Gamification and Game-Based Learning in EdTech: Tactics for Driving Retention

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Gamification and Game-Based Learning in EdTech: Tactics for Driving Retention

February 24, 2022

Gamification and Game-Based Learning in EdTech: Tactics for Driving Retention

Adding game elements, like rankings, achievements and quests to digital learning products, has become a popular way for improving student engagement and learning outcomes. To learn more about how to begin designing a good gamified EdTech product, check out our article about Gamification and Game-Based Learning in EdTech.

In our opinion, the number one aim should be developing EdTech products that have a clear set of learning goals, working mechanics, and something that attracts users on the app, platform or software. A great EdTech solution might e.g. enhance the students’ learning experience, better their learning results, or solve some practical problem the teacher has, like managing the classroom.


Retention Refers to the Ability of Retaining Your Customers


In the case of EdTech, it’s important to retain both the learners as well the educators! Frequent, long-term use of an EdTech solution can create good learning habits; potentially encouraging the students to log in even outside of lesson times. This is also good for convincing  the educators and schools to keep on buying the learning solution loyally over a period of time.

Even if your EdTech solution is not highly gamified or game-based, you can get fresh ideas for bettering retention from the video game industry!

Today most game developers have adopted a “games-as-a-service” (GaaS) business strategy (Koster 2019), or Free-to-play (F2P) revenue model, that rely on constant subscription fees or in-game purchases.  Thus, the key to generating revenue is making playing their game a natural part of target customers' daily life.

Talented game developers know what are the right mechanics and dynamics for keeping different types of gamers invested – and how to get them to spend money on their gaming hobby.


Retention and Churn, Why Are They Important?


Retention is an important metric for tracking the activity, engagement and devotion of your target customers. And understanding their likes, motivations and actions.

According to Kim et al. (2017, 2), a 5% growth in retention can result in 4 times larger profits in mobile and online games. Also keeping track of it can help you to understand when and why the players are losing interest in the game; thus pointing out flaws in your overall game design.

Another key metric is churn, which refers to a player who quits playing the game for good (Lovell, 2011). For example a good onboarding could prevent this from not happening, although some give up because they weren’t happy with the core game.

There are strategies for making sure retention stays high and churn is minimized. Firstly you should put effort into designing an excellent gamified learning product from the beginning, that attracts customers with its mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics and content overall. Secondly, build a support system around the game with statistics and customer service tools for maintaining players, minimizing churn and measuring all necessary analytics!


Our take is that EdTech can use gamification to help make the solution an integral part of the students’ daily life – something like a hobby.


Plenty of modern game genres are built to be consumable, snackable, or played very intermittently - they can be engaged quickly on your way to work, or played for an hour or two in the evening every once in a while. Therefore the actual game play might work poorly as the sole anchor for a service (Koster, 2019). Usually you have to figure out what outside services or features could compliment the gameplay and draw the players back.

If you want to learn more about calculating and tracking user retention in mobile apps and games, check out this extensive guide by Udonis! Game developer Jacob Sobolev has also listed great practical tips for improving retention in mobile games.


Koster: Ten Mechanics Proven to Drive Retention in Players

Game mechanics are the actions, behaviors and control mechanics used to gamify an activity - and game dynamics are the desires and motivations that compel those actions. For example group tasks lead to players having to collaborate in order to move forward within the game.

You can learn more about game mechanics and dynamics, and their relationships in game design by reading our previous article on the topic.

Game designer Raph Koster (2019) lists common game mechanics that are proven to drive retention when used in producing content. There’s a huge potential for these improving EdTech design as well:

1) A Steady content trickle 2) Persistent profile investment 3) In-world investment (such as player housing) 4) Social connections (such as teams & guilds) 5) Economic play 6) Extreme depth 7) Player vs Player competition 8) User Creativity 9) Story 10) Emergent gameplay


Most F2P games rely on constantly offering users more “stuff” without actually changing the game very much. Steady Content Trickle could mean plot advancement, defeating even more powerful enemies or collecting rare equipment – reaching new goals can hold people as long as the content brings changes on the basic mechanics. Unfortunately it’s very expensive to solely rely on this mechanic. Especially in EdTech, making learners repeat things they already know can bite back and lead to boredom. Therefore even content that relies on repetition (such as language learning or math) should be kept fresh!  


Koster sees Social Connections as one of the more powerful mechanics because social groups are the primary glue in most games. Just look at the impact some MMOs (massively multiplayer online games), like World of Warcraft or Roblox, have had. Games have also created viral trends through social networks; take for example the popularity of Fortnite dances.

We could also claim that Kahoot! or class quizzes in general are causing the same type of social connection that makes students beg their teacher: "let's play Kahoot!".

Mutual obligation, economic exchange and group identity make sure that retention level stays high. In education, collaboration can have similar value for engagement and peer learning. 
On the other hand, managing communities takes a lot of effort and resources on the service provider’s part. 


Some games are fortunate enough to have the Holy Grail of game design: Extreme Game Depth. Although it’s a classic method, very few developers can design a game that has enough depth and complexity to it that players continually discover new things in-game, ways to improve it, and effectively never view the game as boring.

In some genres of EdTech this is easy: if you are teaching a skill, for example programming,  you can provide easy-to-use tools for creation, and let your learners utilize them over and over again in new projects.


This way depth and complexity can also serve User Creativity. Koster sees it as a powerful mechanic when trying to tempt players to buy stuff in-game. For it to work well as a retention mechanic, there needs to be a publicity channel that garners audience for the users’ creative projects. In one of the most popular sandbox games of all time, Minecraft, the main idea is to creatively survive with the help of digital lego bricks. The players don’t need to have any grander goals; like children playing in a sandbox, they simply create what they want.

Every mechanic Koster mentions has its strengths and drawbacks to consider when bringing the final design together. Many of these mechanics work intertwined, and a simple feature change can result in a totally different dynamic within the product. Analyzing the changes in retention and churn can tell you, if you are on the right track!


To summarize: retention means the ability to keep your already existing customers; making sure they remember your product and come back to it. Churn is another retention-related metric that tracks players who quit the game altogether.

Driving retention and decreasing churn are two main goals for any EdTech company, especially if your aim is to build regular learning habits and increase voluntary learning behavior in students. Retention shows how many users come back after the first download and login.

Depending on your original idea and business strategy, you can either build mechanics and other content that engages and regularly draws your users back, AND/OR create a churn-minimizing support system around it; a pipeline with analytics, marketing and customer service tools that keep track of potential quitters, and lure them back.

In the case of EdTech, it could be useful to start with the question: how can we make our EdTech solution as exciting as some of the games that children like to play these days – with the right elements and content? What will the learner gain from spending extra time on our platform, app or software?


Next we'll focus on competition in gamified and GBL EdTech solutions!