When it comes to e-learning, gamification is presented as probably the most significant thing that has happened in the field in a long time. Games are fun, engaging, and can hold the users’ attention for almost indefinite periods of time – you can see that on the face of every gamer who is on their fourth coffee before 10 AM.
While all that is true, and I advocate for employing game mechanics in e-learning design, there are also several pitfalls to be aware of.
10 Gamification pitfalls to avoid when designing online training
The entertaining component of learning is necessary, as people remember information better by positive association, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
Here are a few things to avoid:
Overly complicating things
This is one of the first mistakes e-learning designers make when they set about to include game mechanics. They think that since the target audience is mature, they require a bigger challenge. Even with games, if it takes too long to read and understand the rules, people will just give up. There is no need to come up with intricate point systems or complicated leaderboards. Directions have to be simple and straightforward. It needs to be clear for the learner what the reward is and what task needs to be performed to get there.
Playing the competition card too much
This is another possible pitfall. Games are based on competition, that much is true. I never quite agreed to the idea of children playing soccer without keeping score, and I think neither do most of the kids (they just keep the score in their minds). A great emphasis on ranks and points in e-learning modules may very well lead to alienating some of the learners, hurting the knowledge acquiring process as that happens. One way to avoid that is to allow the users to choose if they want to publicize their results or not.
Using these will dampen engagement. The ‘prize’ has to be both desirable and worth the task’s effort. The key is to select game mechanics that align with the desired behaviors or learning objectives. Badges that attest to a certain skill level and can be displayed on the learner’s profile are a popular way to go. They are similar to the differently colored belts earned by martial arts performers.
Making rewards seem more important than results
This is yet another trap. Rewards are only supposed to be the means to an end, and that desired end consists of the learning outcomes. E-learning badges and points are mere ropes used to motivate online learners, keep their attention, and fuel their engagement. This is why e-learning designers should start from the objectives and then determine how game mechanics can help achieve them, not the other way around.
This is a possible consequence of gamifying the online learning content. It’s easy to fall into the trap of celebrating the ‘rock star performers’ while seemingly ignoring novice learners’ attempts. In the design process, it is essential to build tasks, levels, categories, and even handicaps into the gamified course so that all who enroll feel that success is attainable.
Using the wrong metrics
This can quickly occur in a gamified environment. In online games, it is usually all about completing the quest and moving to the next level. Passing means success, regardless of how it happened. When it comes to learning, however, metrics need to be framed as a journey — not merely “you failed or you won” but “this is where you started from, this is where you got, and this is how far you need to go to reach the next level”.
Since they work so well, designers who use gamification feel tempted to throw in too many rewards. Contrary to the famous saying, there can be too much of a good thing, which is actually bad. The reward structure of any game plays a significant role in its success. If users continuously get points, badges, and rewards with minimal effort, they will stop taking the course seriously. The feeling of achievement requires prior effort.
Foregoing the social learning experience
When designing gamified e-learning, it’s easy to focus on individual objectives and miss out on all that social interaction and sharing has to offer in terms of information acquisition and skill forging. Instead of mainly driving a solitary experience, designers should build spaces where learners can discuss their progress, exchange ideas about complex situations, and celebrate success together.
Thinking short-term only
This is yet another trap. One of the main reasons why games are so engaging is that there is instant gratification – you pass the level, get to the next one, or receive some kind of reward. However, organizational learning aims to change behavior in the long term, so the approach to gamifying e-learning should be as a project rather than separate stand-alone occurrences for each e-learning module.
Needlessly complicating the user experience
This usually happens when instructional designers put too much focus on gamification mechanics. User experience is very important when it comes to online courses, so easy and flawless navigation should have priority over any gamification elements. Engaged and immersed learners don’t fumble with scrolls, buttons, and arrows.
These gamification pitfalls can achieve the opposite of their purpose and take out all the fun of the learning process. The key to efficiently using gamification is to put learning goals and user experience first instead of focusing on cleverly employing game mechanics.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.