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Understanding Gamification

by Karl M. Kapp

The idea and concept of gamification has been gaining worldwide momentum as organization large and small look for ways to engage learners and provide impactful learning experiences. However, there are still some misconceptions and myths about what gamification is and is not and what impact gamification can have on learners. To clear up some of the misunderstandings related to gamification, we need to examine four elements:

  • The definition of the root word of gamification—game and, its close sibling—simulation.

  • The definition of gamification.

  • Key elements and mechanics used in gamification.

  • How game-thinking influences gamification.

Defining a Games and Simulations

To define and understand the word “gamification” we have to first understand the root word—game. What is a game? The answer is not as straightforward as one might imagine. Tic-Tac-Toe, a simple game involving only X’s and O’s played with nothing more than paper and pencil is considered a game. But so is the well-known game Halo III which is played on a video game console involving avatars, controllers, and, occasionally, playing opponents over the internet. In between there are thousands of additional experiences like playing Monopoly, rugby, darts, Mario Kart, and even lacrosse all of which are considered a “game.”

So it is not the fact that something is digital or electronic that makes it a game. It’s not the addition or lack of a ball, bat or puck. Something else turns an experience into a game. One of those elements is the idea of a specific goal. In fact, having a goal is a necessary ingredient for converting a playful activity into a game. Two children can be blissfully playing in a swimming pool splashing each other and this is considered “play.” But when one asks the other to race from one side of the pool to the other, the playing is done and it is now a game with clear winners, losers and defined outcomes.

So having an “objective” is a critical element in defining a game but that is not the only element required. Games also have specific rules. In the swimming pool example, the racers have to be in the water, you can’t get out of the pool and run to the other side that would be cheating. So a game has rules.

It also has to be challenging. If one swimmer is overwhelmingly better than the other swimmer, both quickly become bored and uninterested in competing against one another. An element of challenge must be present. The challenge is not a “real world” challenge in that making it to the other end of the pool is meaningless outside of the confines of the game. There is no external value in going from one end of the pool to the other. There is no food at the other end, no pay check, no prize. It is just the act of competing against yourself and a friend. In this way, a game is an abstraction.

So combining these elements together, one can define a game as “a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge, defined by rules, interactivity and feedback that results in a quantifiable outcome (objective) often eliciting an emotional reaction. The system has a clear beginning, middle and end in which the learner dedicates specific time to engage in the game.”

Closely related to a game and, often confused with games, is the idea of a simulation. A simulation is a realistic, controlled-risk environment where learners can practice specific behaviors or decisions and experience the impacts of their behaviors and/or decisions. The most familiar type is that of a flight simulator where a pilot simulates taking-off, landing and other aeronautical maneuvers.

In addition to flight simulators, there are many types of simulations ranging from simulations of equipment and software to simulations of interpersonal experiences like a leadership simulation where a learner is given the opportunity to practice providing feedback and direction to subordinates. Simulations can be conducted in both an online environment and in a face-to-face environment. When done face-to-face, they are often called role-plays.

And, while a simulation may contain game elements, the focus is on a realist experience for the learner. The idea is that they are practicing realistic (not-abstract) skills that they intend to apply to real situations.

Defining Gamification

Gamification contains game elements specifically borrowed from games to engage the learner. The key to the definition of gamification is the use of elements borrowed from games to engage and motivate individuals in a non-game situation. So, for example, adding points to a learner’s activity such as completing a series of pre-work exercises is considered a form of gamification.

However, the actual definition and application of gamification is a bit more complex. This is because gamification it involves more than merely adding a point system or some badges to an experience. Gamification is “using game-based mechanics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.”

Game Mechanics and Elements

Game mechanics are the actions and activities bounded by rules that impact how a player experiences a game. Some lines of research separate game rules from game mechanics but for the sake of this definition we are combining the two. The idea is that items and processes often embodied in a game are then used outside of the game.

A few simple mechanics are the accumulation of points, the idea of acquiring territory, the concept of taking turns or waiting for another player, rules for player cooperation and competition, racing someone to the finish line or even applying certain strategies such as outwitting or out maneuvering an opponent. These can all be considered game mechanics. Game mechanics are what provide the action within the game and help define what is a sanctioned game actions and what is not—such as our example of not running from one end of the pool to the other while racing.

Mechanics are often manifested in elements of games such as points, badges, and achievements. These are often classified further into feedback mechanics but are still a game mechanic. When a mechanic is properly executed by a player she receives points or earns a badge. These elements help the player measure progress and gage how they are doing against an opponent.

While mechanics are an integral part of games, they are not the only elements that are borrowed to create gamification. Other game elements such as story, characters and even certain aesthetics are important parts of many gamification efforts. The idea is to take elements commonly found in games and modify them for use in non-game environments such as a classroom or on a marketing website.

Game Thinking

But gamification is not just about game elements or game mechanics, gamification is also about thinking like a game designer. It is about game-thinking.

Game thinking is approaching the design process from the perspective of actions and activities applying the mechanics of games to non-game situations. Games demand action. They encourage engagement. They require the player to do something and not just activity for activity’s sake. Actions in games lead to meaningful outcomes while the player typically navigates some sort of risk. Meaningful game outcomes involve overcoming challenges and solving problems through thoughtful decision making. Good games and, by extension, good gamification involves challenges, risks and meaningful outcomes that impact an audience member, prospective client or learner.

So as an instructional designer implementing gamification, one of the tasks is to think like a game designer thinks and mold the learner’s experience through game thinking which requires the application of the right game mechanic as well as the right game elements.


Regardless of what elements or mechanics you choose to apply, gamification should be thought of as a design sensibility. It is a thought process and a methodology to think about engaging and motivating learners. Gamification is not bounded by technology or the need to be delivered online; it doesn’t have to be digital. Instead, gamification is a design sensibility. It is a way of designing an engaging and motivating experience, it is a method of taking the best from games and applying game sensibilities outside of traditional game environments. While a result of gamification is often fun, the ultimate outcome behind developing a gamified approach is increased engagement and motivation.

About the Author

Karl M. Kapp, is a scholar, writer and expert on the convergence of learning, technology and business operations. He is a full professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University and serves as the Assistant Director of Bloomsburg’s Institute for Interactive Technologies. He is author of six books including the bestselling learning book “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction” and it’s companion fieldbook. He blogs at the popular “Kapp Notes” (http://karlkapp.com/kapp-notes/) web site and is a frequent international keynote speaker, workshop leader, moderator, and panelist speaking to private corporations, government organizations and universities. He has spoken internationally in Canada, France, The United Kingdom, Mexico, Singapore, Finland and Bermuda.

#gamification #karlkapp #learninganddevelopment

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