The gamification approach: learning by playing

How can the gamification approach be used to encourage “learning by playing”? How can digital content be designed in such a way as to communicate sustainable information to employees or encourage them to improve? One not entirely new concept is the so-called gamification approach. The gamification approach starts with the digital methods and didactics of learning concepts. This means a playful approach to learning, mainly in continuing education and further training. Hang on a minute – so will I have to programme a computer game? 

The origins of the gamification approach 

The term “gamification” was in fact originally coined in the computer games industry. A number of other industries have adopted the concept, and now use the game mechanics of computer games. But not only the game mechanics have been transferred; the term “game” itself has been borrowed, resulting in the term “gamification” used today. So it is true that the origins are in the computer games industry. But there’s no need to programme a computer game. According to Google Trends, the first search results relating to gamification appeared in 2011, both in Germany and worldwide.

Definition of gamification 

Sebastian Deterding considers gamification as an umbrella term and proposes this definition: 


“Using game-design elements and principles in non-game contexts.”1 S. Deterding


That means using the game mechanics from a video game outside a game context. In Super Mario, players collect coins – frequent flyers collect air miles2

Risk of confusion 

The gamification approach is frequently mentioned in the context of 3D games or first-person shooter games, placing them on the same level. There is generally a distinction between “gamification” and “serious games”3. “Serious games” are a category for teaching (specialist) knowledge: software for a vocabulary trainer or flight simulators for training pilots3. Gamification, on the other hand, is a general concept of using game-design elements in an educational context. So gamification represents rather an umbrella category for teaching content. For statistics on gamification, let us return to the original target group, gamers. Today, almost one third of the gamer community are aged 50+4.The game-playing population is split almost equally between men and women4. These data show that older employees in a company will not necessarily feel excluded by a gamification approach – although exceptions do, of course, prove the rule. How can the gamification approach be used to encourage “learning by playing”? 

Origins: core mechanics of the gamification approach 

The gamification approach aims to create an engaging learning environment and make learning more enjoyable. Computer games are often based on standard game elements: story, elements, mechanics, technology and balancing5. The gamification approach uses selected elements of game mechanics. Zichermann and Cunningham explain how the core mechanics of a game are particularly suitable for practical application6. They describe the following mechanics6

  • Points systems 
  • Levels 
  • Leaderboards 
  • Badges 
  • Challenges / quests 

Competition as an incentive in e-learning 

These mechanics describe how an imaginary competitive system is established in practice, i.e. in a team or an e-learning application. A points system in a ranking assigns every user a specific status. Users are rewarded by actively participating and compete with their colleagues. A higher score indicates a higher rank, etc.

A material incentive can also serve as motivation. A company can certainly offer both monetary and non-monetary incentives (cash benefits vs. time off in lieu)3. The effectiveness of such incentives must be continuously monitored, to prevent abuse. Because money or leave should not be the only motives for further training. The gamification approach should be viewed as a motivating factor, creating a more engaging learning environment and making learning more enjoyable. 

Gamification for sustainable added value 

It is important that these mechanics are not used in isolation but instead integrated into a process. In a paper on gamification, Stieglitz says that “gamification elements should be linked with suitable processes”7. These elements have to create sustainable added value for all participants, or they will later be “perceived as meaningless or disruptive, or at least become ineffective.”7. Stieglitz continues by saying that the emotional effect of a competitive system among employees should not be underestimated either7. Finding a “one-size-fits-all” solution is not easy7

Everybody likes to play! 

The elements of the gamification approach are effective because they appeal to a person's play instinct8. At nursery school, children acquire knowledge, and learn about the values and rules of their environment through play. The play instinct is part of human nature and a characteristic that is not restricted to children and young people. Audience interactions with media are described in the uses and gratification approach of the 1960s. Reinhard und Dervin9 summarise the essence of this approach in five complex statements. Let us look at just one of these five statements: satisfaction of the audience’s needs by the media is not always conscious, it can also be subconscious9. This important statement can be transferred to another context as shown below.  

Triggering the subconscious play instinct 

The play instinct is innate. The gamification approach is a way of intentionally addressing and appealing to a user’s need – by consciously triggering their subconscious play instinct. This is a win-win situation for both sides, because the learner may not even feel as though they are in a learning situation. In this way, the gamification approach can be used for learning simply by playing. 

Perfect conditions: the digital interface of the E1810 lends itself to gamification 

The gamification approach can be used in the interface design for machines. One example is the design of the E1810 centrifugal. The HMI (human-machine interface) is very flexible in its visualisation of processes and machine data. Already today, the graphic controls on the touchscreen of the E1810 follow gamification principles. Machine data are collected and visualised. The available data provide the machine operator with scope for improvement. The settings are displayed directly on the machine, and can be adjusted by the operator. This concept creates an incentive system for optimisation of the data – based on the principles of gamification. 


1 Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K. & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems - CHI EA ’11, 180–195. 

2 Burmester, M. (2016). Gamification | Was hat Gamification mit UX Design zu tun? | UID (de)  

3 Friedrich et al. (2018). Quizzen für den Unternehmenserfolg: Weiterbildung mittels Enterprise, Social Networks neu gestalten. S.77  

4 game - Verband der deutschen Games-Branche (2018). Jahresreport-der-deutschen-Games-Branche-2018.pdf, p. 7 . 

5 Schell, J. (2016). Die Kunst des Game Designs: Bessere Games konzipieren und entwickeln. MITP, p. 617. 

6 Zichermann, G. & Cunningham, C. (2011). Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps (1. Aufl.). O’Reilly & Associates. 

7 Stieglitz, S. (2015). Gamification – Vorgehen und Anwendung. HMD Praxis der Wirtschaftsinformatik, 52(6), p. 7; p. 816–825. .  

8 Wiegand, Thomas & Stieglitz, Stefan. (2014). Proceedings - Series of the Gesellschaft fur Informatik (GI). Serious fun-effects of gamification on knowledge exchange in enterprises, p. 321–332. 

9 Reinhard, C.D., und Dervin, B. (2009) Media Uses and Gratifications, in: Eadie, W.F. (Hrsg.) 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, p. 508 ff. 

Further reading / sources: 

Eadie, W. F. (2009). 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. SAGE Publications. 

Heckel, M. (2019, 18. April). Gaining knowledge via digital training.;

mmb-Trendmonitor | mmb Institut GmbH. (2018). 

Seidel, A. (2019, 16. April). Serious Play – der Spieltrieb als Marketinginstrument. Serviceplan Blog.