Defining Gamification

By Josh Yavelberg, PhD

When the term “gamification” is thrown around in conversation, it often elicits very different responses as to what it means. I have provided summarized guidance to clients that helps to normalize the discussion that I will share with you here.


  • Game: a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck ending with a definite result.
  • Game-Based Learning: using a game as part of the learning process.
  • Gamification: the application of game mechanics in a non-game context to promote desired behavior and drive outcomes.
  • Serious Play / Serious Games: games specifically designed for educational rather than entertainment purposes. 

Before providing guidance, it is important to understand the difference between the various terms to avoid common biases and misconceptions related to the intersection of games and educational environments. Gamification is not about “Edutainment,” but instead is a broader concept that uses evidence-based practice to increase engagement and learning comprehension outcomes through designed experiences.

The definition of a game is important to note. The definition describes informality of play and a sense of competition defined by a set of rules toward a desired result. Games provide the opportunity for individuals to be challenged on their skills and assumptions, obtain immediate feedback that is formative, and progress by implementing change because of feedback. For educational games, the result is often not about winners or losers, but about tracked progress toward learning outcomes.

Game-Based Learning (GBL) and Serious Play / Serious Games use games to deliver an educational experience. These games may be designed specifically for the lesson such as a simulation, role-playing scenario/other challenge, or entertainment to understand broader concepts. Examples include using the game Civilization to inform discussions about history or Roller Coaster Tycoon to play through and discuss business decisions. Serious games may be more explicitly designed for the learning experience but are often stand-alone events.

Gamification implements various, evident game play mechanics through instructional design practices that align with learner motivations to produce increased engagement and trackable progression toward learning outcomes. Mechanics may be something like a ribbon for completing a course or a badge for completing a certification to provide extrinsic motivation or something as small as providing an “Easter egg” to intrinsically motivate curious learners. Gamification may simply be a method of redesigning a single exercise but may also scale to design the experience of a course or entire curriculum.

Flying Cloud Solutions Gamification Design Process

Designing and developing a gamified learning environment requires an instructional design process similar to designing and developing any other learning environment, with the addition of game mechanics as a key consideration that informs teaching strategies. Common instructional strategies may include lecture, exercises, evaluations, and discussion, among other common teaching strategies mapped to measurable learning outcomes. Gamification adds game mechanics onto familiar and proven teaching strategies to enhance outcomes.

The process for designing gamified learning is as follows:

  • Identify Objectives and Key Results (OKRs): Objectives may be learning objectives or broader curricular outcomes. OKRs are like SMART goals in that they must be mappable to measurable results.
  • Assess Learners and Develop Motivational Profiles and Learner Personas: Who is the intended audience for the objectives? What motivates these individuals? If possible, survey a few individuals who are representative of the intended audience using a Reiss Motivation Profile assessment. Otherwise, assess yourself and provide a best estimate of the motivations of the audience and how they may differ from you as a subject matter expert (SME) or designer. A few learner personas can then be developed that align intrinsic motivation to a highly specific profile of a possible stakeholder of the design. The learning persona will include a picture of an individual, demographic information, psychographic information, values, interests, priorities, fears, and frustrations. The more specific the learner personas are, the more empathic the design and chosen game mechanics will be for connecting with the intended audience.
  • Produce a Behavior Analysis Grid: What do we wish our audience to know, believe, do, and feel because of the experience being designed? This will highlight the facts, beliefs, actions, and emotions that will need to be developed through the game mechanics.
  • Tell a Story: Narrative structures and storytelling provide the greatest impact on memory and positive emotions. Stories provide concrete examples and can reinforce many cognitive teaching strategies as well as reinforce skills such as critical thinking. Developing a narrative for the experience also provides a clear pathway for the learner.
  • Align Game Mechanics with Motivators: There are hundreds of identified game mechanics that drive game designs. For a successful experience, mechanics must be utilized that maximize the intrinsic motivation of the intended audience and drive learners toward intended OKRs.
  • Consider Ethics and ADA Compliance: The utilization of intrinsic motivators has the possibility of verging on exploitation and manipulation of audiences. Acknowledgement of this possibility is important in considering final designs. Further, ADA alternatives need to be considered as some game designs and elements may not be inclusive.
  • Prototype: Agile prototype development techniques are employed to test and evaluate mechanics with intended audiences.
  • Implement and Evaluate: Final gamified design is fully implemented to scale and evaluated for future improvements.

BONUS: Aligning Mechanics and Motivators

Jonathan Peters, PhD of Sententia Gamification continues to identify game mechanics adding them to a growing list that he aligns to Reiss motivators. At this point, Peters has identified 183 mechanics that may be used as a palette when designing experiences. I have translated this map into a sortable Google Sheet that is occasionally updated as more mechanics are identified. Currently there are around 160 mechanics mapped on this sheet. 

To use the sheet, simply sort A-Z by the motivator that you wish to filter. Squares in green show alignment. If there are several identified participant motivators, sort/filter several rows to identify mechanics that may have a stronger experiential connection with your audience. Google Sheets is not as intuitive as Microsoft Excel tables in terms of filtering, so here is a short video demonstrating how this works:

If you would like to know more about how Flying Cloud Solutions can help your organization implement gamification to increase impact and engagement and overcome your unique challenges book a discovery call today!

Access the mechanics and motivators sheet by filling out the form: