Level Up, What We Can Learn From A Game On My Phone

  • SumoMe

Gamification is not a ‘cure all’ for your training woes but it’s not a placebo. I think it provides a lot of potential fun in work environment plus self direction for the learner as well. I downloaded Jetpack Joyride (JPJ)for my smart phone and I’ve logged more hours on it than I care to tell you. It’s a really fun and shockingly simple game. Educationally it’s gamification at it’s most useless, but I’d like to highlight some parallels and where we can take inspiration from it. A quick qualifier, I fully admit that these are not my ideas but as I discover them I like to connect the dots. 

The Game

In the game you’re a little guy (Barry) that breaks into a laboratory by smashing a hole in the wall, steals a jetpack and then you fly as far as you can in a side scrolling corridor. You have to avoid zappers and collect coins (can you image? Coins!) and occasionally you drive a vehicle of sorts. The longer your flight lasts, the faster you go until you eventually die by hitting a zapper or something. You’re only means of control is touching the screen to turn the jetpack on, and not touching turns it off. This makes the rules and controls very simple and intuitive.


You are provided with three random missions that vary in difficulty but how difficult can missions be when you only have one control? One mission is ‘fly 500 meters in vehicle X in a single game,’ where the player has to wait for the vehicle to come up and then fly it. Another mission is to ‘smash a hole in the wall five times.’ Essentially playing five games. This is crazy simple! So how’s it fit?

I work at a bank. Our new trainers need to understand how our loan systems work to help customers and teach classes. By using a test environment they can ‘register five loans’ and gain experience while completing a mission. Create five widgets. Complete two planograms. It doesn’t matter how or which, pick ‘x’ many things and do them.

This allows for a level of autonomy and a goal. It get’s the learner looking big picture a bit as well. It’s not enough to see something done one time, you have to experience it several times to know what the hell you’re doing.

Leveling Up

Missions help build your user up. In JPJ each mission has a star rating associated with it, based on the difficulty, one, two or three stars. You go through sixteen level starting as a ‘beginner.’ From there it goes to ‘learner’ and several steps later ‘experienced,’ hotshot,’ ninja,’ and eventually you reach final ‘Barry’ level. (Barry is the name of the character). This formalizes the progress of user. They’ve been screwing around, sometimes touching the screen and sometimes not, and they’ve already advanced four levels. Amazing! I know what you’re thinking, “What priviledges and benefits do they receive as they reach a new level?” They get a few coins. Ta-da!

How’s it fit into you’re L & D meetings? By providing levels, you’re acknowledging the learners gained experience and making the next level accessible. They don’t need to complete a four month course to see a formal leveling up, the levels are much smaller chunks of experience. They have had the choice of what experiences have got them there so they did it on their terms and what adult learner doesn’t like that?

The inevitable. Badges.

Saying that the player only gets coins for leveling up is a bit simplified. Once they reach the highest achievement level (‘Barry’, for those of you keeping score) they have the opportunity to trade that in for a badge. The badge is selected at random (from what I can tell) and doesn’t really do much but become part of your collection. A representation of your accomplishments. Then what happens? The user starts back at ‘beginner’ and does it all again.

Similar to levels, this is a formalization of the learners experience but where levels are temporary, badges belong to the user. This could be used where a learner needs to learn content from various business units, programs or disciplines. It took me a while to connect the dots between badges and the Boy Scouts. I’m not sure why, but it did. (Maybe a light just came on for you, don’t feel bad if it did. I’m glad I could help). It’s the same thing. This kids can start a fire and make grilled cheese sandwich and we all know he (or she…) can do it based on their badges. Another formal representation of experience.

This also could go towards learners seeking advice on sandwich making from other employees who have that badge/experience.


While the user is playing the game they are unwittingly accomplishing achievements, or at least I was. There are all sort of clever little achievements that have puns in the name and require using various combinations of jetpacks and tasks or even starring at the main menu screen for two minutes. Once I found these items on the profile, I wanted to achieve them. I had no real reason to, but I was enjoying the game and accomplishing something in the mean time. There is a fixed number of them and I wanted to accomplish them all.

I wanted to do them because there was a finite number of them and I know I could. They caused me to look for specific items or try different combinations of settings. I wanted to learn more about the game. This is a great tool to allow for discovery learning. “Hey, we’ve got this selected list of items that you could accomplish if you wanted. They’re just sitting over here, but you can do whatever…no biggie.” Again we stumble onto the concept of autonomy and discovery. Achievements, depending on the description, can provide enough guidance to tell them what section of a manual to look in or what panel to look behind. I’ve been cautious of providing too much direction to adults while providing just enough to let them accomplish the task on their own. Minimum, it provides a direction or a clue of sorts and the learner can take it from there.

The Problem

In theory, gamification is the coolest thing on record. But in practice, there are a whole bunch of challenges. Time is one of the biggies. If you’re going to take the time to create a guide or game or workbook or something that implements these ideas you need to carve out a good chunk of time to consider the following: themes, duration, delivery system, monitoring, stats, feedback, evergreen vs changing content, how much info to provide, and so on and so on. It’s a big endeavor so it makes sense that all the bosses and supervisors out there haven’t said, “You three! You’ve got 2 months. Gimme a solid game-influenced learning platform. Go!” It’d be nice, but no one has the time.

So what do we do? Nothing? Nah. The way I see it we take a few of these items and work them in where we can. Look at your program to find areas that your learning is split up into and make certificates or badges.

Maybe you already have badges or something. Sit down for an hour with a colleague and come up with a list of 20 achievements that a new learner can do with minimal guidance that lets them explore your system, policies, facility, or whatever. Non-essentials but something that will let them be more well rounded and familiar with your world.

I’ve got things that I want to implement in my world and they haven’t made it to the top of my list yet. Time, right? I’d love to hear if you’ve had experience implementing something like this or if you’re where I am; you’d like to but you’re checking a few other things off the list.

Either way, I think it’s about time we all ‘level up.’

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