Only a Game: How Elements of “Gamification” Can Enrich Online Dialogue

by Carla Luna ’21

The COVID-19 crisis has precipitated a shift in approaches to facilitated dialogue

In light of the pandemic, dialogue practitioners are finding inventive ways to not only transfer dialogue online but also reimagine how traditionally in-person activities can be conducted online more effectively. What over four months of social distancing has taught us, however, is that connecting with others and learning at a distance is not the same as face-to-face interactionFor various reasons, people who might otherwise feel inclined to participate in facilitated dialogue are more apathetic about partaking in remote dialogue—they may not be familiar with the topic, they may not want to appear ill-informed or they may simply not see the value in participating if they are not sure what they will get out of it. These obstacles are not unique to a virtual environment. However, in the absence of other motivators (e.g. an inviting classroom, the accountability of peers and friends), it can be more difficult to overcome these challenges. 

new way of making remote dialogue more engaging is to incorporate game-like elements to make the online experience more life-like. Counter to popular notions that games are only for fun, games are incredibly successful in motivating people to perform and maintain certain behaviors. At first glance, it may seem like the idea of bringing elements of “games” into discussions tackling topics that are nuanced, challenging, and sensitive could be, well, risky and ill-advised at best. But hear me out: in order to engage participants and offer new ways of learning, facilitators should consider incorporating elements of gamification into the way they approach their dialogue sessions. 

Games have the potential to make remote dialogue more appealing for participants because they can transform them from passive consumers of information into active players who feel like their voice can make a difference. This blog examines how gamification can change isolated acts of participation into deeper, more interactive forms of engagement online. In this blog I will examine two components of gamification (education and community-building) and show how they can be used to boost participant engagement in online dialogue. 

Gamification Generally 

If you have collected reward points for buying coffee at Starbucks or for repeatedly flying with a certain airline, it is likely that you are familiar with the concept of gamification. Gamification is defined as the use of gaming principles (i.e., challenges, feedback, interactivity) in nongame contexts. Most gamification entails adding game elements to further engagement or learning outcomes to real-world situations. Unlike simulation tools that seek to mimic real-world situations as precisely as possible, games intentionally simplify complex subject matter and use broad generalizations to represent reality. 

Users can play a game for enjoyment, but they can also learn from a game, or use a game to achieve a specific goal. The word “playing” itself is misleading because gamification can be applied in a variety of contexts with issues ranging from less serious to more serious.  

Gamification in Context 

Gamification has been used mostly to keep users engaged with products and motivated to perform certain behaviors, which is particularly useful for marketing. However, gamification has also found applications in many other domains, such as supporting student learning (e.g. Mission US, an online game that immerses players in “missions” about U.S. history)and helping people become healthier (e.g., NikeFuel MissionsZombiesRun), more productive or more eco-friendlyThere are also games that focus on developing users’ social awareness, e.g. McDonald’s Video Game (MolleIndustria 2006), which is concerned with the meat industry and its negative impact on society; games which teach users about humanitarian crises, e.g. Darfur is Dying (interFUEL 2006), which deals with the famine in Darfur and its effect on local families; and games that promote a particular company or organizationThe military, for example, is well known for using games for both recruiting and instruction. America’s Army, which is a game developed by the United States Army, is probably the most successful and well-known example in this regard. 

Gamification in Facilitated Dialogue 

In facilitated dialogue, the concept of gamification is still relatively new. However, given the significant overlap between the potential goals of facilitated dialogue and the purposes for which gamification has been used in other contexts, I believe that the application of gamification in this domain is worth exploring. In the overlap, we can find a common goal; the desire to recruit and engage participants, support the development of new behaviors, and deepen understanding/awareness of a particular topic or issue. 

Let’s face it. Sometimes the conversations we need to have aren’t the conversations we want to have. One issue that has been widely addressed in dialogue circles, particularly on college campuses, is the political alienation of young people. These meetings can often be an unpleasant experience for attendees who have to sit through long-winded explanations and repetitive discussion points just to put forth their input on key issues.  

If potential participants do not feel that participating in dialogue is worth their time, they will be less likely to engage, especially online.  Gamification could be used to supplement facilitated dialogue to enhance learning outcomes, motivate dialogue participants and inspire them to return. The two areas where gamification holds the most potential is in testing participants’ comprehension and building community. 


Gamification helps people learn by doing and provides dialogue participants with the ability to learn on their own time and at their own pace. The capacity of games to reveal complex situations in a relatively simple and often fun way is what distinguishes this medium from other, more traditional media forms. Participants enjoy the freedom to fail while experimenting in an environment that is nonthreatening. They can experience emotions such as frustration, wonder, and amusement, each providing new insights about their learning. It may take multiple attempts to find success in a game but when a participant finally “wins” or beats a level, they know they are getting better at that particular skill. In this way, each failure is productive and rich with information about how to get better. Rather than hitting a wall or becoming overcome with shame as a participant might do in person, they are motivated to continue. This is something that may be worthwhile for teachers (especially of kids) who might want to use gamification when facilitating a dialogue among their students about current eventsIf a facilitator wants to test participants’ understanding of what they’ve heard from other participants, one way to do this might be to assign points for each interaction in a given dialogue using, for example, 4 distinct point-scoring interaction options (e.g. Contributing, Cosigning, Curating, and Clarifying). More people interacting more in the conversation will produce higher scoring conversations and indicate to the facilitator that participants are understanding what they are hearing from others. 

The feedback provided by games can be useful for both dialogue participants and facilitators. This information is not just anecdotal (i.e. what the facilitator is observing), but tangible information about what the participants are retaining (or not retaining) as they go through this content material. In turn, facilitators can incorporate this into planning their next virtual discussion.  


Games are also a socializing agent. It is not uncommon for players to seek each other out and to discuss strategies or to solve problems related to the game (sometimes referred to as ‘augmented play). Over the Web, where it is more difficult to make meaningful connections, gamification can be the unifying force that makes participants return for future meetings. 

Interaction outside of the facilitated dialogue builds bonds and can foster accountability for completing assignments pre or post-dialogue. You can enable your game to allow participants to create activities for each other (challenge)For instance, the follow-up from a dialogue on civic engagement might be something like finding the email addresses of your federal, state and local government officials and sharing them with five friends. You can also allow participants to set goals for themselves by specifying the amount and type of civic deeds they want to accomplish over a certain time period. You can set the game to remind users of activities they marked as to-do but have not done yet (achievement). Moreover, you can make it possible to view the achievements and activities of all other users, which allows for comparison (competition). 


The biggest challenge facilitators face in incorporating gamification into dialogue session is a potential mismatch between the typical purpose and structure of a “game” and the fluid, non-formulaic, and reflective nature of effective dialogues about challenging topics.  Facilitators should be aware that gamification is neither appropriate for all audiences nor for all issues. In some cases, games may be more distracting than productive. Various video games contain situations that requires the players to do several actions simultaneously. In many cases, such multi-task situations are intentionally created to entertain players. In general, however, multi-tasking increases cognitive load, which can degrade task performance. 

Facilitators should also be intentional about how they incorporate gamification into their work. Gamification is strongly connected with motivation theory. The problem is that, in gamification, motivation is primarily reward-based and therefore extrinsic.  Thus, it is the role of the facilitator to make the explicit connection between the game and larger purpose of the dialogue. Debriefing can be helpful in this regard. Using a game or game elements after a dialogue to continue the experience serves an important rhetorical function to integrate reflection. 

An additional limitation is that games may only effectively measure a certain type of learning.  Right now, most games respond to player behavior in basic ways: Once you get five of these problems right, you move to the next level Thitype of response is  fairly mechanistic, and perhaps conducive to measuring learning on, say, new vocabulary or conceptsSeveral authors have emphasized the importance of going further than just adding points, badges, and leaderboards. These things are not enough to create a game-like experience because they are only feedback elements. Using games may make it hard for a facilitator to know if participants are truly learning from what they are hearing from others in the dialogue or if success within the game is merely the result of good gamesmanship.  As a result, facilitators may want to consider whether games are appropriate for the aims they are trying to accomplish through their dialogue.  

Finally, facilitators looking to replicate the results of one group with another may struggle to find the “magic sauce.” It is uncertain how all the elements of gamification will affect different kind of people and which elements support the desired outcomes. To this date, research has only evaluated strategies that combine different types of gamification. There is little work investigating the gamification types in isolation.  

It should be noted moreover that not everything that works should be done. Dialogue practitioners should always be aware of the implications of their work. As in most other disciplines, ethical considerations need to be considered and addressed where gamification is applied. It has been pointed out that some game elements or mechanics could be perceived as manipulative or exploitative. Hence, incentives and rewards should not lead to users acting against their true will or doubts. 


Despite the numerous benefits of facilitated dialoguefacilitators often struggle with engaging and retaining participants in a remote setting. Gamification is a good complement to traditional dialogue because it can help participants apply what they have learned from the dialogue in a life-like setting. The positive reinforcement of rewards and the support of a social network provides participants with motivation to keep coming back. While badges and leaderboards have their place, they are only a part of a larger, more interesting opportunity to deepen and amplify the impact of the work taking place on the virtual plane so that it can translate into real life action. 

Carla Luna is a first-generation Dominican-American and a student at Harvard Law School. She participates in various student organizations, including the Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project and La Alianza, for which she is the Community Chair. Her interests include emerging technologies and community development. Carla was also selected for the Honors Program at the Securities and Exchange Commission and interned at the Boston Regional Office during her 2L year. Prior to starting law school, Carla worked in finance and professional services. During her 1L summer, she worked as a summer associate at DLA Piper in Chicago. This summer she will be working as a summer associate at Simpson Thacher in New York. Carla is a New York City native. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, visiting museums and trying new restaurants. She is an alum of the Posse Foundation and a graduate of Babson College, where studied Business and graduated summa cum laude
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