When it comes to employee training, the need for engagement is high.

Any employee that fails to grasp the concepts taught during orientation or in related lessons throughout their career may suffer in both performance and productivity.

One of the ways that organizations strive to improve engagement for employee training is through eLearning, and more specifically, through gamification in eLearning – game-like features and rewards added to learning experiences.

eLearning alone is an effective tool for improving engagement all on it’s own, but in some cases, it may not be enough.

According to one study, 80% of learners said their productivity would increase if gamification or game-like elements were included in the learning process, and 82% of those polled were in favor of adding multiple difficulty levels and explorable content.

But how effective is gamification, exactly? Can it really improve engagement and retention rates better than traditional eLearning courses? Here’s what you need to know.

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How Gamification Affects the Brain

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During the learning process, the brain transitions between its default resting mode and various states of engagement. Gamification affects this process by interrupting pathways in the brain to focus attention.

According to Game and Train’s article on gamification and neuropsychology, gamification activates areas of the brain that regulate reward-based learning, which in turn triggers our pleasure center in several notable ways.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with emotional response, is released when learners achieve certain rewards. This creates a positive association with those rewards (and the lesson itself) and encourages users to repeat the learning process in order to receive another dopamine release. In short, employees feel good about what they’re learning.

The mood-enhancing hormone serotonin is also released during gamification, which contributes to overall happiness. It can leave users with a sense of pride and accomplishment that other forms of learning simply lack.

Gamification also stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain largely responsible for knowledge recall, making content significantly easier to remember in both the short and long term.

Gamification expert Gabe Zichermann notes that the principles of gamification extend beyond eLearning, and can improve engagement in more ways than one.

“One of the interesting things about gamification and other engaging technologies,” he says, “is at the same time as we can argue that the neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior those same techniques are being used to get people to work out, you know, using their Fitbit. So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good.”

The use of game-like features and rewards in eLearning can help learners recall and retain information by affecting the way the brain processes information much better than a traditional learning.

Gamification Improves Learner Motivation

Gamification can also improve the motivation to learn. One exploratory study found a common link between the driving factors of motivation and the use of gamification.

In the study, 184 students were evaluated on levels of motivations for a variety of game elements. The results indicated that there were four primary drivers of motivation:

  • Personal progress – motivated by the gamified elements that showed progress in a course
  • Competition and praise – motivated by game elements that showed one’s progress comparative to another student (and any associated feedback)
  • Individual assignments – motivated by completing traditional assignments and exams
  • Group work – motivated by social assignments and peer reviews

According to the authors of the study, “Educational gamification works to improve educational experiences by making game elements more salient and transparent to students and engaging them at a social, emotional, and cognitive level.”

They also suggested that Self-determination Theory (SDT) is a factor when it comes to learning, proposing that learners are more motivated by the extrinsic rewards that are present in gamification than they are by the sake of learning.

Maximizing Gamification’s Effectiveness

The study also found that three components make up the most effective forms of gamification: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


Good gamification in eLearning will allow users a level of control over the “where, when, and how” of the learning process itself. In terms of autonomy, the study noted that truly effective gamification would:

  • Promote creation and self identity
  • Align activities and goals with personal values
  • Allow learners to define and modify game elements and content
  • Provide flexibility in terms of pace, goals, and strategy
  • Avoid unrelated external rewards or punishments
  • Use rewards as informational feedback
  • Add elements of fun and play


Gamification will only be as effective as the material being taught. Including game-like elements to training materials must be more than just an added level of enjoyment; it should actually improve performance. In this case, effective gamification should:

  • Provide opportunity to learn new information, skills, or abilities
  • Enable active experimentation and discovery
  • Offer challenges and provide guidance through a mastery process
  • Praise and reward practice, effort, strategy, and focus
  • Use a variety of methods to present content
  • Reward problem solving with harder problems
  • Help learners through negative experiences
  • Make the coursework’s future utility clear


Effective gamification will also incorporate social components that help learners relate to each other as well as superiors in the organization. The study noted that the most compelling game elements included forms of human interaction. Gamification should, therefore:

  • Represent human social bonds and interactions
  • Add peer voting to activities (like online discussions and forums)
  • Encourage learners to think differently than other learners to find answers
  • Provide social credibility and recognition for achievements
  • Train learners to embrace growth mindsets
  • Praise and reward perseverance

Other game-like dynamics, such as rewards, urgency, pride, competition, and status building, can also improve effectiveness over time and aid learners in embracing training materials that they may otherwise ignore or forget over time.

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Final Thoughts

Not only does gamification impact the learner’s brain by releasing dopamine, serotonin, and other endorphins to make learners happier throughout the process, it also impacts overall motivation by giving employees what they really want: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Gamification elements can include things like points systems, badges, challenges, timers, leaderboards, and other “fun” components that have elements of competition and reward.

For organizations looking to further engage learners throughout the eLearning process, gamification is an excellent tool for captivating audiences and advancing education in the workplace.

Jonathan Davis is an accomplished professional with experience helping Fortune 500 companies achieve success in employee communication and training programs. Jonathan focuses on delivering reliable, successful outcomes that increases employee engagement through highly targeted deliverables, creative messaging and robust programs.