Do you feel rewarded for learning?

The first key to success in gamification is to build a reward system that engages people and rewards them for positive changes in behaviour.

If you get this wrong, it doesn’t matter how right you get everything else, your gamification will not motivate your users or learners. If you get it right however, you’ll find people not only enjoy what you want them to learn, but will also remember it, share it, and value it enough to come back.

In past posts I’ve covered the importance of starting with the question: “What behaviour are you trying to change?” (see 3 Steps to Gamification that Works)

Here I want to touch a little bit more on the practical use of the different types of rewards and reward systems that make up gamification, and give you a quick tip on how you can use of each of them to enhance engagement for your learners.


Understanding the Theory (in brief)

Personally, I both love to learn and love to relax with video games. This helps me to look past “gamification” the buzz word, and actually consider the feelings of being rewarded, and the behaviours that underpin how we are made to feel rewarded in gaming, and how that can be applied to learning.

In game design, reward systems are broadly placed into eight categories:

  1. Score
  2. Level
  3. Virtual Items
  4. Resources
  5. Achievements
  6. Instant feedback messages
  7. Plot animation and pictures
  8. Unlocking

Each of these reward categories is designed to complement each other and provide all players with both a fun experience in the game, and a rewarding experience that has them return to the game or speak to others about it.

The different reward categories are aimed to cover both: the different ways we as individuals experience rewards and progression, and the different points in the lifecycle of an individual’s experience with the game.

Often when we design rewards to “gamify” our learning take a simplified an off the shelf solution that doesn’t relate in any way to the behavioural change we are trying to do bring about, or the individuality of the learners we are trying to help. Worse still, we sometimes use different gamification systems in each of our pieces of learning rather than a unified approach.

Having been exposed a large number of samples from vendors large and small, what this usually looks like in the end is just:

  1. A score we increase over time that we use to compete with others on a leader board.
  2. Or a few achievements that unlock automatically for us as we complete mandatory or recommended tasks.

Gamification built around such a limited vision of how individuals feel rewarded can never have the effect on behavioural change you desire, and for many learners, it’s not only starting to feel boring, but can even go so far as to demotivate.


Getting Practical (for L&D)

So let’s get practical and look in turn at each of the eight categories of reward and how you can use them to enhance your learners experience.

Collectively in video games these provide players with both a fun experience while in the game, a reward at the end of use, and a reason to return to the game or speak to others about it.

They can give learners the same experience if we apply them right.

So let’s explore the different reward categories one at a time, explaining how they work in games, and sharing a tip for how you could use each one to improve your learners experience in L&D. Keep in mind throughout all of this that usually not all of these are suitable for all L&D apps or learning, but understanding them all lets you create a targeted gamification strategy, rather than simply throwing in a leaderboard or a few missions and expecting people to be motivated.


How it’s used in games: Scores are a number you earn while carrying out activities that generally have no direct impact on how you play the game (or experience the learning). Scores often reset and are designed to give you something to beat yourself at or comparing your best with others.

How to use it in learning: Scores are great for things such as quizzes or other repeatable content where people have the scope to improve.


How it’s used in games: Unlike score, level (sometimes called experience points or XP) is a number or title that never resets, always goes up, and requires effort to increase. It’s usually tied primarily to the amount of time invested or the number of tasks completed. Levels are often capped at a maximum level or placed into bands (e.g. every 100 levels) to ensure the player (or learner) has something to aim for.

How to use it in learning: Levels (or ranks as they are sometimes known) help to highlight to others your experience and give people at the top and bottom ends of your engagement level something to aim for. It helps them stick with the learning long enough to form a habit and gives them a reason to continue to put time into learning over time particularly when new learning is provided.

Virtual items

How it’s used in games: Virtual items are items that can be earnt and displayed either by levelling up, completing specific tasks, or through repeating tasks with a random item awarded at the end. They exist only within the game (or your learning app). These items are sometimes cosmetic, and sometimes functional. The provide the user with the ability to show their individuality through how they are used to customise an avatar or profile. When organised into collections they are also key to keeping players (and learners) engaged during periods when no new content is available.

How to use it in learning: In L&D virtual items can be used to give people a reason to repeat content and helps to create an attachment to the system via the personalisation of their avatar or profile. It can be used to keep learners engaged during periods when there is no new content, and encourages learners to “show off” their personalisation by social learning, such as answering questions, and participating in socially with other learners.


How it’s used in games: Resources are a special kind of virtual item that get consumed. Quite often it works as the game’s currency where playing (or learning) rewards a the currency much like our real life salary. Resources are usually used to “buy” things within the game, most commonly virtual items. It helps those who invest in the game to have alternatives to get the virtual items they want, when simply repeating content or levelling up in the hope of getting the virtual item you want stops being fun.

How to use it in learning: Resources work well when people want to buy virtual items and even sometimes physical items. They can also be used as a currency to “unlock” locked content or features, or to buy Virtual Items to encourage personalisation on apps with a more social learning experience.


How it’s used in games: Achievements are titles or badges that you unlock for performing specific tasks, or usually a group of tasks. They normally display on your profile and are primarily for “showing off” to friends or other players. How hard an achievement is to get, often directly affects how desirable the achievement is. Players traditionally seek after achievements only once the other reward categories stop feeling rewarding, and so its normal to tell a player exactly what then need to do to get an achievement.

How to use it in learning: In L&D achievements can be used to reward specific behaviours or considerable progress over time. They tend to be award either only the first time the behaviour is observed, or for repeated observation over an extended period of time. Achievements work best with either an element of surprise “Oh I’ve unlocked this achievement!” or mission “If I do this x times I’ll get this achievement before anyone else.”

Instant feedback messages

How it’s used in games: Instant feedback messages are positive messages (sometimes text, sometimes pictures) shown to the player immediately after an action to create positive emotions and have them associated with the action. They are normally rewarded when the player is doing well, such as “Good” or “Perfect” showing when somebody completes a task with precise timing. After being shown they have no lasting effect as a reward. They are designed only to create an instant emotion.

How to use it in learning: Instant feedback messages are great for motivating people to do more of what they are doing, and to have people remember an experience as being fun and worth repeating.

Plot animations and pictures

How it’s used in games: Plot animations and pictures are used to reward the player for making progress towards the end goal of completing the game. They cause the player to stop and be entertained and mark milestones in a meaningful way.

How to use it in learning: The tip here is to recognise that in L&D the “plot” may be getting to the end of a course or learner journey, or maybe earning a qualification after an extended amount of time. Whatever the purpose exciting animations and pictures help milestones with memorable experiences.


How it’s used in games: Locking some content, or virtual items, behind a virtual door, and only allowing the door to be opened after key criteria has been met. This may require the player to have completed specific less complex tasks before having access more complex content, or may require the user to reach a particular level and have particular resources available before they can obtain a virtual item. Locked content rewards those who unlock it with a feeling of exclusivity, and motivates those who don’t to believe there is more to look forward to.

How to use it in learning: In L&D locking content or items can help to ensure a correct learning path, and can engage those who unlock previously unavailable content or virtual items into spending more time in using or accessing that content.

How not to use it in learning: This one needs an extra couple of tips because its done wrong so often.  The big mistakes to watch out for when you are using unlocking for learning are: first never use time based locking, second don’t lock expert learning behind a long list beginner learning that someone in you audience will likely already know. Both of these can really upset people who like to binge in their learning or just want to do some deep learning, and get stopped when they are actually keen to learn more.


Getting the Balance Right

Unfortunately when deploying a reward system for gamification, people more often than not end up with a generic mishmash of only a few of these rewards (most commonly a leaderboard and a few badges) rather than reflecting on the behavioural change from the learning and using that to create planned out strategy. This unfortunately means that both the “fun” and the reward becomes too generic. Rather than engaging everybody, as is hoped, we end up with nobody engaged very much at all.

You must use an appropriate mix of reward categories to cover what each of your learners finds rewarding. Do not try and combine these categories into a reduced number of scores or a global score. And do not try to sprinkle a little bit of everything everywhere. Watered down these rewards fail to do their job and you end up with all learners ignoring the unrewarding scores altogether.

How we do it in Learn with Mobile

My passions for gaming and learning are shared with many of the Learn with Mobile team. Because of this we thought very hard about getting gamification right, knowing we needed something that would work for everyone, while keeping the flexibility for those who need to build custom experiences, and align with enterprise goals.

No matter which version of Learn with Mobile you use, we have a reward system built around all of these categories for your learners, and we make them available to content builders via our built in API.

At the Enterprise level, when rolling out Learn with Mobile, we’ll work with you to identify and build the custom gamification and reward system that reinforces the right behaviours for your learners.

And for those who want to use Learn with Mobile at the heart of your own learning app experience, you’ll find out that creating a rewarding experience is among the first things we’ll talk to you about.

If you want to find out how we can help you creating engaging app experiences around your learning, why not get in touch.






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