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3 Features of Video Games that Make Your Online Course More Engaging and Effective

  • Lizzie MerrittLizzie Merritt

“Either I’m going to kill myself, or I’m going to make this into a game.”

That’s what professional game designer, speaker, and author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal, thought about her slow and painful recovery from concussion.

She found a way to make even that dreary process more engaging and motivating by applying the gamification principles she uses at work.

If games can make recovering from illness fun and motivating, just imagine what they can do for your online course.

“But video games are a waste of time.”

That’s what I thought, too. You could be learning a new skill, moving your body, or doing something remotely healthy, instead of escaping into a game. Why spend your time in a fantasy world when you could be getting REAL stuff done?

But just like reading fiction can teach us valuable lessons about life, the unique features of a games can teach us valuable lessons about how to help your online students be more successful by motivating them to complete your course.

This is good because more successful students means more testimonials, more social proof, more success for your business, and more lives changed for the better.

All games, from Scrabble to golf to Halo 2, are exceptionally motivating. Gamers can play for hours on end because games present us with challenging problems to solve, skills to learn, and the sense of accomplishment we feel when we achieve even a small amount of success.

gamification in education 5

Human beings are driven by both extrinsic (or external) and intrinsic (or internal) motivations. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us, Daniel Pink explains that the three core human drivers are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Games provide the player with autonomy but letting him or her choose their path through the game. Pacman allows the player to chose the path they want to avoid the ghosts and munch up the power points.

Games give the player a sense of mastery because with each attempt, the player learns how to get faster or better and achieve the particular goal of the level. In Super Mario, for example, the player learns which square to smash in order to release the mushroom and earn bonus life points.

And the really good games—the ones that can be called addictive—give the player a sense that he or she is contributing to something bigger than themselves. World of Warcraft is an exceptionally popular game that allows players to socialize and collaborate together towards the higher purpose of defeating evil.

You might be thinking, “That’s cool, Lizzie, but what does all this have to do with building courses?”

A lot.

One of the biggest challenges course creators face is helping their students actually complete the course, implement it, and achieve the transformation they promised.

Why is this so hard?

Because a large percentage of students never finish the course. The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that, only about 4% of students who enrolled in massively open online courses (MOOCs) completed the courses they signed up for. In fact, only half of those who registered viewed the first lecture!

“In order to be sustainable as a course creator, you need your students to be successful. ”

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In order to be sustainable as a course creator, you need your students to be successful. And in order for students to get all those benefits from your course, they need to be motivated to tackle the inevitable challenges along the way.

The following features of video games make them extremely motivating. Use them to infuse your own course with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Help your students “level up” and become your course super heroes.

Feature 1: Lay Down the Rules

The rules of the game help to define the objective of the game. For example, one of the rules of Tetris is that you must line up a single row of blocks in order to make them disappear.

Rules provide the guardrails, but they don’t tell you HOW to play the game. In Tetris, the player can arrange the falling blocks in the order they feel is the most efficient.

This is where autonomy comes in. The player leverages the rules and the constraints of the game to creatively solve the challenge placed in front of them. It is each player’s unique way of working within the rules that makes the game more engaging.

Likewise, you can make your online course more engaging by creating a framework for your student to work within, but letting them decide exactly HOW they want to do it.

For example, let’s say your course is about how to write better copy. Set up the framework of what makes good copy in your instructional part of the content. Then give them options for how they want to practice. They can choose to:

  1. Read their copy out loud
  2. Hand copy famous pieces of copywriting
  3. Look at an example piece of copy and decide how to trim it down for maximum effect.

Or, if your content does not have to build on itself, then allow the student to choose where they want to start the course and dive into the topic they’re most interested in.

Choice is very motivating because it provides a sense of self-determination.

Not only do rules provide a framework within your course, but it is important to form boundaries around you course as well.

Could you teach a course on Everything You Need to Know about Brewing Your Own Beer from A-Z? Sure.

But should you?

Most students will get lost somewhere between “B” for Belgian brews and “L” for lagers.

A crucial part of any game or course is for the player/student to feel inspired to keep going. Help your students feel motivated by creating guidelines that either define or limit the outcome, but give them a choice about how to get there.

Jane McGonigal created autonomy for herself as she recovered from her concussion by creating rules to her game. She had to define the “bad guys” in her life that made her concussion symptoms worse. Her rule was that she had to avoid the bad guys. But she was able to choose HOW she wanted to do so, like looking out the window to find something interesting to tell her sister about while avoiding the “bad guy” of watching TV.

Feature 2: Provide Feedback Loops

The objective of Candy Crush is to match three similarly-colored objects together. When a player performs a successful move, they are rewarded with fun music and flashing colors. This is just one of the many examples of how games steer a player towards positive action by a reward (or sometimes a consequence) and that action triggers the opportunity for more.

Games provide the player with a sense of mastery because they are always improving and making progress. But most importantly, it is easy to see the progress that is being made through the built-in feedback loops.

In her book, The Progress Principle, Harvard professor Teresa Amabile explains that small wins and forward momentum can be the key to motivation at work.

If we bring this into the online course world, what is the single biggest factor in student engagement?

  • Incentives like points or badges?
  • Recognition? Status?
  • Having a clearly defined goal?

Nope. It’s none of these.

The most important factor that will keep your students engaged and coming back for more is progress.

“The most important factor that will keep your students engaged & coming back for more is progress.”

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Mastery is about making progress.

And the key to progress is feedback.

Feedback lets players (or students) know how close they are to achieving the goal.

Feedback can come in many forms. Homework is a classic example, but you can also add in self-check quizzes, checklists, and templates, as a way to help your students identify how well they are progressing.

Feedback is the key factor that provides motivation to keep moving through your lessons because it serves as a promise that the goal is definitely achievable and they are getting closer with each step.

As for Jane, she sought mastery by implementing feedback loops into her recovery process. She kept track of how long she could go without taking her pain medication and challenged herself to go longer and longer without it.

Feature 3: Set A Goal

Every game needs a goal, one solid outcome that players will work to achieve.

In Minecraft, the goal is to defeat the Ender Dragon.

The goal of Temple Run 2 is to avoid being eaten by the monster and collect as many gold pieces as possible.

In addition to the larger goal, each level has it’s own, mini-goal or milestone that helps the player to move forward in stages.

For example, to progress from Town Hall Level 1 to Town Hall Level 2 in the game Clash of Clans, a player needs to accumulate a certain number of gold pieces.

Generally speaking, the goals are easy to achieve early in the game, and gradually increase in difficulty and complexity as the player levels up.

It’s a lot easier to level up to Townhall Level 2 than it is to reach Town Hall Level 7.

Ultimately, both the overarching goal and the milestone goals provide the player with a sense a purpose, a reason why to continue playing the game.

“What is the goal of your course that gives your student a sense of purpose?”

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What is the goal of your course that gives your student a sense of purpose? How do sub-goals or milestones within the course serve as a compass, steering them in the right direction?

Here are some possible examples of a larger course goal:

  • Lose 10 pounds by using a special 3-step method
  • Break through limiting beliefs
  • Find more time and peace in your busy day
  • Eliminate sleep apnea with a special breathing technique

Many small, intermediary goals within your course help your student to progress towards the larger goal. Instead of lectures, create mini-challenges along the way. For example:

  • Level 1: Eat vegetables with any meal today.
  • Level 7: Eat vegetables with every meal for 5 days in a row.

Without a challenge, what are your students striving for? What is the sense of purpose that keeps them going and leveling up?

Goals focus the student’s attention and direct how they participate in your course and lessons. Small goals, within a larger one, build momentum and keep your student focus on a greater sense of purpose.

Jane found purpose in her personal goal to get healthy and feel well again. So much so, that she even named her concussion recovery game “SuperBetter.”

Bonus Feature:

Congratulations! Just by reading this far, you’ve leveled up and unlocked bonus content that will make your course more engaging for your students.

Beware the Shiny Objects

Gamification has caught on in a big way. You can see it everywhere, from airlines loyalty points promising the gift of future rewards, to goal tracking with a wearable bio-tracking devices like FitBit.

And many online course platforms have added digital rewards like badges for completing a certain number of tasks.

Gamification is really wonderful. But if you want to do it right, it’s not simple.

Adding points, badges and leaderboards are the most common forms of gamification. However, just pasting a leaderboard to something that’s not motivating to begin with is like… adding Hawaiian shirt day to Fridays in the movie Office Space 😉

Before adding gamification elements, first appeal to your students’ deeper motivations like:

  • Autonomy, by including choices within the structure of the rules.
  • Mastery, by creating effective feedback loops for your student.
  • Purpose, by providing a clear big goal, along with smaller, mini-goals.

Jane used the structure and features of a video game to tap into autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and motivated herself throughout the tough journey to recovery.

“After creating the best course within your abilities, you cannot lead a horse to water. ”

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After creating the best course within your abilities, you cannot lead a horse to water. You can only do so much to encourage your students to consume the course. But you can use those same drivers to keep them motivated and ultimately create the transformation they’re seeking.

How can you harness rules, feedback loops, and goals to make your online course more engaging?

Video game images created by Anton, 10 years old.

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13 thoughts on 3 Features of Video Games that Make Your Online Course More Engaging and Effective

Amar kumar

Hey Lizzie,

Glad to read your interesting post! I agree with your whole points – you know games are really best things to engage people or players for prolong time but it depends upon quality and stage of game. If we add this ideology to online courses it will definitly show positive results. Eventually, thanks for reveling a light on this topic.

With best wishes,

Amar kumar

Lizzie Merritt

Hi Amar,
Thanks for your comment!
I also apprecaite “it depends upon the quality and stage of the game”. I absolutely agree with you. Some games just aren’t that engaging because they don’t hit on our key motivators in the right way.

It takes a lot of intention to make a good game – or a motivating online course! But I believe the results are worth the effort.
Thanks Amar!

Lizzie Merritt

Hi Marlene,
Thanks for your comment!
It is cool when we can see the elements in other programs and then be able to use what you like and don’t like in your own courses.
What gaming element do you think be the easiest to implement into your course?

Marlene McPherson

Lovely post. From what you have said I am seeing these things implemented in courses but I have never looked at it as using the gaming principles.

Rocky Kev

This is absolutely great! Very digestable and something we should continue reflecting on as we build courses!

Lizzie Merritt

Hi Rocky,
I completely agree. Online courses are evolving from “Pong” to “Call of Duty” in terms of how we motivate our students.
I think we can always keep improving!

Anna Celestino

Lizzie, thanks so much for this. Very informative. I just went through my course and outlined goals and rewards. Love it. This will be more motivating and help drive participants toward the outcome I know they desire.

Lizzie Merritt

Hi Anna,

What are some of the goals and rewards that you came up with for your course?


I am creating course and this would be fantastic to for my students. Where can I get a software or is this a service that makes this?

Lizzie Merritt

Hi Thordur,
Thanks for your note!
The tips mentioned in this post can be implemented by you – simply in the way you set up your lessons. And those are things that are not limited by technology.

There are more and more companies offering gamification that integrates with various Learning Management Systems. One you might want to check out is called Growth Engineering.

Rocky Kev

Hi Thordur – you might like LifterLMS and using for their badge plugin! There’s a bunch of other LMS (learning managagement systems) that offer gamification elements, none that come to mind. And as the blog author suggested, think carefully about to use them. I’ve seen a LOT of bad design! 🙂


Hey Lizzie
I love the way you connected the three motivational drivers from Pink’s work with elements of gaming. Makes for an interesting and useful look at gaming.

Lizzie Merritt

Thanks Lesley!
It’s clear that game creators have figured out a way to tap into what motivates us, to keep us coming back for more. I think it is fascinating to imagine way to use the same motivators for education.

Comments are closed.