How do you separate the hype from the promise of gamification? Does gamification really help with learning? This was the topic at FocusOn Learning 2017. NovoEd’s Greg Bybee and Drew Remiker discussed this in a recent webinar, and we’ve laid out the main summary here. It includes a quick tour of the psychology behind games, motivation, and learning. And it makes the case that gamification in environments can be used to boost online social interaction, which leads to truly effective learning.

What is Gamification?

Gamification can be thought of as “the application of game elements and design techniques to drive engagement.” In essence, it offers a response to one of the central questions surrounding online learning: How does one retain active learner engagement?

In the past, instructional designers have tried to implement gamification in online courses through simple, generic, functional elements:  points, badges, and leaderboards.


While this approach to learning design can be useful, this tends to reduce gamification to implementing a specific set of generic tools to generate engagement.

There is more to game design than meets the eye. A broader definition of a robust gamified environment is the following:

  • Simple sets of rules and behaviors
  • A cycle in which objectives feed into engagement (which then feed into motivation)
  • Activities that are challenging but achievable
  • Patterns that are predictable but not  necessarily deterministic (environments feel familiar yet unpredictable)
  • Social cooperation and connection (as opposed to competition)
  • The prioritizing intrinsic motivation

If an instructional designer’s goal is to create an engaging gamified environment, it is very likely that points, leaderboards, and badges will not be enough.

Do Rewards Enhance Learning Experiences?

Even if we did create a good gamified learning environment, a key question remains: do gamification enhance learning experiences?

If the learning goals are extrinsic – simple and straightforward, then, yes – and the rewards-based model can play a large part in furthering in this goal.

However, for building deeper skills, however, rewards-based gamification may not be able to drive the deep, intrinsic engagement required. The important question is:

How can we use gamification to drive the intrinsic motivation of learners to pursue the acquisition of complex skills?

To address this question, we must first look at the connection between game mechanics and motivation.

Understanding Game Loops

One of the key mechanics in gamification is the application of what game designers call “game loops.” Game loops are systems in which the player faces challenges that result in points (or rewards) and uses those points to complete tasks that will earn even more points. At some point the player can then “level up” and face new challenges. If you’re not a gamer, you’re likely to be more familiar with this model than you think: Starbucks and Frequent Flyer points are based on similar systems, among others.

Fostering Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

In his book, Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching, Eric P. Jensen examines the effect of points-based programs: “Rewards lead to learners who become preoccupied with ‘playing the game’ and not really doing quality learning.”  This level of thinking, he explains, is “not available to the brain when it experiences the anxiety of a reward system.” If your brain is, quite literally, focused on “gaming the system,” it can’t direct its energy towards learning. To reference Alfie Kohn, extrinsic rewards inhibit intrinsic motivation and “cause people to lose interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing.” They begin to perceive the reward, rather than the subject, as the goal of their online learning experience.

Rather than triggering external motivators such as rewards, instructional designers should aim to invoke intrinsic motivators, such as autonomy, social and emotional connections, and mastery.  

Leaving the Loop, Staying in the Game

How can we maintain a balance between points-based gamification and long-term learner engagement?

We can’t forget that rewards are valuable insofar as they spur learning engagement. But they “should be quickly replaced with more meaningful elements, such as narrative, freedom to choose paths to explore, playful activities, and opportunities to reflect.” (Nicholson 2015) Game loops should be designed to take learners out of the rewards-based loop and introduce them to authentic, social, human experiences – not just another competitive cycle of extrinsic rewards.

There are also richer game elements that can intrinsically motivate the learners. These include role-plays, simulations, and interactive models – human experiences that have an emotional effect on the learner and drive them to aim beyond rewards (Clark and Mayer, 2002).

 Gamification as a Path to Social Learning

To introduce game elements with greatest impact you will want to trigger intrinsic motivation, and one of the best ways to do that is to cultivate social learning.

In many settings, people need to learn socially. They need to feel that they are part of a positive, cooperative group with shared goals, where they can collaborate, learn from each other, and be held accountable for their work. It is by triggering the social instincts in this context that some of the deepest, most effective learning can occur.

 Social Learning Through Collaboration

In our own experience, we have found team-based collaborative projects to be one of the most effective methods to develop intrinsic motivation. Learners are more likely to stay engaged if they have the space to select their own teammates; they’re creating their own contracts and accountability. Learners select their teammates by getting to know them on discussion forums and by viewing their peers’ public profiles, where they have access to how many courses someone has completed, view what feedback they have received, and see how they have performed in a course. The goal is to allow learners to essentially run the course themselves – through their work, through the discussions that fuel their work, and through social recognition, or positive peer pressure. As group members comment on each others’ submissions, they begin to engage in meaningful discussion, which then provides learners with enough (in)formal feedback to continue “leveling up” – so to speak – and improve their submissions.

Thus, gamification is most effective when learners are intrinsically motivated, and replacing rewards with meaningful social interaction creates the right kind of game loop: one in which life-long learners collect feedback instead of points and build social connections so that they can graduate to “the next level.”

Gamification and Social Learning with NovoEd

As an online learning platform, NovoEd does include some gamification elements such as points and leaderboards. However, these are not meant to be an ends in themselves; while providing some extrinsic motivation, the goal is to extrinsically motivate learners enough to get them onto an intrinsic motivation loop, where they engage in social learning.

This is done by assigning team projects where learners collaborate together–this has the potential to energize learners to work together to create something new as they engage with the content of the learning. The NovoEd platform has a spectrum of features to support this social dynamic: learning profiles, project teams, affinity groups, embedded discussion prompts, informal commenting, assignment gallery, peer evaluations, shared workspaces, etc. When combined, these features allow learning designers to develop truly engaging learning experiences.

If interested in knowing more about the NovoEd learning platform, please visit or check out our Learning Experience Design course.