December 16, 2017
    Level-up learning: The 5 levels of successful gamification design (or how not to fail)

    A fully gamified program entices participants by signaling that this is going to be fun

    By Jonathan Peters, PhD | 09/28/2017

    Do you remember the games played as a child? How you played for hours? Do you also remember that school wasn’t as much fun? You were asked to sit quietly and read. You had quizzes and tests. You struggled to get your grades up.

    What if learning could be fun? After all, games were teaching you certain skills. If it was sports, you were learning physical coordination. Maybe the game required strategy and memorization. Maybe you had to recognize and anticipate certain sequences.

    Gamification, broadly defined, deconstructs games and applies the psychology and mechanics of games in a nongame context. It’s important to understand that gamification is not necessarily about playing a game. A loyalty program is an example of gamification; you are rewarded for purchases and you level up as you spend.

    Imagine using game mechanics and psychology in your learning and recruiting programs. A fully gamified program entices participants, by signaling that this is going to be fun. It engages people once they are in your program. And, more important, it encourages them to apply their learning to other aspects of their lives outside of the program.

    Unfortunately, the majority of gamification efforts will fail; estimates are as high as an 80 percent fail rate. The root of these failures is in the design process. Too often people simply throw a few game mechanics at a program and label it gamified. They attach a point system, offer some badges, and throw up a leaderboard, and then wonder why engagement falls off after the initial launch.

    This is why, at Sententia, we have a five-level process for creating successful gamified learning programs. Each level builds on the one before it. And like a game, you can’t jump ahead (that would be cheating). And each level consists of six stepping stones. If you follow each stepping stone, we basically guarantee a successful gamified learning program.

    To give the process a memory hook, let’s use the acronym GAMES:

    • Goals
    • Adventure
    • Method
    • Engagement
    •  Synch It

    The first level is the one most people skip. They jump straight to the fourth level “Engagement," which is where we apply game mechanics. Without spending time on the first three levels, we won’t know which mechanics will be enticing and engaging, and we won’t have a method for gaging success.

    For instance, the first level, Goals, is where we lay the foundation. This level can be summarized as the WHAT and the WHO of design. Before we begin to gamify a program, we must first know what we want to accomplish (where we are and where we want to be) and who will be “playing.” Without knowing these two foundational components, it doesn’t matter what game mechanics we throw at a program; we will never be successful. So let’s dig a little further into the What and Who.

    The reason most gamification programs fail is because most organizations don’t have a metrics for success or failure in the first place. In other words, how would you know if a learning program failed if you don’t have a definition for success?

    You’d be surprised by how often companies are unable to tell us their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for a program. When we ask them what behavior changes they’d like to see in their learners, we get responses like, “We want them to work better together,” or, “We want them to be happier at work.” And it’s a rare organization that can tell us how they will measure success for their programs in business terms.

    In other words, we can’t measure a Return on Investment (money, time, effort) if we don’t have a method for determining what a return is.

    The good news is that game mechanics can provide feedback loops that let us know if we are on track. Quizzes and traditional methods for measuring learning rely on memorization and short-term responses, but certain game mechanics allow learners to demonstrate that, yes, they understand what is being taught and that they are able to take that learning and apply it to their work and professional lives.

    So as tedious as it may be, before we begin to gamify a learning program, we need to invest significant effort in defining our business goals for the program, what behavioral changes we want from our learners, and what we will measure as an indicator of performance.

    Once we know our desired outcomes, and who we are designing for, we are ready to continue the GAMES process, and prepare an “adventure” for our participants. In other words, we are ready to add in some fun for our participants and for ourselves as designers. 

    Get the details on the five-level process of gamification in Peters' session on "The Gamification of Talent Development in Nonprofits" at Learnapalooza, Oct. 3-5 in Crystal City, Va.

    Peters is chief motivation officer at Sententia Gamification. Contact him at

    Add new comment

    Filtered HTML

    • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
    • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
    • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

    Plain text

    • No HTML tags allowed.
    • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
    • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

    Association TRENDS