October 2018
Text by Anna-Lotte Wienstroer

Image: © pressureUA/istockphoto.com

Anna-Lotte Wienstroer has been a technical communicator with gds GmbH for eight years. She focuses on machine and plant engineering. She also trains and advises clients on handling new editing software and provides support for system implementation.




This article is a translation from a German article that was first published in the professional magazine 'technische Kommunikation'. For more information visit https://technischekommunikation.info.




All fun and games

What do users understand better: a manual printed on paper or online training with game elements? This is a rather difficult question to answer but – thanks to a recent master thesis – the effort of answering it has been taken care of.

The fun element of games can be used to make the learning process more playful. This is because the declining "half-life" of knowledge makes it difficult to keep yourself up to date. Developing new, more flexible forms of teaching and learning that people use by choice and with pleasure is therefore one of today’s challenges. In my master thesis, I dealt with how playful elements can increase the understanding of technical information, when making the fun factor of games part of our private and professional lives. In other words: gamification in technical documentation.

Gamification means using game mechanics and game elements in a non-playful environment. In classic computer games, a playful landscape is created far from the reality: The player can get immersed and play in this game landscape. Gamification, on the other hand, means playing in reality. Here, game mechanics and game elements are integrated into applications or activities that take place in the real world.

Many companies use gamification for purely economic reasons, such as brand loyalty and customer retention. Collecting points, for example, when refueling or visiting the hairdresser around the corner, is a very popular and frequently used element. Those who fill their points card are rewarded for their loyalty, receive a free coffee or a free haircut. And because people generally like to be rewarded for something, they commit to specific services or products.

But gamification can do much more and is now being used in all possible areas even if we don’t realize it. Examples include training, communication of school-related or study-related content, sports or even suggestions for environmental awareness. But what is the difference between classic computer games and gamification?

Even when you brush your teeth

The term gamification can be misleading because it contains the word "game". However, gamification does not have much in common with computer games. Gamification is not about developing a complete game, but about using some elements of games and integrating them into everyday life.

There are plenty of examples that you might not have consciously noticed. These include the already mentioned hairdresser or a collection of stickers in a supermarket for discounts on certain products, or even a fitness app. An athlete can record all of his sports activities, put them online and compare himself/herself with others on a leaderboard.

Expanding on this idea, our whole life could be positively influenced by game elements. It starts with a visit to the bathroom in the morning. When you brush your teeth, the electric toothbrush sends a signal to your smartphone, giving you points on a virtual account for maintaining your health. Perhaps today it is the thousandth time that you are brushing and a special prize is awaiting you!

In some cases, this might mean that you suddenly experience things as being less of a duty, for example, brushing your teeth in the morning. And why is that? Because the activity was rewarded. Of course, such a gamified life should always be considered from two perspectives. The positive in this example is the encouragement to maintain good health. The negative aspect could be the constant supervision of one’s health.

Beyond the success factor

Since gamification is integrated into real life, the probability of the flow effect is rather low. This stands in contrast to online games, where players dive right into a foreign world – known as "immersion". Flow effect means that someone is completely immersed in a game. The player forgets the place and time of the real world and for the moment exists only in the game world. In a game, if a player manages to attain the flow effect, the player wants to achieve this state over and over again.

Another difference between gamification and online games is that, in computer games, it is usually all about the success of the game itself. Gamified applications, on the other hand, usually have a deeper purpose, such as retaining customers, promoting products, raising awareness about the environment or training employees. The reasons for playing a computer game are purely personal.

For many people, gaming is a serious hobby. While one player plays with the intention of topping the rank list, another wins a game of football together with the team, and a third player enraptures an entire concert hall with his or her virtual violin. But there is something that connects all these different types of players: they find playing fun, it gives them a good feeling and everyone does it voluntarily. Gamification should also be voluntary and informal. A gamified application for introducing software could create a positive experience for employees right from the start and remove apprehensions against the new software.

Useful elements and their purpose

Even though gamification is not synonymous with computer games, we can see quite a few similarities. There is a variety of game elements in game design. Each element has a different goal of consciously or subconsciously guiding or influencing players. Developers of gamified applications integrate game elements into everyday areas where they would not be expected.

Three common game elements have prevailed in the field of gamification: "The PBL Triad […]: points, badges, and leaderboards" [1]:

Feedback on the progress of the game (points) – points are used to show the player his/her progress throughout the game. In some games, points are also deducted for failing at a task in the game. This deduction is also supposed to spur the player to play better. One problem with awarding points is that game design often focuses on collecting points, rather than looking at points for what they are, i.e., a means of providing feedback. Werbach and Hunter also draw attention to the misuse of points in gamified applications. Thorough consideration must be given to when points should be awarded.

Evaluation of the game points (awards) – awards are confirmations of special achievements. In everyday life, we find such confirmations in the form of certificates that are framed and hung on the wall or badges that are clipped on to the shirt collar. In the game world, you can collect virtual awards and look at them again and again. You get an award if you complete a level with a particularly high score. Awards are often visible to all other players. Everyone can display their outstanding performances. This generates a feeling of pride in the player for a job well done.

Mastering challenges/missions and steadily increasing difficulty levels (levels, leaderboards) – levels indicate which milestones the player has already achieved. Some games also show the total number of levels, so the player can see how much he/she still has to achieve and his/her current. It makes sense to increase the level of difficulty slowly from one level to the other. This is associated with the expectation that players will have "challenging" fun, they will voluntarily solve difficult tasks and will be motivated till the end to overcome obstacles. After all, motivation of players is the linchpin of a game. The motivation must be retained from the start to the finish. Otherwise a player would stop the game prematurely.

But it is not enough to give points and awards for a work process in order to develop a perfect game, for example to increase employee motivation. The focus should rather be on the experience to be gained in each work process and on building a game based on that instead of focusing too much on the rewards or points to be awarded. There has to be a balance between intrinsic (flow experience, experiences gained) and extrinsic (points, levels, awards) elements.

The typical players

What kind of people would prefer a gamified life? It is easy to speculate that people who have grown up playing computer games and using mobile phones, apps and YouTube tutorials would enjoy a gamified life. The younger generation is particularly open to games as a learning method. They are also the consumers, whose requirements need to be addressed more intensively.

Companies must be able to identify in good time the speed at which customers’ requirements change. They respond to these requirements and flood the market with more and more (software) products. However, users are often required to learn about functions through technical documentation, online help or training. Despite the growing volume of information, launches of software products are accompanied by a lot of paper documentation to the chagrin of all users, who are used to working with things directly after a very short introduction.

Points instead of grades

Studies have already been conducted on how to impart academic knowledge. In this field too, game elements were used to motivate students to perform better.

An example from Vienna: Teacher Christian Haschek came up with the idea of grading his students with the points system of the online game “World of Warcraft”. For a period of three years, he awarded XPs (experience points), and the grades of his students improved gradually. A student received XPs for every positive activity, for example, 35 XPs for a very well-done piece of homework. However, he did not deduct the XPs once awarded so as to keep the students motivated.

According to Christian Haschek, the students have received the system well. Students with higher scores developed more self-confidence and volunteered to help weaker students instead of feeling smug with their scores. Moreover, the transparent points system was seen as positive. The teacher had possibly hit a nerve with the students and managed to integrate their game world into the school.

For a better life

At the "TEDxYouth" in Adliswil 2014 (Conference for Technology, Entertainment and Design), Christian Kaufmann explained how our everyday life can be shaped with gamification: Those who separate garbage, prefer to travel by bus or bicycle rather than by car or eat more sensibly, get points in a virtual account. The aim of the ‘We act’ initiative is that participants should learn to live more sustainably and economically in their everyday lives.

On an online platform, the player gets points for sustainable living or when he/she has mastered a challenge. Teams can be formed and they can compare their performance with each other. This gives rise to competition, which motivates participants to do better. And who doesn’t want to be at the top of the leaderboard and do something good for themselves and the environment at the same time?

The musical levels

One of the biggest projects of "The Fun Theory" (an initiative by Volkswagen) is called "Piano stairs". A staircase in a station in Stockholm has been fitted with piano steps. Each step plays musical notes when a commuter steps on it. The staircase runs parallel to an escalator. The experiment showed that 66 percent more commuters take the stairs with the piano steps instead of the escalator.

The Fun Theory has found a way to get people to move by using gamification. A boring, exhausting activity has turned into fun and enjoyment. If you look at the comments of commuters, you can read a lot of positive things, but there’s some critique too: People have speculated that the enthusiasm of commuters for the piano staircase may die down in the long run and people may fall back into the old pattern and take the escalator. This could be counteracted if, for example, the tones of the piano levels are changed from time to time.

Game world and professional world

People are used to playing games since childhood and many spend several hours playing games every week even as adults. In my thesis, I have therefore dealt with the practical aspects of transferring the digital game world to the professional world. The basic idea was to learn things in a playful way, things that we would otherwise have to teach ourselves without any help. In this case, it was about a software.

Learning a foreign software is often tedious because it has many different features. Very frequently, the user gets a long software documentation that runs into pages or a link to a corresponding PDF when buying the software. Both can be daunting.

Usability test as basis

For the practical implementation of the master thesis, we integrated playful elements into an editing software and also provided with it a software manual in paper format. Fifty subjects, divided into the groups "software manual" and “gamification” had to independently learn and understand the basic functions and the interface of the software. The operating errors or steps of each subject were recorded and the results of both groups were compared.

The functions to be learned were basic functions that almost every editing system offers:


  • modular text entry
  • management of information objects
  • classification by allocating metadata
  • publication of complete documents
  • translation control
  • search (retrieval)
  • archiving and versioning

In order to give the subject as clear a start as possible, the software was reduced to the above-mentioned functions.

Users as explorers

For the implementation, I thought of a small background story, in which we can integrate the learning and familiarization of the editing software. In the beginning, the user is confronted with a "document jungle". He/she has to find a way through this and, in the process, uncovers parts of the software interface. There is a professor on the right edge of the screen. He accompanies the user all along and provides instructions and assistance. On his/her way through the jungle, the user finds two undiscovered chameleon species. On five levels, the user learns to document the discovered species.

Level 1: interface, modularization, folder management

Level 2: documents, search

Level 3: modules

Level 4: versioning, publication

Level 5: translation

Analogously, the software manual has twelve chapters: About this Manual, The Interface, Folder Management, Modules, Documents, Translations, Versioning, Search, Publication, Technical Terms, Shortcut Keys and Index Directory.

The user is guided through the various levels with integrated mini-games and videos. For example, modularization and folder management were implemented with a small game at the bottom right.

The user has to capture the module beetles and sort them into the correct containers depending on the chapter to which the captured beetle belongs. If he/she has created a correct folder, the collected module beetles fly into that folder (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Gamified application (top) and printed software manual (right) juxtaposed.

Source: Anna-Lotte Wienstroer


Figure 1 shows the corresponding location in the software manual at the bottom right. It briefly describes what a module is and where in the software the module area can be found. In the manual, the user gets understanding and orientation help, such as animated column titles, page numbers, a chapter for technical terms or an index directory.

In summary, the gamified application has the following characteristics:

Adventure game [2]: "Adventure games are the 'find your way around the unknown world, pick up objects, and solve puzzles' games."


  • Mouse control (point-and-click)
  • Desktop application
  • Mastering of challenges/missions and steadily increasing difficulty levels
  • Feedback on the progress of the game (level, points display)
  • Use of a virtual professor to guide the user through the levels
  • Two groups and their errors

After a series of preliminary tests, a field experiment was carried out with 50 participants. In the experiment, the participants had to learn about the basic functions and interface of the editing software either by being introduced to the software through gamification or through a software manual in paper form. Their knowledge was then tested. The participants were divided into two groups of 25 persons each. The likely errors were accurately defined in advance. A maximum of 30 operating errors could be made in total. Figure 2 shows the results.

Figure 2 (in German only): Number of operating errors after learning about the software through printed manual and through gamification.
Source: Anna-Lotte Winstroer


On average, the gamification group made 2.54 (41.1%) fewer errors than the group that learned from the software manual. The field experiment confirms that a user with a gamified application makes fewer mistakes. It can be concluded that a gamified application with visual and motivating elements achieves greater success than a traditional software manual on paper.

We also examined characteristics to answer the question: Why did the subjects in the gamification group make fewer operating errors? The comparison showed that:

Younger participants in the gamification group had made fewer mistakes than older participants. It is the other way around for the software manual group. This supports the assumption that young people, i.e., typical members of the gaming generation, do not want to receive new information through conventional channels, but rather through interactions.

Female participants in the gamification group made fewer operating errors than male participants. It is the other way around for the software manual group. Another study could examine why this is so. Perhaps the chosen design or the use of certain game elements were preferred by the female subjects.

On average, participants in the gamification group had more fun while learning the new software than the participants in the software manual group. One could assume that the use of gamification is conducive to learning a new software and has provided more motivation to subjects to be good at what they are doing.

The participants of the gamification group gave a better rating to the editing software. If you compare the fun factor with the software rating, you will also see that the participants in both groups, who had more fun, gave the editing software a better rating. If participants have more fun learning new software, they also like the product better. The next time the participants work with the software, they may have a more positive approach to the tasks.

The participants in the software manual group rated the software manual better than the gamification group rated the gamified application. Again, it can be seen that the participants, who had more fun, rated the gamified application or the software manual better. This could indicate an improvement potential in the gamified application. An optimized application could further improve the understanding of the user when he/she is introduced to new software, and there could perhaps even be fewer operating errors.

An asset for editors

When learning new, complex software, gamification can help users to get started and to reduce the fear of the software. However, it will not completely replace personal training by a trainer. After all, a trainer can interpret the behavior of his/her participants and respond explicitly to questions. It is conceivable, however, that training participants are offered a gamified application a few days before the training date so that they can familiarize themselves with the basics.

In a nutshell: Gamification moves the user do things that he/she otherwise finds annoying. During the comparison test, the participants were seen to have more fun learning the software with the help of gamification than with a printed manual. Not only did they have more fun, but they also made fewer mistakes in the subsequent knowledge test. This shows that having fun, playing and learning go together and positively influence our lives.

About 30 years ago, there was a strict distinction between games and learning. Playing a game was used as a reward. True to the motto: learning comes first, and then comes play. Today however, gamification and/or playful learning are becoming more common in our everyday lives. It is a continuous process. New technologies such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are helping to increase the positive impact.



[1] Werbach, Kevin; Hunter, Dan (2012): For the win – How Game Thinking can revolutionize your business. Philadelphia, Wharton Digital Press.

[2] Prensky, Marc: Digital Game-Based Learning. Saint Paul, Paragon House, p. 130.