Let’s say you hired an award-winning e-learning agency to create a game-based learning course on food handling safety for your large, fast casual restaurant chain. The goal is to make sure learners understand and use proper food safety handling techniques and to reduce the number of FDA inspection violations. In the game, players move through various activities to identify safe and unsafe food handling practices.

Built-in interactivity includes drag-and-drop actions, clicking on food safety hazards, and swiping between screens. Badges are awarded after learners complete every five “activities” (really glorified quizzes). A leaderboard displays top point earners, and an animated wizard character gives learners tips when they are stuck. You excitedly promoted and internally marketed the gamified course. But several months later … crickets.

The course was not well received by learners; in fact, they outright hated it. Learning transfer did not occur. The game was no more successful in improving safety ratings or passing food inspections than your previous courses on food safety. After a couple of months, the course had few, if any, new players, and initial players abandoned the game. The much-touted new gamified course was a flop.

What gives? You did your research and know that game-based learning enhances student motivation, attention and content retention. So why was your virtual game a virtual face plant?

E-Learning Course Interaction: We Have it All Wrong

This example shows the fatal mistake so many e-learning and online game developers make: They focus on the mechanics of the course first, and elements and user motivators are afterthoughts. Game mechanics (points, badges and leaderboards) alone do not result in learner engagement; you can’t just add those items to boring or rote activities and think that they will result in fun. They won’t. And they certainly won’t result in behavior change.

Points, badges and leaderboards do have a place in e-learning – if they are used in a way that aligns with human computer interaction (HCI) psychology.

What Is Human-Computer Interaction Psychology?

HCI psychology is simply the study of how people interact with computers. Think of it as the “thisis-your-brain-on-computers” field. It encompasses both the types of experience a user has with a computer, software program or online course as well as the overall design elements (such as graphics, activities and animated characters). In short, HCI studies the social norms humans expect in their interactions with computers.

Three Components of Human-Computer Interactions

If game mechanics alone aren’t enough to engage learners, then what else do we need to include in online courses? There are many HCI components that must be included, but the three primary components are emotions, elements and motivation.


The most successful courses start with an instructional designer who asks, “What do I want my learners to feel?” (We assume the instructional designer has already completed the needs analysis and identified the desired behavior changes and learning outcomes.)

Emotions are the engagement ignition switch in online courses; without them, there can be no motivation, no interest and no learning transfer.

For example, you may want your food safety learners to feel anxiety. Restaurant workers must provide peak performance under intense time and regulatory pressures. That anxiety would resonate with learners, because it’s an emotion they often feel while performing their jobs.


Elements include characters and mechanics, which also serve as user interfaces in highly engaging courses.

What does an e-learning host/moderator character have in common with the Microsoft animated paper clip “Clippy”? They both trigger negative reactions in users.

Characters – whether animated or static – have become common in e-learning. The traits and functions we assign to those characters impact learning effectiveness. According to The Atlantic, Microsoft’s smirky anthropomorphic paper clip is one of the worst user interfaces/virtual characters ever deployed. It just didn’t have the right virtual personality to interact with humans.

Clifford Nass, director of Stanford University’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab and author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop,” says that Clippy had several character flaws. He forced himself on users, who were unable to control when he appeared, and he acted like an all-knowing character rather than a friend and cheerleader.

study in the “Journal of Consumer Research” identified another reason why the little paper clip sent so many of us into rage spirals: Digital assistants make us feel powerless. In this study, there were two versions of the same online game: in one, an animated smiley face provided assistance if the user requested it, and in the other, users accessed a text-based help menu for assistance.

Players with the smiley-face assistant enjoyed the game less than those who used the help menu – even though they provided the exact same information. In the food safety course, then, it might be a good idea to develop a character who is a customer, coworker or FDA inspector rather a helper.

Another online course element is mechanics: the rules of the game or method of interacting with the content. The most effective mechanics are quests: tasks that a player-controlled character completes in order to gain a reward. The quests become the navigation, or user interface, rather than relying on a series of swiping or clicking actions to advance players though the course.

It’s important to note that a quest is not just a series of tasks. True quests solve a problem or overcome a major obstacle. For example, in the food safety course, rather than force learners to complete a series of mundane drag-and-drop, true/false, matching or hotspot tasks, why not create a simulated FDA restaurant inspection? The learners would proceed through the steps of an inspection, catching food safety violations and fixing them before the inspector found them. They would either pass the inspection, or the game would close the restaurant for violations, and the learner would have to rectify violations in order to re-open. This type of activity would also align with the desired emotion we want users to feel: anxiety.

You could also require the leaners to perform an action, which would cause an effect within the simulated world. For example, if a learner didn’t check the temperature of the perishable condiments station at the proper time intervals, five patrons would develop food poisoning, and the restaurant would be subject to an inspection. The learner would have to make another action based on this new information.

Another type of mechanics are points, badges and leaderboards. However, the scorekeeping and “leveling up” must make sense for the game’s challenge. In the food safety course, instead of badges for passing an inspection, learners could receive virtual coins to symbolize the money their restaurant earned because it did not close. “Leveling up” could include being promoted to manager or opening another franchise location. Instead of showing highest point scores, a leaderboard could list the players who opened the most additional franchise locations.


A third component to HCI is motivation: Why would the learner/player want to spend time taking the course or playing the game?

Motivation comes in two forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to our internal drive to perform an action purely for the enjoyment we receive from it. It’s one of the most important HCI psychological theories in gamification.

Three psychological needs trigger intrinsic motivation: competence (successfully mastering an environment or solving a complex problem); autonomy (the ability to make choices without interference or control); and relatedness (developing a close relationship with the character and/or content).

To ensure your course or game hits all three motivators, follow these steps:

  • Let learners know their actions have some impact on the system.
  • Show users that they are in control of how the system responds.
  • Demonstrate to users that the characters in the game are on their side and just like them.

By incorporating these human-computer interaction psychology elements into your course or game, you’ll have an interactive, engaging and effective e-learning program.