Grappling with Gamification

Posted on March 26, 2018



I was recently on a panel evaluating online learning platforms for business consultants. Many of the learning platform companies that the panel interviewed sold heavily on the concept of gamification of learning, but I was surprised at the vast differences in what these companies proposed gamification to be.

The first company walked us through their quizzing software, then showed us that the learners can take a break after answering a certain number of quiz questions to play virtual golf. Their golf scores were shown on a leaderboard where they could compete with their coworkers in the golf game. The sales-person presenting this solution seemed overly-excited to tell us that he was in the top five of the leaderboard and boasted about how many of the learners were motivated to answer quiz questions in order to compete in virtual golf with their peers. When I questioned this approach, this company reassured me that we could place time limits on the amount of golf that learners could play during work hours! While I am sure that there were many learners who enjoyed the break from work and were motivated to answer more quiz question to stay on the leaderboard, this experience left me a bit unsettled. What exactly is gamification and how do we reach its full potential for helping learners learn?

Perhaps my favorite resource for answering this question is The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education by Karl M. Kapp. In his preface, Kapp warns his readers, “Don’t think of gamification as only the use of badges, rewards and points; instead, think of the engaging elements of why people play games- it’s not just for the points-its for the sense of engagement, immediate feedback, feeling of accomplishment, and success of striving against a challenge and overcoming it.” Kapp also cites games as being good for learning for their “built-in permission to fail, encouragement of out-of-box thinking, and sense of control”.

Games take the stress out of learning—not just because they are fun, but because they occur in an environment where there are no real-life consequences of failure. Learners can experiment with creative solutions to real-life problems without worrying it will cost them embarrassment in front of a customer or in a worse scenario, cost them their jobs.

What bothered me about the “virtual golf” solution to spicing up training for business consultants is that the greatest accomplishment that learners could experience had nothing to do with becoming a better business consultant, but instead rested in the number of multiple choice questions they answered and accuracy of their virtual putt.

Fast-forward to another learning platform demonstration. This company introduced gamification by creating maps where learners advanced from location to location as they completed various training modules. Learners were rewarded on a leaderboard for their progress through the scenarios. I saw amazing potential in this learning platform – we could develop a map of virtual businesses our consultants had to visit, pitch business solutions and respond to potential customer pushback. They would actually be learning through stories, scenarios and role-plays that they might encounter on the job. ‘This,’ I thought in my mind, ‘is gamification’.

If you have a chance, I recommend reading Karl Kapp’s book,  The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, or if you need something to listen to, check out this interview with Karl Kapp. I hope that it will provide you with a framework to incorporate gamification effectively into instruction and evaluate game-based apps, websites and learning platforms for their ability to support and enhance learning.


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Jamie Polzin, Faculty: Marlboro College Graduate and Professional Studies, MATESOL Program