The word “gamification” sounds buzzwordy and corporate but also overly casual. It sounds weird when you say it out loud, like it’s straddling the line between a scientific process and someone trying to sound “hip.”

I think most of us are using it wrong.

The imagery associated with gamification is probably full of bold primary colors and friendly, welcoming images. There might be some leaderboards and badges, maybe some animated characters who talk to you in speech bubbles and move! There’s some drag-and-drop, point-and-click style interactive areas in there too, right?

That’s what gamification is all about, making learning fun! Aren’t you engaged? Aren’t you loving it?

You aren’t?

Well, at least you’re learning loads! I bet you’ve never had such informative training. You’ll retain this stuff for years to come!

You aren’t learning much? It’s not applicable to your job?

The problem is that as soon as the word gamification came into the mix, our focus stopped being on delivering a great learning experience. Our focus was on creating a game. But gamification is not about making games. It is about applying game elements in non-game situations.

This definition of gamification doesn’t say anything about needing visual assets, interactivity or several hours’ worth of content. We’re not Nintendo; we aren’t trying to make the next Mario game. In gamification, we take what makes Mario exciting, engaging and memorable and port those mechanics to learning.

We can’t promise learning will be as fun as stomping goombas or leaping through warp pipes, but if we do our jobs right, it can be a memorable, enjoyable and effective learning experience.

If you want to get the most out of gamification, you’ll to have to do some research and keep an open mind. Even once you’ve read up on the topic, you may run into issues. Here are three tips to get it right.

Start with Why.

Ask yourself why this learning experience needs gamification. Have you received feedback that it isn’t engaging? Are learners not applying the lessons, or are they unable to recall key points? Is the audience open to it, and to what extent? If you can’t answer these questions, you probably shouldn’t be trying to gamify this experience.

If we don’t understand why we are gamifying a learning experience, how do we know the appropriate mechanics to apply? Do we opt for a fully designed, immersive experience, complete with simulations and leaderboards? Or does it require a lighter, more subtle touch? Gamification is not a magic silver bullet. You will find situations where it isn’t the answer. Badly designed learning doesn’t become good through gamification. Some topics aren’t suited to it, and there will be groups of learners who won’t buy into it. Recognizing this reality will ensure that gamification enhances your learning rather than detracting from it.

Do It Properly.

You might have all kinds of ideas, but game mechanics are a toolkit; you have to pick the right ones and put them in the right places for them to be effective. Hammering nails with a screwdriver doesn’t work, and competitions and badging probably aren’t the most effective way to promote your new in-house data protection course.

You have to think about the subject matter, the audience, the timeframe and other factors. That data protection course won’t be enhanced by competitive mechanics, but perhaps some interactive scenarios with hints and reminders will have an impact. Likewise, presenting senior management teams in a traditional, conservative firm with content full of flashy graphics, gameboards and avatars might disengage them, not gain their buy in. Sometimes, subtlety is called for.

Think carefully about the “why”; then, apply only the right elements to enhance learning. You should be able to justify exactly why you chose to include a game element and pinpoint the impact it is meant to have.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback!

The entire point of gamification is to improve engagement, recall and application. How do you know if it’s working? Ask.

Evaluation and feedback are vital parts of gamification that are often neglected. They demonstrate impact. But are you asking people in the right way?

Most learning includes some form of feedback, so make sure it’s tailored to gather the information you need. Here are some questions you can ask learners:

  • Was the training engaging?
  • Was there a specific section or method that was most enjoyable?
  • Was anything particularly memorable?
  • What stood out to you?
  • Would you do the learning again?

Asking these questions helps demonstrate the effectiveness of your gamification and shows you where you miss the mark. Gamification needs to evolve. Nothing is ever perfect, and needs and opinions change over time. Your learners are the best people to tell you about the learning experience.

Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll avoid a few of the most common gamification errors and start on the right path!