Home Educational Games & Gamification 5 Pitfalls of Gamification That Every Course Author Should Know About

5 Pitfalls of Gamification That Every Course Author Should Know About



Don't let These Gamification Missteps Undermine Your Efforts to Make Your Course More Engaging

We all were children. This means that we all played games in some way or another. Unlike with doing homework, eating broccoli or taking medicine, we did it voluntarily, as games helped us explore the world in a natural and engaging way.

Today more and more adults remember what it's like to learn while playing. The reason for this is (the growing popularity of) gamification. The introduction of game techniques into a non-game environment helps increase motivation and encourage specific behavior. Still, gamification has its downsides that have to be taken into consideration by anyone who is willing to apply the power of games successfully. Here are some of them.

It's not About Badges

Motivation is the cornerstone of gamification. This means that the right use of gamification is based on the right understanding of the learner's motivating factors.

While the psychology of motivation is a vast area, most game mechanics have been developed on the principles of radical behavior pioneered by B. F. Skinner. According to him, people's behavior is shaped by so-called conditioned reinforcers, which in the gamification world are represented by points, badges, and other forms of digital pats on the back. However, points by themselves aren't inherently rewarding – in fact, they can rather be a source of detraction: playing in order to collect points isn't the same as playing for the sake of the game.

Proper use of rewards also largely depends on a reinforcement schedule that defines when and how many “points” are given. While some schedules are effective for learning new behaviors, others help reinforce an established one (repeat certain actions, e.g. read a text).

Ideally, game mechanics should be connected to the content taught. John Barnes, a teacher and education writer, gave a great example in one of his articles: if players have to spell a word correctly in order to unlock a door in a dungeon, it's a good idea to make that word vital to whatever lies beyond that door. Otherwise, players will just end up getting through as many doors as possible without paying attention by spelling random words.

One Motivator Does Not Fit All

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes when creating gamification courses is assuming that the same game mechanics will work just as well with different learners. However, one incentive may drive one learner and drive another crazy.

Before selecting gamification techniques, it's wise to know what your audience would select. You can hold a direct poll or ask learners supportive questions, such as what mobile applications they use, what are their best motivators at work/studies, and others. The answers will help you understand what kind of “carrots and sticks” to use.

If your audience is large and pretty diverse, it may be better to split it into groups and apply various gamification techniques for each of them. For example, advanced learners may take their success for granted and consider a leaderboard as something trivial. Leaderboards aren't the best decision either when learners have different levels of preparation. In this situation, beginners can easily become demotivated, turning gamification into “shamification”.

You can learn about gamification and other ways to increase student engagement through technology in this article.

Confusing Competition and Cooperation

Overall, all gamification mechanics can be divided into those where players compete and those where they collaborate, and the choice between these two shouldn't be left to coincidence.

An effective gamification course should foster skills essential in real life. For instance, if a workplace requires teamwork, gamification should encourage cooperation through community discussions, shared bonuses, group status, and others. On the other hand, independent workers benefit from techniques that maximize individual performance, such as achievements, levels, and leaderboards.

Not Explaining Rules

Gamification doesn't amount to games, yet it does have its own rules. Make sure all learners understand them by providing a brief explanation of how applied game mechanics work and why they matter. It's equally important to prevent learners from skipping these rules, which is often the case with text guidelines. Try making an explanatory video that has to be watched till the end before starting a course. Additionally, you may break the video into shorter ones and include them as an initial step before every activity.

Giving a False Sense of Achievement

Every reward received in a gamified course should be a reward earned. By acknowledging little insignificant accomplishments, you risk giving learners a false sense of mastery and even boring them. Come to think of it, would you be motivated more by getting meaningless points, or rewards reflecting your real level of knowledge?

In fact, the true mastery of any topic requires time, and what's more important, repetition. As a possible solution, you can assign rewards of different values depending on the type of task performed and quality of performance.

The Bottom Line

Gamification is a powerful tool for increasing engagement, yet it has some downsides to remember. Misused gamification can demotivate learners, properly used gamification motivates them to win, and perfectly used gamification motivates them to play and learn simultaneously.



  1. Insightful article on gamification and how to maximize the process, its benefits and perceived risks. True, it doesn\’t mean that once applied to a system or program, it would guarantee the expected results. An informed process is still required for it to succeed.


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