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What Flappy Bird Can Teach Us About Gamification in Learning

What Flappy Bird Can Teach Us About Gamification in Learning

Considering the rise of gamification in learning, it seems relevant to analyze the phenomenon that was Flappy Bird and see what lessons we can learn from it that can be applied to creating engaging eLearning.

For those not familiar with Flappy Bird, the game is a simple app that challenges users to navigate a bird between two pipes. The player “flaps” the bird's wings by tapping the screen. If the player hits a pipe, the bird falls to the ground and your turn is over. Simple enough, except the game is deceivingly difficult.

flappy bird

The game had been available for several months before recently soaring to astronomical success, becoming the top download in the Apple and Android stores. Feeling the pressure of success, the developer pulled the app from both App Stores. Although the game is no longer available, I found a few lessons from it that can help you create more engaging eLearning.

3 Learning Lessons from Flappy Bird

1. Make Success Feel Attainable

Similar to a carnival game, success always feels possible with Flappy Bird. While playing the game, you feel like you’re just one more turn away from getting in a rhythm and beating your high score.

Success in an eLearning course should feel attainable for the learner. This is where a training needs assessment is beneficial. Once you have a thorough understanding of where the user is at, you can better design for learning that results in active engagement instead of anxiety or boredom.

I've been reading the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which talks about creating optimal work and learning experiences. The graph below does a good job of showing where the optimal experience lies in everything, including learning. Effective eLearning courses navigate that narrow tunnel between anxiety and boredom to pull the learner into the content.

flow mihaly book

2. Intrinsically Motivate The User

Although you can share your score on social media sites and easily see the scores other people have achieved, while you’re playing the game you’re only aware of your own score. This focuses you on measuring your own performance and beating your own high score instead of getting distracted by comparing yourself to others. Because success feels like it’s always around the corner, you feel like you can still beat your high score if you keep trying.

Learning works best when the learner is intrinsically motivated. When designing eLearning, you should be aware of not only what you want the learner to learn and do as a result of the course, but also design for why they should care about learning the subject.

3. Make The User Think

While playing the game, I started to think about strategy. If I aimed for the lower pipe and tapped the screen right before reaching it, I could get into a rhythm that worked. This helped a little bit, but the bigger point is that the game made me think. It felt like a puzzle that I was continually getting closer to solving.

The game pulls you into “straining your brain” as we recently wrote about. While I played in autopilot at first, I quickly learned that although the game seemed like it should be easy, if I wanted to perform well I was going to have to think.

In regard to eLearning, this relates back to the principle of flow and having a good understanding of the skill level of the learner. If the course is too easy, people will go through it on autopilot, resulting in boredom and low retention rates. If the course is too hard, the user may face anxiety and give up out of frustration.

Not a model for eLearning, but still offers valuable lessons

Flappy Bird doesn't work well as a general model of how you should design eLearning. The game is often frustrating and there likely isn't any redeeming value to playing it, but it did offer a few specific lessons that can be applied to creating better training in the corporate world.


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