It’s no secret that eLearning has become an effective part of employee training for many organizations, but engagement is still a concern for many employers.

The trouble with employee engagement in particular is that learning is often mandatory, and subjects, course materials, and formats are usually chosen by the higher-ups in the company, not the actual learners.

One of the ways to improve engagement is by rewarding employees for completing coursework, but not all companies have a budget for large financial incentives.

So how do you engage learners in mandatory training while creating a sense of motivation without breaking the bank?

Enter: Gamification.

Gamification in eLearning has been a bit of a buzzword over the last several years. It refers to the idea of rewards-based learning within eLearning coursework through a variety of gaming elements.

But if you’ve never used gamification before or you’re not sure how to incorporate it into your course, you may wonder if the effort to change your materials to include it is worthwhile.

If that’s you, here are a few things you should know.

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Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

There is some confusion out there about the word “gamification” and what it actually means for course materials.

Many assume that gamification means using actual games in virtual courses, but that’s not always true. While you can include games as a part of the eLearning process – what we’ll call “game-based” learning – gamification is more about incorporating game-like thinking into non-game environments.

Game elements could include things like levels of progress, virtual points, or competition-based rewards, all of which can be added on top of traditional coursework without having to create a separate app or program.

For example, the popular adult eLearning platform Coursera offers “badges” for LinkedIn profiles after completing courses in the allotted timeframe. This is an example of gamification that doesn’t involve an actual game, as learners are simply completing standard lessons. The catch is that you only get the badge if you meet requirements.

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In this case, gamification adds motivation otherwise absent from self-paced eLearning.

Game-based learning, on the other hand, uses actual games or simulations to put coursework into an interactive environment. For example, Duolingo is a game-based app that teaches language. Users progress through levels directly in the app and receive daily rewards for completing assignments and quizzes.

Game-based learning is certainly a part of gamification, but it’s not the only component. Companies that want to include gamification in their eLearning training can still do so without spending thousands of dollars to develop games or apps.

Pros and Cons of Gamification

Of course, any type of gamification still requires some planning and processing to utilize properly. It’s important that businesses determine whether or not the time and effort is worth it to increase engagement. Here are a few pros and cons to including gamification in your employee training.

Pros include:

  • Fun – Competition and reward have been shown to raise dopamine levels, creating a sense of happiness and achievement
  • Feedback – Gamification provides employees with near instant feedback about their performance and can help employers pinpoint areas where performance is weakest
  • Retention – Due to its repetitive (and competitive) nature, gamification has been shown to improve retention rates and soft skill development over time

Cons include:

  • Forced fun – If simply “slapped on” to coursework, gamification may still retain an element of “forced fun” that may harm engagement and retention (true gamification must be voluntary)
  • Frustration – If rewards or achievements are hard to attain (or alternatively, too easy) learners may become bored or frustrated with the process
  • Suitability – Not all coursework is easily adaptable to gamification, and it can lead to disengagement if not implemented in the right context

While gamification is effective for improving retention and engagement in many situations, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect for every environment or every training course. Gamification elements need to be well thought out, appropriate to the context of the materials, appropriate to the learner’s needs, and easily implemented.

If in doubt about whether or not to add gamification, consider asking the following questions:

  • Will gamification elements be enough or is a game-based learning application a better solution?
  • What type of rewards could we offer and how likely are those rewards to motivate our employees?
  • How do our learners feel about gamification? Will it add to the workload or will it be a fun element to mandatory materials?
  • What outcomes do we hope to achieve by adding gamification?
  • Who will implement the gamification elements and what are the associated costs?

If you find that gamification is all around more of a benefit to your company, consider implementing a few gamification elements to current coursework and see how it goes over. If successful, you can move forward into further implementation or consider developing a game-based app to further engagement.

How to Use Gamification

If you are ready to include gamification in your eLearning training, here are a few simple ways to start.

  1. Include decisions

Successful gamification allows users to make decisions that give them control over their progression. For eLearning, you can encourage learners to make decisions by giving them quizzes and scenarios that only progress if questions are answered correctly, otherwise returning them to the start of the quiz.

  1.  Offer levels

You could also construct courses as a series of sections that become more complex as you progress through them – quizzes become harder, scenarios are more complex, and so on. You could even have “unlockable” sections (a downloadable PDF, for example) for those that are curious or progress quickly.

  1. Entice with rewards

Instead of using “pass/fail” or grades to score coursework, consider using rewards (high scores, points, or levels) instead. Rewards can include anything as long as they’re valuable to the learner. This could include actual monetary rewards, like a gift card or product discount, or something intangible like a longer lunch break or some other office perk. The goal of the reward should be to add momentum and progression to your course.

  1. Add time limits

Adding a timer to events, such as a quiz or video – particularly when a decision needs to be made or skill is being tested – can add excitement and competition. Time limits are also helpful for tracking retention and understanding, as when under a time pressure, learners don’t always have the opportunity to consider all the factors for a “right” answer. This mirrors real life situations, increasing the effectiveness of the course.

There are an infinite number of ways you can include gamification elements into your coursework. As long as there is an element of challenge, fun, and reward, you’ve enter into the realm of gamification.

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Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that while gamification can be a great addition in certain circumstances, it’s not always right in every case, and it shouldn’t be overused. Focus on including gamification in courses that have had poor retention or engagement in the past to see if these elements improve the process.

When implementing gamification for the first time, be sure to get feedback from employees and to monitor results. You may need to tweak the process from time to time or change the reward system for different users. Don’t get so set in the process that things can’t be easily changed later on, should the need arise.

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.