On the surface, gamification seems like an easy way to make your e-learning experience more engaging. Just add some game elements—like points or badges—to your course and that instantly ramps up the fun factor, right?

Well, not exactly. Gamification can be a powerful way to motivate your learners. But, like many learning techniques, it’s not a fit for every situation. And when it’s not a match, it can make a course less fun and less engaging—the complete opposite of what you want!

That’s why it’s important to assess early on if this learning approach will work for your project. And you don’t need to be a gamification expert to do that. You just need to keep an eye out for the following clues to guide your decision.

Clues That Gamification Might Add Value to Your Course

Your audience is already motivated, but could use an extra nudge

One of the best-known instances of gamification is Duolingo. It’s an app for learning languages that uses an array of techniques like levels, points, badges, leaderboards, and lives to encourage people to regularly complete lessons. But even thoughtful gamification like this only works well if your audience already thinks the content is worth their time.

Learning a new language is hard and takes a lot of time. But if someone thinks it’s worth the effort, then the game elements in Duolingo can help them through the hardest parts—building regular study habits and pushing through difficult lessons. If they have other higher priorities on their plate, however, the small motivational moments gamification can provide likely won’t be enough to overcome the bigger obstacles in the way of completing a course.

So, it’s often better to save gamification for courses where your audience is already somewhat interested in your content, but just needs some assistance pushing through.

Your course is a longer learning experience

If you’ve got the right audience for gamification, then you want to check if your learning experience is long enough for the techniques you want to use to actually work.

Many gamification techniques are great for motivating learners over time, such as earning badges for achievements, unlocking quests or levels, or slowly exploring a story. No surprise—a longer course has more room for these approaches to make an impact.

Does that mean that every long course is a fit for gamification? No. You’ll want to look for additional signs. But it does mean your list of gamification approaches that could work is more extensive. 

There are logical ways to build in rewards that matter

A big motivator in gamification is rewards. They can include external rewards—like collecting points, unlocking achievements, or getting to the top of a leaderboard—and internal rewards—like excitement about discovering what comes next in a story or personal satisfaction from overcoming a difficult challenge.

That said, for them to enhance your course, you need to know what rewards do (and don’t) motivate your audience. For instance, if your course is for salespeople who regularly compete against each other, a leaderboard might tap into their sense of competition. But if your audience isn’t that interested in trying to outdo each other or is more motivated by collaboration, then including a leaderboard could actually make them less engaged in your course.

Whatever rewards you might use, you also want to ensure there are ways to smoothly weave them into your course. If you create a reward system that feels awkward or forced, that’s going to make your course clunky and less effective.

There are ways to include meaningful choices

Agency and autonomy might not be what you think of first when it comes to gamification. But they’re powerful game mechanics for ensuring learners feel ownership over the experience, engage with the content, and are motivated to finish it.

That said, the word “meaningful” is key. Just like with rewards, this approach only works if you offer choices that matter to your audience. Can you let learners pick what order they view content in or make decisions in a scenario? Those options typically make an impact. Are surface-level choices, like picking the color of their course player, all you can offer? Those decisions are less likely to impact your audience.

Your content loans itself well to stories

Weaving a story into your content is another effective game mechanic—and one that’s often forgotten about when talking about gamification. When you include stories that connect strongly with both your content and audience, they can help learners understand how the course applies to their work. Stories are also powerful empathy-building tools, making them a perfect fit when you need to put your audience in someone else’s shoes in order to make a point. And never underestimate how the simple desire to know how a story ends can motivate learners to complete your course!

That said, there are times when stories aren’t a fit. Take a course on changing car tires. Learners already know why this information is important and when they’d use it. They don’t need a narrative about someone stranded at the side of the road trying to fix a car wheel. They just want you to quickly teach them the steps. So a story would just add unnecessary bulk to the content.


Clues That Gamification Might Not Be a Fit

A stakeholder is pushing for it right from the start

It’s understandable that managers or clients get excited about the possibilities of gamification—especially if they’re new to the concept. But leading with the solution is the easiest way to end up with a course that falls flat.

Gamification might indeed be the right choice, but it’s better to arrive at that decision after a thoughtful analysis instead of jumping to it immediately.

Your course is short

There are a few gamification techniques that work for short experiences—for instance, a progress bar that marks how far along you are in filling out a form.

But the majority of approaches can end up adding unnecessary bulk to what should be a bite-size learning experience. Also, given the extra time it takes to add game elements, you tend to get a better return on your investment if you save all but the simplest of gamification approaches for the longer courses they can have a bigger impact on. 

It’s proposed as a quick fix for problem content

Gamification often comes up as a way to improve underperforming courses that learners don’t like. But simply adding something like points to content that’s tedious, too long, or not a fit for your learners is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg. It’s not going to fix the serious, underlying problem.

Could gamification be a part of improving a weak course? Quite possibly! But for it to help, you’ll need to also work on the content itself, not just tack on a quick splash of gamification.

You don’t know how specific game mechanics work (or have time to build those skills now)

Have you ever played a game that wasn’t fun? That’s because figuring out what people actually find enjoyable and motivating is tough—even for professional game developers.

Using gamification effectively is a skill any course creator can learn. But it does take time and effort to build—particularly for understanding how the different game mechanics function. If you don’t have those skills now and you don’t have time to do that deeper dive, you’re better off saving gamification for a future project.

You don’t have time to research your audience

You’ve probably noticed that not everyone likes the same kinds of games. Something one person finds fun and engaging might be dreadfully boring to someone else.

There are loads of different game elements. Each has their own ways of motivating and engaging people and none of them work equally well with everyone. To choose the right ones for your audience, you need to know what motivates and interests them. But if you don’t have the time to do that research, gamification approaches will often stumble.



Gamification has the potential to motivate your learners or cause them to tune out—it all depends on how you use it. But with the clues in this article, you now know how to determine if game mechanics are the right fit for your audience, content, and situation. That means you can move forward with confidence, or pause and consider your other options.

Did the clues above convince you gamification works for your project? Then check out the following articles to find out what you need to do next.

Have some clues you’d add? Be sure to share them in the comments. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.