Does it Work? The Truth Behind Gamified Learning

Fulcrum Labs
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“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and – SNAP – the job’s a game.”  – Mary Poppins

Apply this notion – that a little bit of fun makes the unpalatable easier to swallow – to learning and training and you’ve got what the industry calls, gamification.

Gamification – the use of game-like attributes in non-game contexts – has been steadily growing in popularity within the education and training industries since the theory was first introduced in the early 2000s. It’s gotten a lot of press and there have been countless studies into the efficacy of the methodology. Here, we’ll take a look at the driving factors behind gamification, we’ll share our synthesis of the literature on its efficacy and we’ll talk through what we envision as the future of gamified learning.

First things first….


Why is gamification so attractive?


It’s because games (or, more generally, play) is inherent to our very nature. In fact, play is one of the most pervasive “learning tools” in the mammalian world, with roughly 80% of all mammals showing some expression of play. And while the literature has yet to tease out all the reasons that animals engage in play behavior, we know for sure that play improves well being, limits stress, enhances socialization and, of course, promotes learning.

We see this in the human world as well. Play follows us all through life – from pre-school classes that are “play based” to after school “game” activities like baseball and football to more mature “games”, like professional sports, video/computer games and gambling. As a species we like to play. So, it stands to reason that incorporating ways to play, by including some game-like elements into tasks that are not games, would be appealing. As Mary Poppins would say, “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”


Why our brains like games


According to Deloitte, games are appealing because they provide:

  • Instant feedback, which fuels our need for feedback and recognition
  • Sense of flow, wherein our ability to concentrate becomes effortless
  • Progressive difficulty, activating our need to achieve
  • Positive vibes, stimulating dopamine – the feel good chemical – in our brains


But does gamification work in learning?


Gamification in learning has been highly scrutinized – with more than 582 articles exploring its impact on learning performance alone. So, after 17 years in practice and countless studies, what do we know about how gamification works in our classrooms and corporate learning environments?

The truth is: nothing conclusive.

While there are several assumptions underlying the usefulness of gamification for learning (see above re: play – it’s motivating, engaging, etc.) the literature is largely inconclusive. In fact, a search of 4998 articles on gamification in education and training reveals a dearth of quality empirical evidence to support the “usefulness” claims above. When it comes to…



Gamification improves extrinsic motivation – the kind of motivation that’s driven by external rewards – but has been shown to have no effect on intrinsic motivation. This is an important distinction because studies have shown that extrinsic motivation produces only short-term effects, at best. Once learners get the badge or complete the challenge, their motivation to continue wanes.


“External incentives are weak reinforcers in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run.”  Princeton University


Additionally, this focus on extrinsic motivation can run counter to many of the principles of andragogy – or adult learning theory. For example, andragogy tells us that adult learners want to act autonomously, they want to understand how the learning will be applicable to their lives/jobs and they only open up to learning when they can see how it will help them solve real problems. They’re motivated by learning to improve their performance and understanding, not by how many points they’ll get for acquiring some piece of knowledge. This is a problem for games that focus on extrinsic motivators like points, badges, leaderboards and so on.


“Gamification can shape behavior. It can guide you to do certain things in certain ways, and it can encourage certain behaviors. But it’s a very weak force. You can’t do that much with gamification. You certainly can’t get people to do something that they’re not interested in doing, anyway…Nobody’s going to learn French just to get the Duolingo points. But if you are learning French, and you are using Duolingo, you might make an effort to open the app every day just to keep your streak going.”  Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and Fog Creek Software, and CEO of Stack Overflow 



When it comes to gamification, we’ve also seen improvements to engagement. This goes to the heart of the much-touted stat that 70% of employees are unengaged at work. How can we engage them? Let’s play a game! Or so the thinking goes. But what does the literature tell us about how effective gamification is at improving engagement?

Here we have the most compelling evidence of gamification’s efficacy. For example, one study shows that games in learning can positively impact “engagement factors” like:

  • Time spent learning
  • Volume of contributions
  • Online learning platform use
  • Performance
  • Other healthy behaviors

But just as with motivation, engagement wanes over time. That’s because games are inherently simple. You run, jump, get a gold coin, capture the dragon, etc. But learning does not work like a game. As game-based learning programs become more intricate – continually adding more and more “things” (content, competencies, etc.) to advance the learner toward mastery – the program strays from the simplicity of a game. As a result, some companies have found that learning games actually result in learners that are less engaged. That’s not to say that some “game-like” elements aren’t effective, but that games for learning, by themselves, aren’t as engaging as we might imagine them to be.



Finally, the big kahuna, performance: how does gamification impact learning… outcomes?

Well, we know that games have a dramatic effect on the brain. Studies show that gamers are better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorize facts – especially in situations with high uncertainties. Researchers postulate that playing video games trains certain brain regions like the hippocampus, an area that plays a key role in learning and memory.

But what about gamified learning? Do learners who use games or technologies with game-like elements experience the same upshots? Here the literature is mixed. For example, while one study shows that gamification induces a minor positive effect on short-term learning results, but not long term, a different study reveals that gamified courses negatively affect performance on final exams. And yet another paper demonstrates that gamification positively impacts student participation, which in turn, positively correlates to improved student performance.

As you can see, the jury’s still out when it comes to gamification’s impact on performance.

All this to say proving the efficacy of gamification for education and learning has a way to go. Its impact just isn’t as clear as other methodologies we know improve learning, like spacing, retrieval practice, basic repetition, optimal challenge, competency-based learning or a one-on-one instructor model.


So where do we go from here?

While games for learning have some clear detractors, the research shows that embedding game-like elements into learning can produce positive gains in terms of engagement and perhaps even performance.

And some game elements might work better than others. For example, research shows that leaderboards/competition can be de-motivating to some learners.

At Fulcrum, we first think about what behaviors we are rewarding and/or discouraging, and then design game elements to support those inflections. Here are just three examples of game-like features in our platform in no particular order:

Optimal challenge

It’s a technique borrowed straight from the gaming-design playbook, and we use it to serve up assessments that are the appropriate level of difficulty based on each individual’s unique knowledge needs. This approach makes sure the content is never so hard that leaners get discouraged (lose confidence), but never so easy that they become bored. It creates the optimal level of difficulty for engagement and learning.

Instant feedback

As learners move through our system, they also receive instant feedback in various forms (which, as we saw above, is one of the reasons that games are so effective):

  • Within each question they automatically see if their answer selections were correct or incorrect.
  • Our variable Progress Meter lets users monitor where they are in the process and advances for every answer they get correct on the first attempt. It also adjusts differently depending on how the assessment is weighted, so there’s constant variation (sometimes when you get an assessment correct you move forward 10%, another time 18%)
  • We celebrate correct answers with an animated star. This star does different animations if the learner is on a “streak” of correct answers.
  • Our learner dashboard shows each person how they’re performing vs peer average

Autonomy & Choice

This notion is built into several features of our system and to make the experience more compelling. For example:

  • Learners can choose how they wish to engage with the content. They can read it (text and images), watch it (any form of multimedia can be plugged in), go straight into adaptive, interactive practice assessments or do a combination of all three.
  • Learners are free to move at their own pace and self-remediate. The platform alerts learners to their specific areas of weakness. They are then empowered to pursue their own path to mastery with the support of our competency-based methodology.
  • Learners can receive answer-specific hints within every question that include specific pieces of knowledge to guide them toward correct information. They can choose to take these hints, or try to move forward without them.



While gamification in learning seems intuitive, there is a lot left to learn about its efficacy. And while we think game-like elements can be used to support more proven learning techniques (as a spoonful of sugar or a drop of fun), they can’t be solely relied upon to create lasting engagement, motivation or learning outcomes. Simply implementing game-like features into a learning program won’t result in significant, hard-hitting impact, as multiple studies have shown. Additionally, the types of game-like elements implemented must match the overall behaviors the learning is trying to encourage. (Aka: they can’t be counterintuitive to the desired learning outcomes). Gamification can help the medicine go down, but it is not the medicine itself.

For more information about Fulcrum Labs and how we turn students and employees into learners and learners into confidence subject matter masters, or to see a demonstration of the gamification techniques we leverage within our platform, let’s connect.