Mobile Gamification

  • Sophia Burris, Elisabeth Gallagher, and Susannah Simmons
  • INTE 6750 E-Learning Trends and Issues
  • University of Colorado Denver
  • Fall 2015

  Mobile Gamification


This paper investigates two learning trends separately – mobile learning and gamification – and discusses the potential of using the two trends together in a workplace setting. Through consideration of the affordances, limitations and adoption of each trend, an assumption is made about the future adoption of mobile gamification and best practices for its implementation are identified. For the sake of this paper we will use the term mobile gamification, which is the combination of the two trends.

Framing: Mobile Gamification

To understand the trend of mobile learning through gamified systems, the volume of mobile phone usage must first be explored. According to the 2012 Mobile Statistics online report, 23 Day a Year Spent on Your Phone, the average person spent 90 minutes a day on his/her smartphone. In September 2015, ComScore reported  that 191.4 million people in the U.S. owned smartphones, which is a 77.1 percent market penetration (comScore, 2015) . Another ComScore online article (Lella, 2015), indicated a milestone in mobile phone usage: mobile-only users (11.3 percent) superseded the desktop-only population (10.6 percent) . Additionally, ComScore reported another milestone was reached when mobile apps accounted for more than half (51 percent) of time spent on digital media (Lipsman, 2014).

As more people continue to have and use smartphones, the Litmos mobile learning blog says there is a huge opportunity to make eLearning accessible on mobile platforms (Gawliu, 2015).  If almost 80 percent of Americans have smartphones, why not let learning abound on such devices? The Training Zone states that companies are waking up to the idea of bring your own device (BYOD) policies, which could allow employees to securely learn across platforms (Caulr, 2014). While being careful to maintain security measures, the idea of BYOD learning can take eLearning to a whole new level.

Gamification and mobile learning make an excellent partnership. With mobile learning gaining credibility, the 51 percent mobile apps usage blends nicely into gamification. Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo and Michele Snyder (2013, p. 312) explain smartphones are an ideal medium for gamification due to their personal impact on consumers, time based mechanics, optimized screen for graphics, and ability to track interactions.

Johnson, Becker, Estrada, and Freeman (2014, p.42) explain that by meeting learners where they are, which is on their smartphone, participation can increase. Mobile apps and social media companies have successfully gamified routine activities. In Learning Solutions Mag website, Karl Kapp echoes these findings in stating that mobile gamification helps educate sales professionals without taking away from their job of selling (Kapp, n.d.). Gamified mobile learning allows professionals to learn, while they work. This can only help companies’ bottom lines.

Analysis: Gamification

Gamification Definition and History

Gamification is defined as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”(Deterding, Dixon, Khaled & Nacke, 2011, p.9). As far back as 1896, Sperry & Hutchinson (S&H) sold green stamps to retailers who used them to reward customers (Slatalla, 2000). Since that time game elements have become commonplace in our lives between airline frequent flyer programs, car rental rewards programs, hotel loyalty programs and Fitbit challenges. Although gamification and badges have been around for many years, elements such as real-time data analytics, mobility, cloud services and social media platforms have improved the outcome of these initiatives.

Game elements

Kapp (2013) identified four major categories under which most game elements can be classified: engagement, autonomy, mastery and a sense of progression. Kapp, Blair and Mesch also identified a number of examples of game dynamics or actions which take place while a player is engaged with a game: matching, collecting/capturing, allocating resources, strategizing, building, puzzle solving, exploring, helping and role-playing (as cited in Kapp, 2013). Merging these dynamics with the game elements listed above provides a framework in which learners can be engaged through gamification.

Advantages of Gamifying Workplace Learning

Gamification is being used in corporate settings in various ways to try to engage employees in routine business activities.  Workplace learning and development is one of these areas. KPMG (2014), one of the big four global auditing service companies,  applied the principles of gamification to an employee engagement challenge found 80 percent of staff had fun playing. Entertainment is not the only benefit of gamification. A University of Colorado Denver study found that individuals trained on video games did their jobs better, had higher skills and retained information longer than those learning in less interactive environments (as cited in Lohmiller, 2010). Gamified learning solutions can also improve recall performance by as much as 10-20 percent as many solutions embed spaced retrieval and retrieval practice (Kapp,  2014).

Uses of Gamification in the Workplace

By gamifying the training process, companies can make compliance, skills, leadership and introductory training more engaging and effective. Gamification allows new employees to try new skills in a risk-free environment and apply them on the job. Gamified compliance training  can have more impact than a lecture as it allows trainees to be placed in a scenario where they have to decide how to respond. Games also give employees the opportunity to learn more about management and develop their leadership skills before they’re put into a position of authority. All of these gamified learning experiences use incentives such as competition, achievement, status, community, and collaboration to motivate employees.

Gamification and Intrinsic Motivation

For some time there has been research claiming that intrinsic motivation is undermined by tangible rewards (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 2001). Similarly, some critics of gamification feel that commonly used game elements, such as points, levels and leaderboards may undermine users’ intrinsic motivation.

An analysis by Mekler, Bruhlmann, Opwis and Tuch (2013) of the effect of points, levels and leaderboards found there was no empirical evidence to support the claim that these common gamification elements negatively impacted users’ intrinsic motivation. However, the scope of the study only included short-term effects of game elements and so was unable to specify the long-term effects of the game elements. Melker et al. (2013, p.72) found the gamification elements increased performance but did not increase intrinsic motivation and so suggested that they should not solely be relied upon to sustain long-term user engagement.

The research of Deci et al. (2001) indicated that rather than using rewards to motivate learning, it was more important to focus on how to facilitate intrinsic motivation through interesting learning activities, providing choices and ensuring that tasks are optimally challenging (Deci et al., 2001, p.15).

Reeve and Deci (1996) found that competition can also affect intrinsic motivation. They found that for competition to affect a person’s intrinsic motivation, the person must have received feedback on their performance; further, when a person receives positive feedback on their performance, and there is no pressure to win, it enhances their intrinsic motivation (Reeve and Deci, 1996).

Implications for Practice: Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation can be approached by providing the learner with interesting and challenging activities and giving the learner a degree of autonomy. To supplement these activities, instant positive feedback should be given to keep learning free from pressure. For example, Deloitte Leadership Academy gives users the autonomy to personalize their individual learning priorities and provides instant feedback on learners’ progress (Meister, 2013).

Demographic Considerations

Research into demographic differences in the perceived benefits from gamification has found that the social features in gamification were more effective for women than men (Hamari & Koivisto, 2014). Further, the use of game mechanics had a positive motivational effect with male students but not female students (Pedro, Lopes, Prates, Vassileva & Isotani, 2015).

Age has been found to have no significant effect on the benefits from gamification; however, age had a minor negative effect on the perceived ease of use (Hamari & Koivisto, 2014). Knowing how different people perceive and react to gamification, helps when designing gamified solutions for different segments of the population.

Implications for Practice: Demographic Considerations

The research on demographic differences in perceived benefits from gamification should be taken into account when gamifying training and care taken not to advantage one demographic over another.  Social features should be included, particularly given Hamari and Koivisto (2013) found that social factors were important predictors for gamification use (as cited in Hamari & Kovisto, 2014). Where game mechanics, such as points and badges, are used care should be taken to use additional methods to facilitate intrinsic motivation.

Adoption of Gamification

In 2014, gamification was in the Trough of Disillusionment, a stage of maturity on Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Education, and was predicted to reach mainstream adoption in five to ten years (Lowendahl, 2014). In 2015, gamification was still in the Trough of Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Education (Lowendahl, 2015) and only listed as one of many digital strategies in the 2015 Horizon Report (New Media Consortium, 2015).

Gartner predicted in 2012 that by 2015, 40 percent of Global 1000 organizations would use gamification as the primary mechanism to transform business operations. But by mid-2014 Gartner (as cited in Clancy, 2014) estimated that market penetration of gamification technology was only between 5 and 10 percent.

A 2013 global survey of 551 HR and business executives by the Association for Talent Development found 25 percent of respondents had incorporated structural game characteristics into training and that 56 percent planned to do so (as cited in Roberts, 2014). The survey results imply that the adoption of gamification in workplace learning will increase in the near future.

Analysis: Mobile Learning

Mobile learning is defined in many ways (Ciampa, 2013[3] ; Douglas, 2014; Gikas, 2013; Lehner & Nosekabel, 2002; Mottiwalla, 2007; Tan, 2014; UNESCO, unknown date). A specific one of these definitions comes from Gikas and Grant (2013). They define mobile learning as a combination of learning that is both formal and informal, context aware, and delivered and supported by more than just handheld mobile devices (Gikas, 2013). This definition is important because it highlights the idea that mobile learning includes many devices across environments with different levels of formality.

There are three parts to this definition:

  • Learning delivered and supported by mobile computing devices (Gikas, 2013)
  • Learning is formal and informal (Gikas, 2013)
  • Learning is context aware and authentic (Gikas, 2013)

One consideration in this definition is mobile learning provides access to learning anywhere, anytime from the devices learners already know how to use and have on their person. The second is that learning in a mobile environment is often “intentional but unstructured and contextualized”. Learners are likely to do unstructured background research by looking up information on their device while doing a formal learning task outside of a classroom environment. And third is the contextual awareness gives learners a way to learn about their real world environment, making their learning immediately relevant, by using built-in mobile device functions (Gikas, 2013). These features afford many gaming elements, thus making mobile learning and gamification highly compatible.

Advantages of Mobile Learning (Gika, 2013)

In addition to being advantageous in innovation, mobile learning has benefit through social media, portability, collaboration, and media sharing. These features of mobile learning as a learning strategy are what make it compatible with current trends in student and learner profiles. All of these advantages are ways people are already using mobile devices; therefore, there is room to integrate it almost seamlessly into the training environment.

Disadvantages of Mobile Learning

Given all these great and encouraging things in mobile learning, there are some major potential barriers to successful implementation. Although the list is shorter than that of the advantages, these disadvantages have a stronger weight in effectiveness for learning and training situations. Barriers include resistance to adopt technology, challenges with technology and functions, distractibility, overwhelming amounts of information, generational value differences and constant connection.

These disadvantages could be an area that causes stress in a mobile learning environment. By using mobile learning as a way to teach, risks lie in blurring the lines between personal time and time for learning new information. Relaxing time may be unmet with full mobile learning – life integration.

Overcoming Distractions on Mobile Phones

As mentioned previously, distractions are a significant disadvantage of mobile learning. Distractions include environmental distractions which may be present in the surroundings in which the learning is situated and distractions related to the device, such as phone calls, email alerts, and other apps.

According to eLearning solutions provider Aura Interactiva, distractions in mobile learning can be overcome by the following design strategies (Gutierrez, 2014):

  • Design immediately engaging content – This could be done by diversifying presentation formats, storytelling and including personal elements and situations the learner can relate to in order to emotionally involve them with the content.
  • Manage cognitive load
  • Structure content into chunks
  • Ensure ease of navigation and fast loading of content
  • Include interactivity – For example, a quiz, simulation, animation or video.

No matter how the challenge of distractions on mobile devices are addressed, it has to be effective. By utilizing these methods, it can be effective enough to convince companies to adopt the mobile device delivery method.

Adoption of Mobile Learning

According to the Gartner 2015 Hype Cycle for Education, mobile learning smartphones were climbing the Slope of Enlightenment (Lowendahl, 2015). This is the point at which an increasing number of enterprises begin to understand the benefits and is the stage before mainstream adoption. A 2015 report produced by the Association for Talent Development and the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that although mobile learning was not widespread, with only 34 percent of organizations with mobile learning programs in place, its use had grown considerably in the previous five years (Ho, 2015). The report suggested that mobile learning was on the brink of expansion as more than half of the companies surveyed, that did not already have a mobile learning program in place, planned to implement one in the future.

Impact: The Effect of Mobile Gamification

Although we were unable to find figures to reflect the impact of mobile gamification, anecdotal evidence suggests it will have a growing impact due to the predicted impact of the two trends separately and the various successes in the corporate world to date. For example, D4’s mobile-accessible sales training; Deloitte’s in-app gamification of training for employees and clients; Intercontinental Hotels Group’s gamified mobile training for Quality team members and US Foods’ training of their salesforce.

Story: mLevel

One company using gaming elements for mobile learning is mLevel, a self proclaimed “Casual Learning Platform” designed to make creating learning modules, or “missions,” easy. There are 6 steps to creating missions, including: Enter Mission Details, Add Activities/Games, Add Learning Content, Create Game Questions, Choose Users, Publish.

Each user in a training course has a dashboard of games and challenges. The platform uses gaming principles to create missions to teach workplace skills. The “play when you have time” theory is directly related to mLevel’s style here through engagement with peers, velocity in quick learning challenges, and retention in directly translatable skills (Starr & Goodman, 2014, p. 1). Within the program, there are groups and publishing options for users to share and compete with each other, adding a social element to this casual learning environment.

mLevel effectively engages users by seamlessly combining solid instructional design principles with gaming features. Leaderboards are used to support group-based competition and allow trainees to interact with each other through social challenges. Stars, points and badges are used to indicate mastery or achievement. These are given when a trainee has played enough to master a skill or meet achievement standards. Feedback is given at the end of games to let trainees know they can improve in some areas and let them know what they got wrong. Here the trainees can gauge their progress against peers. Real time performance reports can be accessed by management, allowing for formative evaluation and employee tracking.

This company offers innovative training support to many businesses. Companies in need of skill-based training may hire or subscribe to mLevel to create missions and integrate the platform into their training programming.

mLevel Case Study: D4 (Mooney, 2015)

D4 is a fast growing private company in data management and discovery services for law firms and corporations. The goal of the collaboration with mLevel was to train a geographically dispersed sales team through online, mobile-accessible sales modules.

Specifically, D4 wanted to decrease inconsistencies in company and product positioning during sales calls and prospect questions and objections. D4 needed mLevel to support them in the creation of this online, mobile-accessible training. The program launched a mission, or module, within 3 weeks of hiring mLevel. There were 17 subsequent missions launched to cover product offerings, sales activity standards, identification of prospects/objection handling, and marketing campaigns.

D4’s management could monitor progress and completion data of employees through application tracking. This offered a level of evaluation and team specific training missions. Scoring was used to track progress and success for trainees. Scores could also be used to assess where knowledge gaps were and what topics needed more work. 

Other features in the D4 program included leaderboards (competition, motivation) , short learning bursts (efficiency), and highly engaging activities (anticipation, interest). The D4 training was successful because of a few central learning principles. The D4 training was consistent, maintaining a level of cognitive load that was specific to the skills to be acquired (Plass, 2010). Progressive learning was used throughout the missions to provide a scaffolding of information obtainable by the employees (Hogan, 1997; Reiser, 2004). The learning content delivery was exploratory and gave control back to the learners. This method can be helpful handing control of learning from device to trainee, ultimately causing a higher level of investment in learning for the trainee. The D4 training was motivating through its gaming elements by keeping employees engaged with each other and the content. Motivation was provided both extrinsically through competition and intrinsically through feedback and knowledge to be gained (Bandura, 1986; Gagne, 2005).

In result, D4’s training through mLevel was successful. Increase in training efficiency was met and team alignment was gained far beyond any level prior. mLevel utilizes principles we believe to be central to the effectiveness and sustainability of mobile learning for workplace training and education. The D4 training is exemplar of Karl Kapp’s idea that mobile devices and gamification together are helping educate sales professionals without pulling them from their work (Karl Kapp, n.d.).

Recommendation: Best Practice for Mobile Gamification

Although smartphones have specific characteristics that make them an ideal medium for gamified applications, designing these types of applications correctly is critical in determining their success. Rampoldi-Hnilo and Snyder (2013, pp.312-314) recommend the following five principles for enhancing the success of gamification mechanics in mobile applications:

Pick one motivational factor that you want to drive an increase in a specific behavior and ensure it is aligned to business goals. Focussing the training around one motivational factor is recommended as the learner may only have a few minutes to accomplish a learning task and too many gaming mechanics will clutter the application and take the focus off the essential tasks.

  • Include analytics that match the business goal that you are gamifying. Allow learners to have the data necessary for them to make meaningful decisions and compare themselves to their goals and also to other people.
  • Keep it simple. Smartphones have limited screen real estate so game mechanics need to be of a size that doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the user interface and experience.
  • Incorporate collaboration and social elements. Team play, leader boards and instant message features can be used to take advantage of the social opportunities that mobile devices and gamification provide.
  • Leverage smartphone capabilities. The camera on the smartphone could be used as part of a game-based learning activity.

One additional consideration is a secure mobile delivery platform as learners will most likely be accessing confidential company information and also using social media on the mobile device on which they are receiving training (Wroten, 2014).

Impact: Learning in the Field

Mobile learning and gaming elements in workplace training will continue into the future, due to the decreasing cost of mobile devices and the accessibility of gaming for learners. Gamification’s ability to engage users along with the convenience of mobile make them a powerful combination for learning and one which we expect to experience widespread adoption in the future.


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