15 Steps for Gamifying a Learning Experience

Carrie Lewis Miller

  1. Change the Vocabulary

The first step to gamifying a learning experience is to create the environment of a game.  Changing the vocabulary of a learning experience to that of a game will help set the stage and assist in learner buy-in.  Some examples of vocabulary changes are:

  • Modules / weeks / units ->  Levels / quests / rooms / maps
  • Grades / Grade points ->  XP (“experience points”) / gold bars/ achievements
  • Groups ->  Guilds / Clans / Tribes
  • Assignments -> Quests / Journeys


  1. Create the Context

Good games have great storylines that give players a context for why they are completing difficult quests and arduous journeys.  Create the same feeling in your learning experience by developing a storyline for the content.  Are the learners completing a mission to Mars?  A wagon train out west?  Are they on a wilderness expedition or part of a multi-national conglomerate?  Maybe they are superheroes or simply fantasy characters (wizards, mages, Vikings, hunters, etc.).

Whatever the story is, create the context and carry it through all aspects of the learning experience including the syllabus and the assignment descriptions.  For example, if the learners will be going on a Mission to Mars, the instructor should be the Mission Commander or the Base Commander.  Assignments can be Cadet Missions.  Grades can be miles completed towards the Mars landing.


  1. Create a Ranking Structure

Once you have the story, create a ranking structure based on likely characters in your scenario.  Using the Mission to Mars example, incoming learners to the learning experience might be Cadets.  As they earn “miles” towards the goal, they can progress in rank:

  • Cadet
  • Flight Engineer
  • Mission Specialist
  • Pilot
  • Commander

Not only will these rankings help in Leaderboard creation, but you can give them meaning if the instructor assigns students to group work or discussions, assigning students of different “ranks” various roles.


  1. Use the tools at hand

Most learning management systems include many tools that can add gamification elements to a learning experience.  While each LMS is different, exploring the features and tools of your specific learning management system may turn up some useful items to use in gamifying a learning experience.  Here are some ideas to look for:

  • Automated emails – send “bonus” or achievement notifications to students who complete designated tasks
  • Checklists – allows students to see the tasks they need to complete in order to “level up”
  • Release conditions or branching logic – allows content to be released based on “gameplay” and achievements
  • Groups tool – allows students to function within a community in their different roles.  Rename the individual groups as students choose names for their “guild” or “clan.”
  • Discussion Board tools – Up-voting features allow students to choose group names or vote on discussions.  Individual discussion forums could be created as “base camps” for one-on-one student interaction.
  • Widgets – add leaderboards to your course homepage or include relevant game elements like a “help menu” can further your game feel
  • Embeddable videos in discussions, content, and news items – allows you to add context and story elements to the course
  • Grades – create hidden bonus items that unlock based on release conditions
  • Modules – create “easter egg” items such as study guides or helpful resources that unlock based on release conditions
  • Badges and Awards – tie a badge or certificate to an individual assignment or task


  1. Include Personalization

Allowing learners to choose avatars will help anonymize the leaderboard, but you can take it one step further.  Allow groups to choose group names and use those names to title group discussions or assignments.  Let learners decide what type of character they will be in the game – wizard, mage, guardian, warrior – and let that drive their assignment submissions.  You can use tools like the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology to build groups or help students decide what type of gamer they are.


  1. Encourage instructors to stay up to date

One of the fundamental aspects of gaming is the sense of community, competition, and accomplishment.  Keeping grades, and therefore leaderboards, as up-to-date as possible is important for maintaining learner motivation.


  1. Create a support structure from the beginning

At the beginning of the course, let learners know how the course will be structured and provide them with an overview of the gameplay.  Add in some gamification resources and prepare the instructor for questions, perhaps by creating an FAQ document.  It is very common for learners to struggle with the change in vocabulary and environment that gamification brings.  Let them know it is ok not to like games, but that it is important to keep an open mind.  Allow learners to opt-out of things like the leaderboard or even gameplay if possible.


  1. Differentiate assignments

Part of the beauty of gameplay is that there are not always the same ways to achieve results.  Offer your learners multiple paths to the same end goal – if you usually create a paper writing assignment, give them the option to create a multimedia presentation, blog, podcast, or video.


  1. Issue Challenges

If you choose to gamify an entire learning experience, rather than just a lesson, don’t let the gameplay become boring or routine once you hit the mid-point of the learning experience.  Hide challenges, the possibility for bonus points, or additional easter eggs to keep the game momentum moving.


  1. Designate a “Winner”

Create a structure so that the instructor can use the leaderboard and the final grades to let the winner(s) of the “game” know that they won.  The instructor can assign bonus points, a badge, a certificate, or just send them a message with a “You Won!” notification.  Using automated emails is a great tool for this game element.


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Game Based and Adaptive Learning Strategies Copyright © 2021 by Carrie Lewis Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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