During my career in higher education, I had the privilege of leading a team responsible for
building digital badge programs using the best practices in gamification and micro-learning.
We found two books to be extremely valuable; Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with
Technology by Dr. Michelle Miller and Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and
Leaderboards by Yu-Kai Chou. My program design team and I learned that actionable
gamification is the key to designing online leadership programs.
What is gamification? According to Yu-Kai Chou, gamification “is the craft of deriving fun and
engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or
productive activities. This process is what I call ‘human-focused design’ in opposition to what we
normally find in society as ‘function-focused design.” Human-focused design optimizes for
human motivation in a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the
According to Yu-Kai Chou, gamification “is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements
found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities.
This process is what I call ‘human-focused design’ in opposition to what we normally find in
society as ‘function-focused design.” Human-focused design optimizes for human motivation in
a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the system.
Why is actionable gamification important? Just as Yu-Kai Chou predicted, we found that
simply incorporating game mechanics and game thinking into a digital badge program does not
fully engage the learners. It’s not just about the game elements, it’s how points and
leaderboards are integrated with practical knowledge that is both backed by research and
proven in practice. We have to make the gamification actionable using human-focused design!
Our new friend Yu-Kai Chou had identified eight core drivers of actionable gamification.
Epic Meaning and Calling: The best place to start is to design and launch a program where
the learner “believes they are doing something greater than themselves and they were ‘chosen’
to take that action.” We found that the best way to engage this core driver is to have the
company’s most-respected executive kick-off the digital badge program, either in person or via a
video—congratulating the learners and delivering an inspiring explanation of the “why” behind
Development and Accomplishment: The next core driver focuses on “our internal drive for
making progress, developing skills, achieving mastery, and eventually over-coming challenges.”
As Yu-Kai Chou teaches us, receiving “a badge or trophy without a challenge is not meaningful
at all.” I learned that it is important to integrate the short, highly-engaging videos with frequent,
low-stakes testing. This will challenge the program participant to embrace, remember, and apply
what they’re learning.
Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback: The empowerment of creativity and feedback
core driver “is expressed when users are engaged in a creative process where they repeatedly
figure new things out and try different combinations.” Today’s modern learners want to express
their creativity, see the results of their creativity and receive feedback. All of the activities in a
digital badge program need to be intrinsically engaging and fun.
Ownership and Possession: According to Yu-Kai Chou, learners are “motivated when they
feel like they own or control something. When a person feels ownership over something, they
innately want to increase and improve what they own.” Think Wikipedia. At KSU, we use the
Jubi learning transfer platform for our digital badge programs because the designers at Rali get
it! They provide a seamless integration of actionable gamification tools for learning, doing and
Social Influence and Relatedness: Digital badge programs need to incorporate all of the social
elements that motivate people including social acceptance, companionship, mentorship—and
even competition and envy. During the program design process we need to offer points based
on both competition and collaboration. Most of us are inspired, and motivated, when we see
friends and colleagues who are accomplishing something extraordinary!
Scarcity and Impatience: And yes, wanting something “simply because it is extremely rare,
exclusive or immediately unattainable” is also a core driver. We have found that offering “bonus”
levels or quests when the “base” requirements are exceeded is an excellent way to motivate
program participants to dive deeper into the learning experience.
Unpredictability and Curiosity: The unpredictability and curiosity core driver is hard to
implement but a great motivator because the learner doesn’t know what is going to happen
next. As Yu-Kai Chou teaches us; “When something does not fall into your regular pattern
recognition cycles, your brain kicks into high gear and pays attention to the unexpected.”
Successful book authors and movie directors use this core drive to keep readers and audiences
Loss and Avoidance: Last, but definitely not least, is the “motivation to avoid something
negative from happening.” As digital badge program designers, we found that the best way to
get learners re-engaged in the program is to send them a push notification that they are near or
at the bottom of the leaderboard. This core driver works every time!
In summary, gamification is a lot more than points, badges and leaderboards! We need to
understand and use all eight of the core drivers of teaching and learning. And, even though the
book is 499 pages in length, it’s worth the time to read Actionable Gamification by Yu-Kai Chou.
He is an expert in how human-based program design techniques can dramatically improve
online teaching and learning.