Gamification – creating engaging learning communities

Oliver Šimko
Association of Adult Education Institutions in the Slovak Republic





Abstract – Gamification is an approach that might help create engaged learning communities. But what is it, and where does it come from? What are the core principles of learners’ motivation in relation to self-determination theor y? A possible approach to creating gamified learning communities is proposed. 

The ideal learning community is a place where learners willingly spend their free time helping each other. They may be motivated to improve their knowledge, enrich their personality or train their skills through interaction with other people.
While doing this, they help others.

In other words, they are generous because they feel happy to be part of such a group.

There is a reasonable question when thinking about such an idealistic concept: How can we achieve that dream? Well, there is a new boy in town. We call him Gamification.


Looking at the term you may guess that it has something to do with games, or game design. The question is, how is it dif ferent, and what are the things that make this approach so interesting and popular?

Gamification starts from a simple set of questions: What
are the elements that make games so engaging, fun and immersive? Could these aspects work in a non-game, real life context?

To put it in the perspective of a learning community, imagine that learners could be as engaged as players of World of Warcraf t, as focused as players of chess, or as passionate as Minecraf t or football players. Would it
not be great if our learners could be as engaged or simply enjoying their learning as some players enjoy collective
spor ts or games?

Make learning an adventure – home page of “Classcraft”.

This may sound like a utopia at first, but if you ever played a game that matched your interests or watched someone while playing, you may have noticed that games can easily attract our attention and influence our motivation and behaviour.

This is where Gamification steps in. It describes the elements, mechanics and principles behind games that make us so engaged and it looks at how we can apply these to a non-game context.

The purpose is to make our real-life tasks more engaging (including learning). In the past few years we have seen a steady increase in the gamification of learning. Examples of successful projects include Quest to Learn, Khan Academy,
 or the promising Classcraft. They prove that properly designed gamified systems can be a great tool for improving engagement and motivation in our daily real-life tasks.

Since the topic in this journal is communities, we will
now look at gamification of learning communities.

Learning as fun

Let us say that we have a student who is enthralled when solving mathematical exercises. Or we have a group of managers who happily par ticipate in communication training.
Or perhaps there is a group of accountants who voluntarily study new legislative changes.

Imagine that all of them consider their activities as FUN.
It may sound strange.

But what if the mathematical exercise is key to solving a great stor y plot, which will lead the math students to discover the true identit y of a thief who their game characters are pursuing. Or perhaps the managers are running their own vir tual kingdom, and their abilit y to negotiate with each other may save their precious realm from defeat.

We know that cer tain features found in game environments evoke a variety of feelings which humans truly enjoy and which activate our inner motivation. If we manage to evoke these feelings through these features in a non-game environment, we will discover the secret behind gamification and its success.

Hidden treasures

What are the concrete elements/features that trigger our emotions, motivation and behaviour?

In game design we see a variety of tools that allows us to build thoroughly designed systems. These systems provide meaningful and engaging experience to their users (e.g. players or in our case, learners) and support them in achiev
ing their goals.

Elements that are of ten used in gamification can be divided into mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics. Concretely this can mean avatars, badges, quests, challenges, competition, cooperation, progression, to mention just a few. The list is very extensive.

It is important to keep in mind that as in any project or design,
the purpose of carrying out gamification should be to pursue
some concrete goal, or to solve a concretely defined issue. Choosing the right tools should be determined by our goal and intention. For example, Dave Hunter's Zombie-Based Learning uses a popular zombie theme to teach a geograph
ical curriculum.

The common intention in gamification is to create an
engaging environment and to create fun.

As Ralph Koster suggests, fun can and should be designed. We need to carefully and explicitly design systems that respect the target group habits, goals, behaviour and likeable personalities. Our design must use this data as a star ting point for each gamified design element with one core aim: to unlock the fun.

In designing learning processes, this translates as providing learners with meaningful choices, supporting them through game components, mechanics and dynamics and finally, tailoring these elements to course curriculums or training programmes.

To find the inner motivation

Another reason for using gamification is that it allows us to af fect the inner motivation of our learners and members of learning communities.

We know from behavioural economists that when we
are facing tasks requiring cognitive activity, the ratio of
success in them is directly connected to our inner motivation. And if we think about this relationship in the field of learning, we may agree that especially in education, cognitive activity is more than required.

With gamified design, we may be able to influence learners’
initial motivation, (which could be based on external factors). If done properly, this will allow learners to become more engaged and participative in the learning community.

To support such an ef fect, gamification operates on the basis of the self-determination theory (SDT) (Deci, Ryan
2008). This theor y assumes that inner motivation can be enhanced when three core elements are achieved: competence, relatedness and autonomy.

Building on this, gamified systems may provide their
par ticipants instant feedback of their progress and allow them to show and share their levels of competence. They also assure them that their newly acquired knowledge has a significant impact on themselves or their environment (which
in this theory is part of relatedness).

The narrative aspect of a gamified design can keep the participants engaged and prolong their attention. With support of meaningful choices we can foster a sense of autonomy, which is arguably an important aspect of learning and simultaneously the third core pillar in this theory.

I stated earlier that in gamified design we set our reallife, or educational goal first. Thus the design must not distract the par ticipant, but suppor t her/him in achieving this goal.
Our design is a tool, not a goal in itself.

If you are looking for more detailed information about gamification, game-design and its application in practice, these are good starting points:

Hunter, D. & Werbach, K. (2012): For the Win. Wharton digital press.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004): Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT press.

Persuasive Design for digital media:

Koster, R.: Theory of Fun:

Lazzaro, N. (2004): Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion without Story. Available at

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2008): Self-Determination Theor y. In: Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Collection: Volumes 1 & 2, 416 –437.

It is important to always keep this in mind when gamifying
the educational field.

In many cases we have a decent amount of knowledge about the typical par ticipant before the course even star ts. This is a great help when we design the gamified elements, as it lets us tailor-make some parts.

Time to build

Up until now I have outlined the core principles and potential
benefits of gamification and learning. Let us now apply this on
a learning community. Consider this your game book manual.

To understand the role of gamification in learning communities, it makes sense to look at some similarities between communities and games/game design. This allows us to identif y common ground and to ask the right questions.

The first thing I notice is that communities and games both
include different types of personalities within any given group
of learners, or players. Gamification can teach us how we can attract and motivate different personalities and eventually make them cooperate through interactions with gamified design.

For example, there could be learners who love to discuss, and participants who prefer additional reading instead of being active in a class (in game design, these types refer
to “Socializers” and “Explorers”, according to the player types
model as conceived by Richard Bartle in 1996. What gamification could do is to provide equal opportunities for both types of learners.

You can get synergy by providing both with attractive challenges (or obstacles) that allow them to apply their preferred personal approach.

To design a good gamified system you need to pay attention to these different personalities and their accompanying learning styles.

The Magic Circle

Secondly, communities as well as games are bound with specific, more or less strict rules. In game design, this kind of environment is called Magic Circle (Huizinga 1938).

In, for example, chess, the magic circle means that
players can move only one chess piece in one round. Each piece has to move in a prescribed way.

In a community we may see the magic circle in various social rules (e.g. everyone has an equal access to learning materials, if one speaks, the rest are patiently listening, etc.).

The magic circle allows members/participants to experience fun. This happens as they obey the defined rules and structure, or reach a common understanding and progress (as in learning communities).

We may see these similarities as a starting point for our proposal of how to apply gamification in learning communities. Sadly (or fortunately) there is no universal principle that we can just use and apply to any community.

What we can do is to ask well-aimed questions that allow us to eliminate potential threats and spoilers. These questions may be structured like this:

1. Define goals that the gamified system should achieve: Goals are the key determinants for applying concrete tools and elements of gamification. Is our goal to attract more members? Do we wish to increase interaction bet ween our members? These could be the initial questions that could help to shape our future gamified system. Eventually a series of similar questions could lead to a concrete goal like: Create a userdriven open librar y. When we get this far we can
start looking for the proper tools to support this goal. 

2. What are the characteristics of our target group? What is the motivation of our participants? Their aspirations? Behaviour? Previous experiences with the topic? These questions not only define our target group, but also help us to create a tailored environment that could match their needs.

3. How can we achieve desired outcomes? E.g. which tools to deploy? In gamification, we may use different mechanics, dynamics or aesthetics to foster our goals. For example in Fitocracy (an online community aimed
at physical fitness and health) a series of challenges, duels,
and competitions are supported by a meaningful reward system. These help par ticipants achieve their prime objective – to get in shape in an engaging and less painful way. This example underlines an important mechanism – rewards and stimuli.

4. Motivate and stimulate through rewards? Ok, but in a meaningful way! In the early days of gamification hype, there was a common misunderstanding. It was thought that all you needed to do was to add some points and badges that the participants could earn. If not that, you could publish leaderboards where all participants could see their respective progress. The assumption was that this in itself would drive motivation. Today we know that it does not last for long if the users do not see a deeper meaning of these elements. The lesson is that to successfully motivate participants within a learning community, we have to first think about their own desires, motives and goals. Then we have to develop stimuli that evoke meaningfulness to our participants (remember
self-determination theory?). If you wish to use badges for example, you should think about how it would be meaningful to our community, what it should represent. Ask questions like: Does it increase value of our participants’ social status?

5. Is it fun and engaging? Last but not least, it is important that our system is attractive and draw users attention towards desired goals while experiencing fun. As Nicole Lazzaro points out, there are dif ferent kinds of fun (Lazzaro 2004), and we can use a variety of tools to unlock this fun. Therefore it is always useful to check which of these tools can be most proper for our community.

The similarities between communities inside games and learning communities should not be overlooked. We have a great opportunity to test if the set of thoughtfully designed challenges, quests, and competitive/collaborative tasks with a strong reliance on one’s inner motivation can produce fun and engage our participants to have better outcomes in their learning communities.

We can think about how to use gamification to attract and reach new target groups in education and create learning communities.

To sum up: I have tried to highlight 5 points that could lead to more engaging learning communities.

1. We need to describe clear and well-defined goals.

2. We need to understand the motivation of our learners.

3. We need to allow for different learning styles and behavioural mindsets through meaningful choices and challenges.

4. We can help learners reach desired goals (short-term or long-term) by applying a thoroughly designed interactive and rewarding system (while respecting the principles of self-determination theory).

5. We need to understand the key points that make human interaction fun.

Gamification started to get massively recognized in 2011. It is still in development. During these years we have had a chance to learn a first lesson about the effects of this approach. The future looks promising, with great oppor tunities to explore and to test in practice, especially in learning communities.



Bartle, R. (1996): Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Ssuit MUDs. Available at

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2008): Self-Determination Theory. In: Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Collection: Volumes 1 & 2, 416 –437.

Huizinga, J. (1938)[1971]: Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lazzaro, N. (2004): Why We Play Games: Four Keys to More Emotion without Stor y. Available at



About the Author

Oliver Šimko works as a project manager at the Association of Adult Education Institutions in the Slovak Republic. In 2014,
he graduated in Andragogy at Comenius University in Bratislava, where he is currently working toward a PhD. The PhD is about innovations in education through gamification. He also develops and tests prototypes of gamified courses in Adult Education.

Association of Adult Education Institutions in the Slovak Republic

Gondova 2
814 99 Bratislava



Adult Education and Development


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