Gamification is Actually About Motivation, Not Badges

Posted on August 16, 2017

Shelley Osborne

Shelley Osborne

Head of Learning & Development at Udemy

gamification motivation badges header image

Gamification is the latest shiny new toy on the block for boosting learning engagement and knowledge transfer at work. If gamers can be drawn to spend hours immersed in a video game, why not bring the same concepts into corporate learning?

But it’s easier said than done. Too many L&D departments are jumping on the gamification bandwagon, without really understanding that it’s more than just throwing in a leaderboard and badges. Layered beneath each popular video game is actually a complex foundation driven by behavioral science and psychology.

What is gamification and how does it relate to the world of L&D?

First, gamification is about using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, and promote learning. At the end of the day, gamification is really about trying to create a learning experience to help motivate people to change their behavior. If done well, research by Karl Kapp, Instructional Technology Professor at Bloomsburg University, has shown that gamification can enhance employee motivation by 51.6%.

Games provide a meaningful impact on our problem solving abilities, hand eye coordination, and even our attitudes about learning itself. In addition to boosting our motivation to learn, games also offer a platform for learning which is accessible to any demographic.

Based on my Master’s thesis research on gamification and 13 years of experience as a corporate L&D professional and teacher, here are 6 steps you can use to successfully incorporate gamification into your organization’s L&D program.

1. Understand the learning behind gaming

Research has shed new light on why people love to play games by revealing what is actually going in the brain. We know that games are uniquely effective at helping us encode, store and retrieve information, resulting in meaningful learning. In game environments, we are driven to contextualize information, relate to others, achieve goals and so much more. Game-based environments often produce strong emotions, resulting in a higher likelihood of knowledge recall. The stronger the emotions connected to an experience, the stronger the resulting memory. The cooperative and social elements of games draw on these emotions producing powerful long-term memories. We also know that dopamine and endorphins are released when playing games, impacting our motivation and providing a sense of euphoria or pleasure.

2. Successful games are based on the core drivers of motivation

A key foundation of gamification is the fact that every successful game is based on core drivers of motivation. It’s not about the mechanics of games (points, leaderboards, badges, quest)—those elements don’t automatically result in an addictive game. Instead, it’s something much more human. Based on Yu-kai Chou’s extensive research in the gaming industry, he discovered all successful games have eight core drivers of motivation.

Chou distilled this into what he calls the “Octalysis framework” and the following eight core drivers:

  • Epic Meaning & Calling

  • Development & Accomplishment

  • Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

  • Ownership & Possession

  • Social Influence & Relatedness

  • Scarcity and Impatience

  • Unpredictability and Curiosity

  • Loss & Avoidance.

Facebook, while a social platform, is an excellent example of gamification and the 8 motivation drivers at it’s finest. Users take ownership as they create their profiles, experience a feeling of accomplishment in the number of likes and comments they receive, and are encouraged towards creativity in expressing themselves. Built into Facebook’s newsfeed is also a casino-like unpredictability about what’s going to pop up each day. Social influence or pressure plays a role in motivating people to engage on Facebook as people are driven to post more travel or party pics to keep up with their friends’ interesting lives. These same elements can be infused into any learning experience, driving desired behaviors and outcomes. You can learn more about gamification in Yu-Kai Chou’s online course Gamification and Behavioral Design: the Octalysis Framework on Udemy for Business.

3. Blend white hat vs black hat motivation

Yu-kai Chou also layers in another dimension of what he calls white hat versus black hat motivation. White hat motivations are the first 4 core drivers that make you feel good like epic meaning or empowerment. Black hat motivations are the bottom 4 drivers such as social influence, scarcity, or loss that often result in players feeling bad.

Successful gamification balances a blend of white hat and black hat drivers of motivation. Gamification that is purely white hat doesn’t usually achieve mass popularity. Game experiences driven by black hat motivations may be effective in the short-run, but because people feel terrible while playing the game, they eventually flee or dread the game environment.

LMS environments that focus solely on leaderboards and competition exclusively often have this impact, frustrating learners who can’t seem to climb high enough on the leaderboard to impress their manager, despite their best efforts. The danger also exists to confuse consumption with cognition, and if we only reward the first, we may end up demotivating other learners.

4. Thoughtfully designed gamification connects to behavior change

Now that you understand the core motivations behind successful gamification, the next step is to outline what behavioral outcome you want to gamify. Think of the eight core drivers of motivation as your levers to influence this behavior. Which ones would work best to achieve your desired outcome?

For example, if you want to gamify onboarding, the behavioral outcome might be to motivate new hires to successfully transition quickly into the company and feel a sense of belonging. New hires could be part of a cohort with a pre-hire discussion board to foster a sense of community and social belonging (social influence & relatedness) before they even walk through the door. Tools like Udemy for Business could also be leveraged to allow pre-hire employees to take onboarding courses that promote improved knowledge retention (so it’s not all on day one)—enabling them to be part of a journey to day 1. By leveraging the achievement drivers like completing key courses and succeeding in a new role, employees are both motivated to start and feel more comfortable on day 1 in their new job. In this case, gamification can help reduce the typically slow ramp-up to full capacity in a role.

5. Know your audience: Gamer profiles

As you try to influence behavior using these levers of motivation, you also need to take into account your target audience. The game elements you add into the learning experience should be the right fit for the audience in mind. Doing your homework up front to identify and really know your target audience is the key to success. If you fail to truly understand your audience, you’ll end up choosing the wrong motivators. Once you get the target audience right, all the other pieces will fall into place.

The gaming industry has also created a set of gamer profiles based on personality types and psychological needs. Here are four gamer profiles known as the Bartle taxonomy of player types to help segment your audience and tailor your game-based design:

  • Achievers: prefer to gain points, levels, badges, equipment, and other concrete measurements of success in a game. They will go to great lengths to achieve rewards simply for the prestige of having it, whether or not it has any game play advantages.

  • Explorers: love to discover new areas, create maps, or learn about hidden places. They find great joy discovering an unknown glitch or hidden treasure. They often feel restricted if the game doesn’t allow them to move at their own pace.

  • Socializers: gain the most enjoyment from the game by interacting with other players. The game is merely a tool to enjoy for social benefits, not for the actual game itself.

  • Killers: thrive from competition with other players. Leaderboards and games that pit players against each other do best with this gamer profile.

For example, a naturally competitive sales team (Killers) might respond well to social influence and sense of accomplishment using leaderboards and prizes. But a more creative or problem-solving engineering and design team (Explorers) might prefer other motivation drivers like a sense of empowerment and creativity through programs like hackathons or mission impossible projects.

6. Don’t assume everything should be gamified

Finally, you shouldn’t use gamification unless it’s appropriate and without thoughtful design. It isn’t a tool for everything. In fact, when poorly implemented, it can have the opposite of the desired effect. You should carefully consider the behavior change you want to achieve and clearly define the target audience. And then ask yourself does this suit gamification? At the end of the day, you’ll want to choose the optimal learning tool to influence your desired behavior outcomes, which may or may not be gamification.

Shelley Osborne is Head of L&D at Udemy. She has 13 years of experience in the education sector and corporate learning and development. Previously, she was VP of Learning & Development at Farside HR Solutions, specializing in talent leadership, management training, and soft skills development in the startup space in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Calgary where she specialized in gamification and instructional leadership.

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