missed the rise of gamification in the learning industry over the past few years. Self-proclaimed gamification “experts” have seemingly dropped from the sky to fill our conferences and social media channels. It’s hard to ignore gamification when the global revenue in the learning games market is expected to reach nearly$9 Billion in 2017. There’s even an Education Edition of Minecraft.

Studies have consistently supported the use of gamification both from a learner preference and effectiveness perspective. A 2014 Study by TalentLMS found that respondents were heavily in favour of gamification :

This study built on 2013 research by the eLearning Guild which found that when content was delivered through gamification, learners scored:

All together there’s a lot to like about gamification. It can turn dull, dreary, bullet-point laden eLearning into interactive adventures that capture a learner’s imagination, holds their attention, and increases their knowledge retention. What’s not to like?

Gamification can turn dull, dreary, bullet-point laden eLearning into interactive adventures that capture a learner’s imagination, holds their attention, and increases their knowledge retention.

While gamification is certainly effective when used properly, there are several common mistakes that undermine the efficacy of a gamification effort. Avoid these gamification pitfalls, or you could end up losing at your own game.


The first and most common pitfall is confusing gamification with game-based learning. Gamification is the application of game elements such as leader boards, badges, and levels to your learning program. Game-based learning is the use of games to achieve your learning objectives. Before you dive into you learning project you need to decide: Am I building a game? Or, am I using game elements? Each requires different considerations and expertise.

Here’s a great article by ASCD about The Difference between Gamification and Game-Based Learning.


I’ve got a feeling your L&D department doesn’t have a budget for “just messing around.” Gamification (like all learning projects) is hard work, but no matter how great the result is, it’s useless if it doesn’t meet your learning objectives. When working on a gamification project, you need to ask yourself:

  • Will this help the learner achieve the learning objectives?
  • Is this a good use of the learner’s time?
  • Will the learner feel like they’ve accomplished something?

Word-of-mouth is your best marketing tool for a learning project, make sure your learners are talking about the value it creates, not the time it wastes.


If a game is too easy, learners will disengage quickly. There’s only so many rounds of “card matching” a person can handle. Games are fun because they’re challenging; the world isn’t flipping bottles because it’s easy! That said, finding the right difficulty level can be problematic when you have a diverse learner base. A solution may be to offer multiple difficulty levels, such as a medal system (e.g. gold, silver, bronze). In this system, bronze becomes your minimum standard and gold becomes the challenge for motivated learners.


A fundamental element of game-design is failure. As L&D professionals, we’re often required to create learning that ensures everyone can pass. Terms like: “forced completion” or “corrected to 100%” have become common place. While we ultimately want all our learners to “win,” this doesn’t mean they can’t feel a bit of failure. Using a leader board or success levels (e.g. outstanding, excellent, very good, complete) with corresponding icons, lets learners know they could have done better, while still allowing them to meet requirements. Add their performance level to their completion certificate and you may find learners suddenly more interested in performing well.


Like all learning efforts, gamification is a solution that should be designed to solve a specific business problem. The game should be aligned with the content and not all content is suitable for gamification. Jeopardy is probably not the right solution for a course on handling crucial conversations, while a “choose your own adventure” style may be spot on. Conversely, applying gamified elements to a course on Cultural Diversity or Grief and Loss may not be appropriate. You should never set out to build a gamified course, you should always set out to solve a business problem.

Gamification Can be Awesome

While gamification has exploded in popularity over the past five years, research on the use of games for instruction is much deeper. If you’re exploring gamification in your business, check out these books that will help you ensure you avoid gamification pitfalls.

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World – Jane McGonigal

Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things – Brian Burke

The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education – Karl M. Kapp

What gamification pitfalls have you encountered? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Clint Clarkson

Clint Clarkson

VP, eLearning at Xpan Interactive
Clint Clarkson is the VP of eLearning at Xpan Interactive, a digital-services firm that specializes in the delivery of custom eLearning solutions. He has 15+ years of evolution in Learning & Development as a facilitator, instructional designer, and leader. Connect with Clint on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.
Clint Clarkson

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