Gamification and the Progressive Challenge Design Pattern


I am not a game designer, nor even a gamer. I have designed games and even played them – but I disavow any special expertise other than a few basic insights. I will acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from games and I openly submit myself to new personal discoveries. We’re on a journey together – but there are many who have come before us and offer their insight. For example, for both a scholarly and playful look at gameful design, start with Sebastian Deterding and his online portfolio at

Despite my disclaimer, I’ll venture a few practical suggestions. I do believe that online instructors can use gamification to boost student interest in their content. A few techniques borrowed from gaming can help instructors add interest without a huge time commitment.


Saint Paul College students, faculty and I designed Chem Alien. ChemAlien invites students to roam around a home (rendered in 3D) and explore everyday objects manufactured with the help of Chemical Technology.


The idea of gaming can be daunting. Whereas in the past my colleagues and I built fairly sophisticated learning environments that promoted some learning outcome, today I realize that a lot can be achieved with just a few techniques borrowed from gaming. Our gaming environments involved character development, story development, 3D graphics, audio production, and computer programming. These are skills that are highly specialized. They require a huge time commitment to learn and are not easily transferable to busy instructors. Even the application of simulated environments or virtual worlds, such as Second Life, and massively multi-player online role playing gaming environments present challenges to instructors. They take time to master. Second Life, for example, requires knowledge of a scripting language to create meaningful learning activities that work in the virtual world.

Students are beguiled by games. Instructors see or read about the effect of games on their players and seek to harness some of that power for their own eLearning designs. When instructors borrow design elements from gaming, they are gamifying their content. Gamification of online learning content can include a range of elements such as leader boards, challenge levels, a story line, an earned points display, levels of strength, immediate feedback, animation, discovery, player control, multiple paths to learning, teamwork, and mastery learning.

Studies, such as Traci Sitzmann’s A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-based Simulation games, have shown computer-based simulation games to be effective in increasing retention with some types of learning. But that’s not what we are about here. In this article, I focus on some very basic things that instructors can do to boost student interest and engagement with their content.

Why should it work?

Gamification plays on a variety of human needs: the need to win, feel self-worth, connect with others, discover new things, control one’s destiny.

Gamification has a lot to do with motivation. But motivation is a funny thing. Educators embrace some kinds of motivation – but not others. We want motivation to be closely aligned with the learning goals of our programs. We recognize that, in some games, motivation may be extrinsic, Students earn points, climb leader boards, and achieve levels of greater challenge . But educators strive for intrinsic motivation. We prefer that students experience satisfaction from solving problems and demonstrating mastery of content.

Fortunately it is not an either-or proposition. Educational games can ‘hook’ students through extrinsic motivators and gradually promote an appreciation of the content and a level of satisfaction from the pursuit of knowledge and the solution of problems.

The idea of imbuing an online activity with game-like qualities may seem challenging to instructors. Leader boards and progressive challenges present instructor-designers  with technical obstacles.

In our progressive challenge design pattern, we borrow a couple of tactics from gaming. The design, however, is simple to implement. We can discuss gamification without committing instructors to a design that is beyond the skill and time available to most instructors.

The progressive challenge follows a slope of difficulty that is popular in gaming. The challenge starts off simple so there is a low cognitive load on the student. Barbaros Boston, in his paper titled In Pursuit of Optimal Gaming Experience describes this as the initial experience. In the second level, the challenge quickly rises to moderate difficulty to keep the students challenged (i.e. engaged) without overwhelming them. In the third and most difficult level, the challenge extends the engagement of the learner because the challenges provide renewed satisfaction to the learner as he or she repeatedly overcomes them. From the designer’s perspective this is also the most difficult challenge to plan because it involves either introducing variables that vary the user experience and keep the challenge fresh or a large pool of question items or some other device that keeps learners coming back until they’ve mastered the challenge.

Another concept we can learn from gaming is the interpersonal interaction offered by many popular games such as World of WarCraft and League of Legends. As Ben Betts explains in his article The Path to Engagement: Lessons from Game Designers when people interact with people in a gaming environment, that human interaction presents a natural complexity to a game. That interpersonal interaction will soon become easier to achieve in a manner that is consistent across browsers and machines. Our tools will leverage a new and standardized technology that will make it easy for instructors to create interactions that include interpersonal interactions in a manner that is tightly integrated with the content. More on that in a later article.

How do I create it?

Start off with a narrative.

You can create a simple story line that introduces the learning activity and describes a challenge. This doesn’t necessarily require a lot of production. Narratives can be created with creative writing, some imagery and the right choice of theme and layout. Images can be purchased from stock photo websites and character pack vendors or downloaded free of charge from such sites as Wikimedia Commons and other sites that support Creative Commons licenses.

Good storytelling can fire up the student’s imagination and help make their engagement with the content more enjoyable. Storytelling communicates an implicit message that the instructor-designer really cares about this content and wants the student to be engaged. The story can transcend the business trappings of the online course: the syllabus, the schedule, the guidelines, and the grade book. The story can make a dull, antiseptic learning management environment come alive.

Story telling can be external to the content or deeply integrated, thereby providing a context for learning. I give a simple example of both later in this post.

Present a challenge

As I had mentioned, the art and science of gaming is partly in the control of difficulty. Games that start off too difficult lose interest. Games that are too easy are boring. Whereas in education, we tend to go up a steady continuous slope of difficulty, games may rise in difficulty and then plateau, rise in difficulty and then plateau. Whatever the curve, games designers carefully manage the curve.

One approach for instructor-designers is to create levels of difficulty. Students must master a level before progressing to the next level.

In our progressive challenge design pattern, we put up barriers between levels. If students perform at a required level, they move on. If not, the items are reset, reshuffled or re-presented with new values.

The idea is a lot like mountain climbing. Once the student reaches a level, he or she only falls to the base of that level and not below.

Each level may not represent the same slope of difficulty. The challenge may taper off and help the students secure mastery of previously learned concepts and procedures.

Give immediate feedback

eLearning offers the benefit of immediate feedback. But immediate feedback alone is isn’t enough. Students need information they can apply to problems of a similar type. Simply resetting the question isn’t enough. Present similar problems almost immediately that require knowledge of the rule, concept or procedure.

I was recently disappointed by a math MOOC that I was taking. I missed items. I clicked ‘Retake’ and received the same items. The presentation of the concepts in the MOOC was brilliant. I was solid on the concepts but couldn’t quite do the procedures and missed the problems.

Show indicator of progress

In our example, students need to achieve a score of 80% to succeed to the next level. A performance indicator informs students of their progress toward the goal. Showing progress provides an opportunity of introducing a gaming element. In our example, we benefited from the plug-in architecture of LodeStar that allowed us to plug in a custom indicator.

We will soon publish a technical article on how developers with JavaScript skill can plug in their own performance indicator. To implement this feature, we will encourage instructors to team up with computer programming students who know JavaScript.  This will give students a great, practical experience.

One goal with multiple paths

Ben Betts in his article laments the existence of the ‘next’ button. He suggests that “rarely in games is there a single method for completing a given task.” Instructors can elect to drop the “next” button. But that requires a level of skill and design that is beyond the scope of this post. We’ll return to that thought at a later time. For now, let’s just acknowledge that multiple paths can lead to the same goal — whether there is a ‘next’ button or not.


So there you have it. I’ll focus on just four of the ingredients: narrative, challenge, immediate feedback and progress indicator.

Let’s see how we applied these things to a relatively simple learning activity. In the two examples that follow, I tried two different approaches to the narrative. In the first attempt, I chose a fantasy font and a matching color scheme. In the bottom center of the activity is a ring with a black center. The black center will change colors and display a power level. This indicator was added as a plug-in. (Again, a future article will describe how.) The first level is relatively easy. If students miss the 80% goal, the items are reset. If they meet the goal, they move on to level two. In level two, if they miss the 80% goal, the items are reset and they get to try again.

To improve this activity, I need to add a third level and to add in new questions for missed items. This is relatively simple to do – but for the purposes of this article, I will stick to the four main ingredients.

In the second example, I decided I needed a narrative that gave the activity some context. I went with a more academic theme and replaced the medieval character with an university provost. I swapped the progress indicator with a mastery meter. The meter shows red for lack of mastery, yellow for near mastery, and green for a running score that is equal to or greater than 80 percent.

Of course, I could more fully develop the narrative, the questions, the feedback, and so much more. My intent was to show that a few gaming elements can really change the complexion of an activity.

Version One:


Version Two:


The LodeStar template that I used was ActivityMaker.

To learn how to create basic levels with ActivityMaker, view the Using ActivityMaker videos beginning with Part 1:

To learn how to control the look and feel of a project, view:

Post Note

In the days prior to web-based learning, we spent a lot of time designing game-like interactions. In Minnesota there was a particularly awe-inspiring convergence of interest in creating game-like learning environments. Many high tech companies had their offices in Minnesota, including Honeywell, Control Data, Unisys and IBM. The University of Minnesota had a progressive College of Education. In alliance with business and education, the legislature granted Joint Powers authority to the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) who gave us Oregon Trail, Africa Trail, and Number Munchers. Control Data engaged Dr. Michael Allen in advanced research and development of educational computer systems and from that work sprung a new company and a ground-breaking software called Authorware – an authoring system that made it relatively easy to create highly interactive learning environments and games. Authorware Incorporated was headquartered in Minnesota, directly and indirectly inspiring dozens of multimedia development studios to produce highly interactive learning software.

For a while the innovative spirit that made those days so fun and heady was nearly lost in the modern day learning management system. But that is quickly changing. Faculty are interested in trying new ways to engage learners and even Learning Management System providers are introducing gaming elements to their systems. We all realize that the online learning experience can be a richer experience for our students.


Path to Engagement: Lessons from Game Designers

SITZMANN, T. (2011), A META-ANALYTIC EXAMINATION OF THE INSTRUCTIONAL EFFECTIVENESS OF COMPUTER-BASED SIMULATION GAMES. Personnel Psychology, 64: 489–528. doi: 10.1111/j.1744-6570.2011.01190.x