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September 3, 2021

How To Gamify Your Learning

4 min read
By Maryam Mohamedali

Experiments in the learning and development space are finding that gamification can increase knowledge retention by up to 25%, and performance by up to 23%. Now, neuroscientists are exploring the science behind why gameplay activates the neural circuits that play a critical role in recall and remembering.

At The Smarty Train, we’ve been gamifying learning experiences for years. Done properly, a well-crafted gamified narrative can turn even the most average of hotel conference rooms into something engaging and enticing. Here’s how we do it:

The science to implementing gamification:

The concept of gamification in learning is not strictly the use of games, but rather the implementation of the elements that make them so engaging (and for some, addictive.) Our body of research suggests that gameful experiences at their core must contain four key components:

1: Goal 

What is motivating your participants to take your L&D training course to its completion? What’s in it for them?

Cast your mind back to the games you might have played as a child: each of them had a goal – something to aspire to, such that even when you were being challenged to push your capabilities to new lands, you kept going because you wanted to achieve something.

Our brain’s neuroplasticity means that a goal literally changes the structure of our brain so that it’s optimised to achieve that goal. So, if your brain really wants the goal, it will perceive any obstacles as less significant.

What does this mean for you? Aim to clearly ground the learning goal in the “What’s In It For Me” (WIIFM) for the audience. Tune into the WIIFM channel.

2: Rules

What constraints or challenges are in place to push people’s skills to the limit?

A goal wouldn’t be much fun at all without a set of constraints to challenge you to reach it. The joy in attaining one’s goal always lies in the journey that was taken to get there.
You remember the peaks and troughs, each triumph and failure, because they are what brought you to the end. Think about any of the classic inspirational sport movies: the ups and downs in the hero’s journey are what make success all the sweeter.

What does this mean for you? Rules are the constraints you engineer to challenge your participants. Think about them carefully but creatively. Put differently, what’s the better-equipped rival team in your sport movie that will push your participants to try harder?

3: Feedback loop

Ever heard of the Pain Pleasure principle? It suggests that humans make choices to either avoid pain or create pleasure.

This means that we gain a lot of satisfaction when we’re told we’re doing something well. Enter Feedback loops.

Let’s think back to Tetris. Think about how it felt whenever you filled an entire row with blocks, and they disappeared in a flash of light, causing your new top score to flash up on screen. This visual feedback loop sent a signal to your brain that you were doing well.

And because your brain is essentially hardwired to desire praise, it releases dopamine when you receive positive feedback.

What does this mean for you? Consider how you can capitalise on the innate human need for validation and encouragement throughout your L&D experience. How do participants know they’re succeeding, or need to do something differently?

4: Voluntary participation 

It’s important that people feel like they are opting-in to your experience. They’re more likely to feel safe, and therefore more likely to be engaged. The easiest way to establish this is to create an experience that allows for varied levels of participation.

We commonly think that when everyone is an equally active participant in an event or activity that this is a sign of engagement and learning. But people learn in different ways. Some learn by doing while others learn by observing or maybe listening or even processing.

What does this mean for you? Think about how you can account for how people prefer engaging with your content. Are there certain activities where a participant can be an observer, and another can be more active? This will create a more inclusive experience that people can participate in to the extent they’re comfortable.

Looking for inspiration? Take a look at our Case Studies to see some of our award-winning work designing bespoke gamified experiences on a global scale.


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