In the past, society has been fueled by coal, fossil fuels, and nuclear power. Today, it is powered by games. Games have the power to motivate people to act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t—and we are surrounded by them. Think of donation drives, rewards programs, frequent flyer points, exercise plans, dating apps, and even social media. These are just a few examples of industries which have utilized elements of game design to influence what we consume, where we travel, and who we are friends with. 

This invasion of our modern world began after business strategists and educators saw how games could induce motivation and engagement within individuals. Many felt that this could be leveraged to improve learning in education and efficiency in the business world. Thus, the idea of gamification was born. Gamification means to apply elements of game design to non-game scenarios in order to enhance user engagement, motivation, and participation. The gamification revolution swept across the business and education worlds just a decade ago. However, today many educators and firms have turned away from this approach. Here’s what happened. 

The rise of gamification

The gamification era dawned in 2010. During this year, scholarly studies on gamification multiplied, and gamification quickly appeared in classrooms and learning programs such as Khan Academy and Duolingo. Large corporations such as Amazon, Target, and Disney adopted gamification into their business strategies. And just a few years after gamification’s inception, the business research firm, Gartner, estimated that 50% of organizations would soon incorporate aspects of gamification into their business or education models. 

Gamification in action

Gamification gained popularity so quickly because it was widely believed that the elements of game design which spur motivation and engagement in players could be adopted into business and learning strategies to achieve these same outcomes. The incorporation of simulations, challenges, rewards systems such as points or badges, and leaderboards are just some examples of how many organizations gamified their strategies. For example, the Nike+ Run Club app motivated runners through tracking progress, awarding virtual trophies, and allowing runners to share their progress on social media. Similarly, some educators began assigning students “challenges”, rewarding them with points and badges for completing assignments, and sharing their responses on online classroom forums. Each of these examples show how elements of game-design were quickly adopted in business and educational settings in an attempt to stimulate motivation and engagement.

Why gamification fell short

However, the acclaim of gamification didn’t last long. Many organizations began to reject gamification after it failed to succeed as they had hoped. Gartner reversed its prediction of gamification’s rise and projected that 80% of gamification strategies would fail by 2014. This was for three reasons:

  1. Gamification only worked in the short-term
  2. Its success relied too heavily on the quality of the “game” 
  3. Gamification had consequences

Gamification only worked in the short-term

First, evidence showed that gamification only offered short-term benefits. This is because its success was driven by the novelty of the movement and the hype surrounding it. Users quickly lost interest in the “games” developed through these programs, and gamification failed to cultivate motivation and engagement in the long-run. 

Its success relied too heavily on the quality of the “game”

Second, the success of gamification strategies was largely dependent on the quality of the “game” developed. Many organizations did not have the expertise or resources to develop “games” with the complexity and intricacy required for success. This meant that users lost interest in them very quickly, and gamification failed to spur determination. 

Gamification had consequences

Finally, gamification often came with unintended consequences. In some instances, gamification models turned into systems of control which ignored individuals’ needs outside of the simulation. For example, Disney developed a gamification program which tracked the productivity of the maintenance workers in its hotels. Leaderboards available to employees and managers displayed those who were falling behind production targets. Soon after, the company witnessed an increase in employee injuries and dissatisfaction, as workers disregarded safety precautions to meet production goals and the needs of pregnant or ill workers went ignored. The escape from reality that gamification provided caused organizations to forego a larger picture and shift focus away from the needs of their learners or employees. 

The good side of gamification

Still, certain components of gamification were successful in elevating learner and employee motivation. Studies revealed that certain characteristics of gamification models did successfully produce desirable behavioral outcomes such as higher levels of enthusiasm and determination. These characteristics included:

  1. Clear goals and tracking of progress
  2. Openness to failure
  3. Socialization

Clear goals and tracking of progress

First, gamification set clear goals for employees and learners and allowed for consistent tracking of their progress. Many gamification models also included visual representations of this progress. This helped to stimulate motivation.

Openness to failure

Second, gamification models generated an openness to failure. This openness promoted exploration and learning from one’s mistakes. These effects were beneficial as they improve learning and created a more accepting environment. 


Finally, another positive aspect of gamification was its element of socialization. Gamification models provided many opportunities for interaction with one’s fellow learners and coworkers. These models often prompted “players” to compete with one another in simulations or work together to complete challenges. Greater levels of teamwork resulting from gamification models often helped to improve engagement. 

How lessons from gamification can inspire learning strategies today

Each of these successful components of gamification are rooted to one main idea: user-centrism. When gamification succeeded, it did so only because it created a program that took the needs and preferences of the employee or learner using the game into account. User-centrism is the true key to improving engagement and motivation. Successfully maximizing the engagement and motivation of learners or employees is best achieved by prioritizing their interests and concerns. Learning strategies are optimized when they are targeted to capture the interests of the learners, and designed to make them feel understood and acknowledged. 

Developing the best strategy to improve learning and foster enthusiasm can be complex. But putting people first is a strategy that always guarantees success.

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