When it comes to in-depth learning opportunities, “gaming” might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet incorporating the basics of gamification into learning is a powerful way to increase learner engagement in any context.

Before we dig into different types of gamification techniques and how they can best be used within your organization, let’s first look at why a gamified approach can have a significant impact on learner motivation and engagement.

Engagement Drives Learning

On a basic level, learning is contingent on a few key motivational ingredients: Learners need to be willing to put in the effort to learn while receiving meaningful opportunities to engage with the targeted content. Those internal processes and desires underlying learning comprise what is known as “motivation.” Engagement, on the other hand, is an external process, comprising the actions we take to learn new skills. If motivation is the engine of the car of learning, then engagement is in the driver’s seat getting us where we need to go.

One helpful way to think about the complex process of engagement is to break them down to the ABCs — otherwise known as affective, behavioral and cognitive.

These three elements of engagement all work together, creating a state of learning that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Affective engagement is essentially emotional connection, where learners care about the content and learning they are consuming. Behavioral engagement is active participation, giving learners something meaningful to do as they process the material. Cognitive engagement is intellectual investment, giving learners something to think about and dig into mentally. High-quality gamification creates a way to achieve all three elements of engagement, giving learners emotional buy-in through a complex structure designed to help them think deeply about what they’re learning.

Researcher and educational technology advocate Seymour Papert recognized the value of combining games with learning, which he called “hard fun.” The concept of hard fun denotes activities that are both entertaining and challenging, a phenomenon that the video game design community has embraced. Papert argued that “Learning is essentially hard; it happens best when one is deeply engaged in hard and challenging activities. The game-designer community has understood (to its great profit) that this is not a cause for worry.” We can take a page out of Papert’s book and incorporate the elements of hard fun into our professional development offerings to take advantage of all three elements of engagement.

Gamified Learning Activities

Video games are designed to teach players how to interact with the game’s rules while maintaining engagement and momentum. While many of the techniques game designers use to teach players how to engage with the game are unique to the game itself, there are several gamified activities that can be applied to professional development.

Most of these activities revolve around a sense of competition. Badges or achievements can be awarded to learners who can demonstrate a solid knowledge of the skills they’ve learned, creating a tactile and verifiable sense of accomplishment. These achievements can be further utilized to foster a sense of friendly competition among different learning cohorts to see which group is able to gather the most badges in a given time. Not only does this sense of competition strengthen existing team relationships, but also it creates a sense of engagement with the content that increases the chance of learner retention.

Organizations in high-stakes industries (i.e., medical, financial, politics, etc.) may shy away from gamification as it often goes hand in hand with levity, which may feel inappropriate. Though certain elements of gamification are meant to use fun as a learning tool, it’s possible to use gamification techniques for professional development that needs to be taken more seriously.

Scenario-based learning, for example, borrows heavily from the elements that make engagement work. Learners receive a realistic scenario that engages them emotionally (affective engagement), requires them to actively work through a problem (behavioral engagement) and stimulates their critical thinking skills (cognitive engagement). Scenario-based learning is an effective way to engage learners and also an opportunity for professionals in high-stakes industries to practice crucial skills in a safe environment. For example, in a simulated environment, medical professionals can practice new procedures or learn new programs without impacting a human patient, and financial advisors can see how understanding a new economic trend can impact their clients’ investments without losing any money.

The video game industry is built upon principles of self-directed learning and intrinsic motivation which can be easily applied to professional development. With a bit of creative thinking and a friendly sense of competition, learning can be transformed into something engaging, motivating, and memorable through the lens of gamification.