Setting a heroic mood: games use stories and emotion to power up learning. Screenshot from a Slovak anti-corruption campaign. / All photos: Ligaprotikorupcii

From social to engaging? – learning groups and gamification

Toolkit. Introducing game elements into the learning process may work wonders for the learning experience. Gamification designer Oliver Simko explains how.  



The online world of social media has become an ever-changing place where we are constantly addressed with numerous stimuli: advertising, latest breaking news, update from friend or update from your community group. The information overload has never been so intense. As a result, it takes for us less than 10 seconds to decide whether we wish to stay on some page or not.

That said, online learning and learning communities have stepped into a space where keeping learners’ attention has become quite a challenge. Can e-learning communities adequately react to these changes and adapt to new user standards and needs?

Gamification – the use of game elements in non-game contexts – may be part of the answer.

According to Jane McGonigal, as a planet, we play 3 000 000 000 hours of digital games by week. Are there are any principles that we may take from games in order to create similar experience and meaningful interactions among learning community members?

In this article, I aim to provide basic knowledge and tips about elements and tools that adult education professionals may borrow from game design in order to build sustainable learning communities. I focus on a very specific aspect – Facebook learning communities.

Why games?

Many adult education institutions have already become active on social media. Now it is time to think about social media not only as a communication tool or PR channel, but also as a space where learning and growth occurs.

We should create learning experiences as natural and close to the user as possible. Today, users’ online habits are shaped by the comfort of information at hand. We are often using social media as a starting place for our Internet browsing and exploration. It has become a main information pool from which we pick up drops that we found interesting and engaging. This is something that adult educators need to understand and take advantage of.

The way to attract user attention is to create meaningful and yet engaging experience, which our target group may experience directly on their dominant platform – social media.

Games are very good at creating these kinds of engaging, meaningful and immersive experiences. In fact, there has been a steep increase in popularity in non-entertainment games that are intended to simulate real life jobs or situations.

What is user journey?

To understand the principles of creating a social media learning community, one must come to grips with the concept of user journey.

We often see in games, particularly in good games, that at every point of the game, the player feels that he knows what to do, or what should be the next step. Thanks to that, the player feels comfortable about his skills and actions.

That is because game designers keep in mind that the objectives of the game should be tailored to actual player game experience. When designing gamification strategy, we are thinking about different needs, skills and aspirations that one player has as he or she progresses in our system.

The user journey may be described as a road to mastery, where players travel from onboarding phase where he/she learns the basic principles of the game, through the phase where he/she feels confident, towards mastery where he/she starts feeling a high level of confidence, and starts looking for other game opportunities, whether it is to earn reputation as a player and tutor among the community or to focus on harder challenges in the game.

User journey for the learner

Transferred into education contexts, user journey means that we need to understand what should be the optimal goals for each step in the learning process. For example, try to identify needs and interests of people who clicked first time on our sponsored post, people who are regular visitors, commenters, or think of offering activities and space for experienced members who are often taking roles of moderators or natural leaders in the page.

If you create content that is too mellow and focuses only on one part of your audience, you will soon lose interest from the more experienced learners and vice versa.

Photo: Hamazasp


How to create a Facebook learning community

When dealing with groups on Facebook, it may seem that our palette for game design tools is quite limited. That, however, should not be considered a disadvantage. There are still many game design elements that you can implement in your Facebook group. Below you may find two levels of elements, divided into levels of complexity (or by the difficulty of implementation).

Basic elements

Allow roleplaying

Idea: Your users / community members have different needs, aspirations and personality. Introducing different types of roles for users helps them to identify with different viewpoints and feel more confident. If you manage to create a backstory for these roles, you are one step closer to creating an immersive experience for your users.

As an example, Classcraft – an online educational roleplaying game -allows each student to choose what “player type” he or she wishes to become and through their own decisions, the whole learning and group dynamic is changing – due to the different skills and tasks that are associated with these player or user types.

Benefits: From the perspective of your users, they may identify themselves with the topic and other group members.

Meaningful choices

Idea: Allow members to choose the amount of their participation, and make sure that they eventually see what impact and purpose their actions have among themselves, community and real world.

In game designer and author Lee Sheldon’s take on gamifying the learning group, he offered his students to choose which “guild” and “quests” they wish to take part in. In an educational context, that means that students have the opportunity to pick learning material that they find most interesting and learn with their peers.

Benefits: Being in control of the situation and choosing your own attitude could results in feeling of more self-determinated feel about ones defined goals and actions.

Epic meaning

Idea: Show your users how their activities are connected to the real world, respectively, how they contribute in achieving notable and positive goals.

HIKO is a great example of how you can teach energy efficiency through playing a simple game with responsive colour changing lamp (try not to turn the lamp red). The lamp in this game does not only reflect your energy consumption, but through interactive online tasks provides users a broader picture about their spending habits and how their actions affect issue of global warming.

Benefits: It evokes a sense of duty, meaningfulness and proactivity.

Intermediate elements

Team work

Idea: We see that players enjoy social activities such as team games. You could encourage learners to share their achievements with others, or interact with other players directly in the game.

Benefits: Being part of a group evokes feeling of not being alone on a particular task, feeling of social support and connections.

Again, Lee Sheldon’s example is a good one to present. His student were allowed to become part of “guilds”. They were allowed to pick their own avatars (alter egos), and collaborate on class projects.


Idea: The use of storytelling does not have to be in the form of a robust storyline with several plots. A subtle, yet appealing theme may suffice: one that unifies group activities and allows users to see their actions in the perspective of a progressing story.

As an example, we may use a requalification course for IT testers, in which participants become part of a storyline, and their own decisions and activity during the course affected the overall story plot. As they progressed they were able to connect their learning outcomes with storyline key chapters and thus easily remember course content.

Benefits: Storytelling allows creating an easy-to-comprehend environment where your posts and content are perceived through a complex perspective of the storyline. For users it may be easier to understand their actions or tasks, when connected to an overall story plot.


Idea: More experienced users tend to see that their activity brought them special status or other visible trophy. Customization in a limited Facebook environment can mean that users may receive special badges that can be added to their profile pictures.

Benefits: Earning status that is perceived as valuable among the community can be a motivating factor and can work as a partial objective for players (“I want to have this badge”)

Example: fighting corruption in Slovakia

In this chapter I use a real-life case to illustrate how a learning Facebook community works, as a user journey, with the above mentioned elements.

I have a chance to work with an NGO that aims to build an educative Facebook group that would encourage people to learn about risks and threats of corruption in Slovakia, thus working as a prevention mechanism.

The task was to create a community that would use Facebook as its initial tool. It has to provide an engaging, yet meaningful experience for members, where they recognize their role as active members of society and are willing to participate in the activities of the NGO. To achieve that, a majority of members has to spend some time learning about the topic of corruption, or study articles.

The members/learners of this group were ordinary Slovak Facebook users who we recruited through online advertisement and a google adwords campaign.

We decided to implement several gamification techniques (as mentioned above) including:


We created a fictional storyline that allowed us to build up an initial mood for potential users. We came with an idea of creating a “secret group of warriors against corruption”. Members could join this group and become a part of a heroic group of like-minded individuals. We communicated that our country is in a desperate need for heroes. Our aim was to create a feeling of “You can be that hero”. That was our first attraction strategy. And a first step in the user journey.

Role play

Once we grabbed the attention of potential members, we offered them a choice of what type of hero they wish to be. This was meant to allow users to identify with certain type of personas, that would reflect their own needs, personality or aspirations in community. Each type of hero has a small background story that allows users to create a clear picture about their role and helps to create a more emotional and complex feeling. Also, content that is produced in the group has a sign indicating to which hero-type it is most suitable for. From this point on, users were onboarded and could move on to the next step in the user journey.

Evolving and progress

On a regular basis, the group admin posted different types of tasks that reflect different types of users in the group. Thanks to use of hashtags that distinguish type of task, users can easily filter activities that are suitable for them and at the same time, they see how each task evolves over time. It is a vital piece of feedback for the users to see their own progress and movement on the user journey towards mastery. This could be abstract for users to comprehend – therefore we have implemented small narrative elements that helps to tight it up.

A template of a Facebook task, all in the mood of the narrative.

Setting up an epic meaning

Each post and each activity that was posted on the Facebook group was placed into context of pursuing one of the major overall goals, often with real life impact.


Admin of the Facebook group is collecting points for activity and encourages user activity via “liking” and commenting, often within a short period of time.

Showing and earning trophies

If users reach a certain number of points, they may exchange them into benefits that serve as rewards. It may differ from tangible goods to coaching sessions. The important aspect is to think of these rewards as tools that should reinforce users’ relationship towards the community, or theme of the learning group – for instance, one of the rewards could be a book about the group’s topic (fight against corruption).

Earning status

Once users’ activity reaches a certain level, they may earn a special badge that could be added to their profile picture. It represents not only a special status which the user earned within the community, but also serves as a memento of achievement.

Petra Trnková, Coordinator of the group, thought the gamified elements brought added value to the learning experience:

-The tasks were designed for participants to feel like relatively undemanding, but still a meaningful way to participate in the work of the Foundation and its fight against corruption. The initial response has been very encouraging.

Gamification may take various shapes and forms. Whether it is a complex learning management system or an offline game, game elements prove themselves as a valuable toolkit for building an additional layer of experience for learners. This article focused particularly on how to think of Facebook groups as an environment for gamification. When it comes to applying gamification, keep in mind that before you start picking game elements, always think about your goals and desired outcomes. Every succesful gamification begins with a good and proper analysis of learning goals.

Are we supposed to turn everything into a game? A short overview of gamification as a design approach.

Gamification grabbed world attention in 2011 and since then, it is estimated that by 2018 the gamification market would be worth 5,5 billion dollars. However, the precise definition of the concept it is still debated among experts. How to distinguish “gamification” from, say, pure game-design.

Regardless of the concrete definition, gamification could be considered as an approach where – based on a careful analysis of one’s problem, challenges and objectives – elements from game design are used in order to create an engaging experience that simultaneously helps to achieve desired goals and objectives.

This does not necessarily mean to create actual games. It may mean an application of simple but powerful game mechanics in the right context- like introducing a progress bar in the famous LinkedIn social media example, use of badges in Khan Academy or allowing roleplay with storytelling in Classcraft.

Furthermore, in social media it is easy to create a curiosity-friendly environment. Curiosity triggers learning. Consider how the social media works. You see only a glimpse of activity that is happening online (such as seeing 7 new updates about “new posts” or “new comments”).
But you don’t see the full message. You just know that the status quo has changed since your last visit. And such a subtle trigger as these can trigger our brains into circle of curiosity – thanks to the fact that the update is directed to my account personally.

Now it is the educator’s role to understand, how we can shape the curiosity to create learning and engage the right users in right time.
In game design, we may think of this strategy as a user journey.

In Toolkit, you learn tricks of the trade from a colleague, hands-on.

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