Guidelines on how to use online games in youth work for Human Rights Education

How to approach young people by using gamification as a tool



About Youth Work


As defined by Council of Europe, youth work is “a broad term covering a wide variety of activities of a social, cultural, educational, environmental and/or political nature by, with and for young people, in groups or individually. Youth work is delivered by paid and volunteer youth workers and is based on non-formal and informal learning processes focused on young people and on voluntary participation. Youth work is quintessentially a social practice, working with young people and the societies in which they live, facilitating young people’s active participation and inclusion in their communities and in decision making.”


Organisations and individuals working with youth constantly search for new ways of engaging young people and communicating with them in their “language”. Today, it involves the usage of social media, digital tools, competition elements, special design and approach to online and digital solutions, development of special trainings and programmes supplemented with different icebreakers, networking and leisure activities, team works, semi-formal events and many more. Basically, gamification in the youth sector is all about supplementing any of activities with elements, which can help to engage people and maintain their interest in a topic or activity.


Here are the main points in which gamification can create synergy with the youth work approach and values:

  1. Hands-on approach – Instead of giving the knowledge, youth work and gamification both take a learning-by-doing approach.
  2. Simulations – Roleplaying and simulating specific situations and conditions, create and improve skills, habits and behaviors, initiate the independent thinking process, problem solving ability and creativity, which are at the core of soft skills provided in youth work practice and also can easily be done through gamification.
  3. Creativity – Youth work, same as the gamification model, encourages creativity, especially when it comes to problem-solving and planning. In case of young people, it eliminates the fear to express, enhances initiative and allows creativity to inspire for more.
  4. Feedback – Different methods can be borrowed from games to give meaningful feedback on the task done and motivates us to do even better. It allows us to visualize the progress and get the sense of accomplishment.
  5. Social component – The goals can be reached in the collaboration with others and new things learned by simply discussing in a team. Although there are many games and youth work practices that take an individual approach, it is still conditioned by some kind of interaction which then builds specific skills and attitudes in young people.


About Human Rights Education


Human Rights Education (HRE) is learning that develops the KNOWLEDGE, SKILLS, and VALUES of human rights with the broad goal of building a universal human rights culture.  In other words, learners should be aware of the issues, concerned by the issues, and capable of standing up for human rights. Human rights education will move learners from understanding human rights concepts to examining their experiences from a human rights perspective and incorporating these concepts into their personal values and decision-making processes.


This is a long-term approach and a process that includes diversity of topics, methodological approaches, actors, formats and models. One of those approaches can be gamification, and it proved to bring a new added value to HRE efforts, for two main reasons. First one is the possibility to include diverse profiles of learners, gives better outreach and ability to present the complex topics of HRE in a safe environment and in a way that engages even the ones who are not already involved deeply in the HRE. Gamification appeals to the wide range of young people and can easily spark their interest to get more involved in HRE, by associating the HRE to positive feelings that gamification provides. Second one relies on the fact that gamification purpose is to affect the change in behaviour and attitude, which goes very well with the aim of the HRE. It creates the scenarios, puts learners/players in the role and provides an experience, all which is used to reach the goals in HRE. Gamification uses emotions and behaviour patterns as drivers and thus can easily fit in the humanistic topics which are based on emotions and reactions to injustice.


How is all of this relevant for our topic, you might wonder. Very simply put, we are trying to combine the three things: youth work, human rights education and gamification in one. Youth work being the practice in which we work with young people, human rights education being the specific type of learning and goal that we care about and want to implement within youth work practice and gamification being the methodological approach or a format to do that.


In this document, we will explore the use of gamification in HRE through the youth work and youth training practice. Let’s first dive into clarifying the gamification concept.


What is Gamification anyway?


Gamification is the process of making an educational or work activity more like a game by finding ways to make it more entertaining, engaging and rewarding. Gamified elements are typically visually engaging and offer points, rewards, and prizes based on performance and completion. Yu-Kai Chou, a leading gamification expert and author of ‘Actionable Gamification’, defines gamification as:

“The craft of deriving all the fun and addicting elements found in games and applying them to real-world or productive activities”


What Gamification is NOT


Let’s see what we can’t really call a gamification, to avoid over-simplifying and misusing the very concept of gamification and make a clear difference between gamification as an approach and ad-hoc isolated gaming mechanics that are used in a wide range of sectors, marketing, education, business.

Gamification isn’t only badges.

When you say gamification, people often associate it with badges, points, and levels. While those are game mechanics you can certainly leverage inside of a learning experience, that is a very simplistic definition. Usage of badges do not provide full gamification experience to the learners or young people, although they can be useful and engaging for participants. This is more of a matter of calling the things the right name.

‍Gamification isn’t the solution to a bad learning experience.

Part of why gamification has become so popular is that it seems to offer the promise of magically increasing engagement in anything it’s applied to. And while there are many examples of where gamification has been used effectively, it’s not a magic potion. If your activity is not well conceptualized nor planned, incorporating game mechanics won’t make things much better.

‍Gamification does not necessarily mean “games.”‍

Gamification borrows from games using tools and techniques to make non-game experiences more game-like. But it does not mean your objective is to create a full game where one doesn’t exist. There is often a common misunderstanding between Gamification and Games. They are not the same thing. Games are a form of competitive play in which there are rules in place to determine skill. Gamification takes the best parts of games (being the game-like mechanics that motivate us) and applies them to non-game entities to encourage us to carry out certain behaviors. It engages us and allows us to leverage several of our natural human desires: socializing, learning, mastery, achievement, and status.

You can think of gamification on three levels. On the first level, you can use individual game mechanic purposefully or a specific isolated gamification element sporadically in your activity or approach.

On the second level you have “gamified experiences”, where you are taking either a new or existing application and including multiple game mechanics across the entire journey/activity to create a much more engaging experience.

And on the far end you have full scale games. Here, the entire experience is a game, but it’s still designed to accomplish a learning objective of some kind.

Bruder (2014), described the differences between games and gamification by defining gamification as a non-game activity, which is established via using game principles. Thus, advice is given to readers not to mix or compare real games (which have an intention only to teach it‘s user to succeed only in doing something) with gamification. Gamification, also requires an effort which tries to mix many teaching/learning principles together to accomplish some complex tasks. On the other hand, game-based learning can simply be defined as learning with playing and by playing. Learners arrive at their educational targets by playing games.

The essential components of a gamification model


A well thought out gamification model has the following elements:

  • Action. The learner is performing an activity that is directly related to the learning objectives. It is very important to create clear goals first, and then develop or associate a specific action/s to it. The action should be meaningful, well designed and related to the player’s motivation.
  • Challenge. The learner will be given a certain mission, quest, or challenge they are expected to complete by a certain deadline. This increases the engagement and triggers the gaming spirit. Sometimes this can include a healthy competition.
  • Reward. The learner earns a reward or feedback of some sort for successfully completing the desired activity. From points, scoreboards, prizes to immediate event feedback loops, well designed games provide real-time feedback, making sure it is well deserved.

There are, of course, many more concrete and practical (sub)elements that are used to create a gamified experience, as well as approaches to take, but this is a story for some other time.


Gaming is a serious business


Learning in general or even more specifically human rights education might not be a game, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from gaming and its benefits. Merriam-Webster defines gamification as, “The process of adding games or game-like elements to something (such as a task) so as to encourage participation.”

The benefits of gamification at work are found in the very reason games are so fun and in that rush we feel when we succeed. Whenever you earn a high score or unlock an achievement, your brain releases a rush of dopamine (a hormone that makes you feel good).

If you produce dopamine whenever you succeed at a task, your brain will associate winning, achievement, and triumph in the learning process with positive feelings.

Video games in particular are especially tuned to make your brain release dopamine. They show you progress bars and levels, high score charts, and rare achievements to unlock. They throw challenges in your way—such as puzzles and fights—but those difficulties are themselves fun and make the winning feel even better. By proper implementation of gamification strategy, motivation, encouragement, engagement, productivity, sense of belonging, gratification, pride and meaning, self-advancement, as well as overall behavioural change can be reached without sticking to any concrete area of actions.

By adding in things like fun badges, rewards, clear visual progress trackers, avatar creation, challenges, gamification can make learning feel less boring, more engaging, and more rewarding.




Why digital gamification of youth work – the social aspects


In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the use of digital technologies in the out-of-school learning settings. Such non-formal education programmes have a potential to recognise and address young people’s digital skills and needs, which might be omitted at schools or at home. Examples of prior European youth digital inclusion programmes include coding clubs, discussion groups (e.g., focusing on issues related to online safety), hackathons, digital youth guidance centres, provision of youth information etc.

But besides the specific programs and tools, for young people in particular, the lines between online and offline life are quite blurred, as digitalisation does not refer only to the tools they use – it is their living reality. All aspects of one’s life take place in the digital realm – learning, education, socialising, civic activism, health support, dating, tracking one’s nutrition and sports activities.


Even considering the specific barriers that young people are facing to access the “digital world”, technological advancements and digitalisation have provided a new framework for young people and those who work with them. They offer marginalised young people an opportunity to engage, participate, learn, interact and influence their environment more than ever before.

Following the development technological trends, the approaches that are taken by the youth organisations are also being digitized and updated.

For any young person, and especially for the one coming from a disadvantaged area, the financial side of things can be the deciding factor about their participation. By providing digital youth work, and gamifying the learning these young people can also get the same quality services as any other youngsters. Even if it’s a local youth center, there are again the financial limitations with accessing a quality meal, and covering local transport costs for spending time within it. Instead, they’ll get to prepare their favorite lunch in the comfort of your own kitchen while still engaging actively with other youngsters.


Another very common barrier for disadvantaged young people to engage within youth work programs is time. By having gamified digital content, the young people can use their time more efficiently, and plan it according to their needs. Once they finish their chores, homework or part-time jobs, they can engage and follow the youth work programs. Additionally, digitalization can speed up tedious, time-consuming tasks, such as keeping track of youngsters’ engagements, mapping their needs, and developing plans. Using technology in youth work allows youth workers to experiment more in their tools and methods, and get instant feedback. Technology allows for more active learning. You can increase engagement through online polling or asking quiz questions during online workshops, with instantaneous results.


There are countless resources for enhancing the youth work practice and making the process more fun and effective. Some gamification activities include role play—where young people are asked to pose arguments following diverse roles—and introducing healthy competition. Technology can greatly aid the implementation of youth work games.


We live in a digital world, and technology is an essential life skill. Being digitally literate is more than obtaining “isolated technological skills. Rather, it’s about “generating a deeper understanding of the digital environment, enabling intuitive adaptation to new contexts and co-creation of content with others.” Here, the traditional flip-charts and markers are almost extinct, while technology has never been more essential in the youth centers. Creating presentations, learning to differentiate reliable from unreliable sources on the Internet and maintaining proper online manners are all vital skills that all young people will learn to develop through digitalization and gamification of youth work.


What can gamification do?


Gamification can motivate disadvantaged youth to stay involved. Motivation most often comes from the interactivity of the experience, in the form of physical and electronic rewards, and friendships with teammates, and intrinsic, in the form of emotions such as excitement, agency, and feelings of belonging.

Games have the ability to bring various topics and information closer to youngsters everyday reality in which video games often figure prominently. Youth workers regularly observe that young people’s motivation is significantly greater when computer games are integrated into the educational process.

Games can be useful for youngsters who encounter difficulties in cognitive, methodological, or social learning (slow learning, lack of organisation in work, resistance to rules and, etc.). The ways in which mistakes and different learning rhythms are managed in a game takes the drama out of learning. Games can reconcile the youngsters with the learning process, as they allow repetition, identify errors in a non-traumatising way, make rules easier to accept, and help the youngsters to understand their way of learning.

Gaming competitions (esports) have been used to engage and motivate children and young people who cannot access a place in a mainstream school or are at risk of permanent exclusion from school, and act as a positive vehicle to facilitate the development of positive personal attributes.

By merging the experience and knowledge of youth organisations on the tools, methods and approaches for social inclusion, with the various benefits and opportunities of gamification, a real impact can be done for empowering disadvantaged groups of young people. The digital gamification of youth work can have a huge impact in the efficiency and meaningfulness of youth programs. It provides accessibility for the disadvantaged youth to engage, and a sense of belonging for them to become part of the community, and throughout the process to learn something. It combines something that they love – playing digital games, with something that they need – education, empowerment and support in understanding and engaging with the community.


Being inclusive throughout the gamification of youth work:


Using inclusive approaches in youth work is one of the main principles and values. It is very important for us to be aware of the youngsters’ realities, and adjust the youth work process according to their needs and interests. However, when gamifying a youth work process, and using digital tools, being inclusive can be more difficult. The following tips & tricks can help you be inclusive when developing and implementing your gamified youth work process:

  • Incorporate less commonly heard points of view in lessons.

Too often marginalized voices go unheard and discounted. Offer your participants a wider narrative and view of the world (and maybe even some role models that share their experience) by incorporating perceptions of people, and characters who aren’t white, cisgender, straight men within your games.

  • Be cautious about participants “heritage”

It’s great to celebrate other cultures, but make sure you’re not reducing them to stereotypes. The line sometimes can be thin, especially when presented online in a digital context. Make sure that you explore the narrative from different contexts and realities. Ask guest contributors who can speak to their own experiences, rather than trying to do it all yourself.

  • Educate the young people on why their language matters.

No matter what age you’re working with, in the digital world sometimes the power of words is forgotten. Help them understand that what they say can have a profound effect on others—for better or for worse. Don’t ignore it when the young people use harmful language—even when they’re not using slurs. Every few years there’s a new popular phrase that minimizes the real experience of others and causes harm, even if it’s not widely seen as a slur. When you hear youngsters throwing this around, interrupt their behavior and take advantage of the moment. Let them know that there’s a good chance someone they care about has trauma in their background, and that also the “online memes and jokes” can be hurtful. Be prepared to act as a moderator on potential online chatrooms.

  • Use Comic Sans, Ariel, or Dyslexie for your handouts.

A simple change you can make in your classroom is to use a different font—several are easier for students with different types of disabilities like dyslexia to read. Also young people who struggle with hearing issues can benefit from having a written reference available to them so that they don’t miss out on critical details.

  • Within your gamified activities, plan time and spaces for your participants to share more about themselves—but don’t put them on the spot!

Sometimes your best resource for gaining new insights can be your marginalized participants. Within your gamification process, think of potential spaces where they can share their stories, but only if they are comfortable doing so.

  • When/If the gameplay envisions creating a character, Give space for preferred pronouns, but avoid requiring students to share.

Asking every youngsters to mandatory share their preferred pronoun at the beginning of the youth work process can force a closeted youngsters to either out themselves or misgender themselves. Neither is what you were going for. Instead, offer your pronouns as an invitation for others to share theirs, but don’t demand it if someone refrains.

  • Keep in mind where a student is coming from when addressing issues.

It’s crucial to remember that when you are inviting a youngster to go through a process, and experience a game, that they feel safe within the process. Sometimes when working with Human Rights Education topics, and using role plays and simulations, the participants can feel closely connected to some of the cases. Keep this in mind, and provide additional support where needed, so each of the youngsters can get out of the process, reflect and learn.

  • Keep handouts for local social services readily available.

Sometimes the young people you are working with will be going through things they’d rather not share. Ideally their parents will know what’s going on and how to navigate support, but often that’s not the case. While working online in a digital environment, it is much more difficult to notice changes in their behaviors, and it is more difficult for them to approach you and seek support. Have a few handouts pointing them in the right direction on visible places on the digital tools you are using.

  • If working with specific ethnic or national minorities, try to have the materials also in their native languages

Not all youngsters speak English fluently. Sometimes it’s more important that the information is received than language skills are practiced. When this happens, providing the information in the participants’ primary language can avoid misunderstandings, and can be the empowering moment for them to join the youth work process.

  • Don’t be “stuck” in the gamification and don’t forget the basics of youth work. Help participants identify their own learning outcomes—and support them in meeting them.

We all have our goals for our participants, and each youth work activity has its own objectives. But sometimes what we had in mind and where the young people really are are two very different matters. Work with your youngsters early and often to adjust their own goals and give them ownership over learning.




Think big but start with a small-scale project

Keep in mind that a digital game needs to serve a purpose beyond just making it fun. Same as in offline youth work, think about clear objectives you would like to achieve. Do not use games only to entertain your participants. Rather than going all-in on a high-profile gamification project, target a particular area, youth group or programme and test different approaches.

Know what your goal is

You know you want gamification, but do you know why you want it? It might be the hot ticket, but will it work for your learners? Don’t jump aboard the game train until you’re clear about how gamification works and what it can do for online learning.

Be clear on criteria and progression

Young people will be motivated to play only if it’s clear how the game works. Try to provide clear answers on the following aspects: What tasks earn points? What do points mean? Perhaps they translate into badges or unlock new content. What’s the criteria for reaching the next level or reward? What do rewards mean in reality?

Facilitate continuous learning

Think about how one could see their personal learning path. Everyone likes to be aware of their own progress. So enhance players to understand what they have learned by playing. Look for ways to encourage learners to keep returning and improving their score and therefore, their skills and competence. This could be enhanced through adequate leaderboards, new challenges and rewards. Give your players a reason to keep coming back.

Make it challenging

Learners need frequent and easy achievements to begin with. Once they’ve got understanding how the things are going and have seen that effort is being rewarded, they’re ready for a bigger challenge. The aim should always be for the next level to be challenging but attainable. Even better if each new challenge requires learners to draw on what they’ve most recently learnt.

Challenges and motivation

Challenges motivate young people to apply their knowledge by encouraging them to complete objectives even when they experience difficulty meeting their goals. Challenges should not be too difficult or too easy. If challenges are too difficult, young people are likely to feel defeated, but if they are too easy, they will get bored. While finding that balance you can increase difficulty, reduce time or add new elements: if things are going well it is good to be disruptive in activities or to change the rules.

Enhancing competitiveness

Competition can make activities more fun and social. Young people are motivated to complete tasks before or better than their peers. This element can be used to make a task more enjoyable, but could alienate some young people who are not as skillful or competitive. Therefore, competition should not be used all the time, or should be balanced to put young people on an equal playing field. For example, team-based competition can balance out skill levels. Including a variety of individual and team competitions can help make sure you are responding to everyone’s preferred ways to play games.

Tracking Progress and providing feedback

Since the learning process is a continuous activity, tracking progress is highly relevant so as to show young people their achievements towards achieving a specific goal or milestone. Accomplishments should be showcased and youth workers have an important role in this process. Youth workers can design specific activities in which they present individual accomplishments and thus recognize individual successes which are great motivational boosters for further engagement.

Encouraging exploration and adventure 

Exploration allows young people to explore certain topics or subject manners in a more flexible manner with a sense of fun. Youth work activities such as treasure hunts and field trips contain exploration. This way, young people have the freedom to explore certain topics as they deem relevant and engage their own curiosity.

Collect needs and ideas from young people

If you are about to develop a game, social media can be helpful in collecting ideas and inputs from young people. For instance, TikTok challenges are a great way to launch a campaign and generate new ideas. This should be kick started with a suitable hashtag and followed by a campaign which invites young people to contribute with their entries and ideas. Depending on the generated interest, the campaign can have a follow-up which calls for different approaches to the topic.  Also you can collect data on youth needs by conducting a simple online questionnaire or focus group with young people with different backgrounds but also youth workers and formal educational institutions that work with young people. 

Make a game with young people

Explore existing available educational platforms which are free for use, easily accessible and do not require too much technical knowledge to create games and animations. Depending on the group, participants could work in pairs on specific challenges.

Improving teamwork 

Being a part of a team can have multiple benefits – young people share and help each other to learn and understand the value of teamwork as opposed to competition. Team-based competitions enable balanced skills development and promote collaboration. To encourage collaboration within teams, young people can be assigned specialized roles to make each member integral to reaching their objectives.

Create an area for community

Playing a game just isn’t as much fun if there’s nobody around to see how well you’re doing! A gamified solution isn’t nearly as powerful if it doesn’t also include a social aspect. Make sure your learning platform has an area where the whole community can get together and share their experiences. If you already have a social feed, consider creating discussion groups and spaces. Here, youth workers can go to further support the learning about the topics that mean the most to the participants.

Sharing knowledge

Young people should be given a chance and space to share their knowledge, advance joint learning activities and motivate others to aspire for more. Helping others is a great motivational booster for many young people.

Group and individual problem solving

Games and gamification require a wide range of skills and abilities for completing tasks and solving specific problems. These vary from general knowledge, sporting, interpersonal, and logical to artistic and many other skills. With this in mind, tasks should be set so as to enable contribution and showcase the importance of specific skills which are often overlooked and may give some players an advantage.

Values of single-player

Do not underestimate the power and the values of single-player games. Although team play absolutely has its own dynamic and great value in learning for young people, there are certain contexts and learning goals that would profit better from a game or gamified experience that relies on the decisions and journey of only one person. There is now a generation of players who simply aren’t able to devote the same amount of time to gameplay, but are still eager to pick up a controller and relax into another world. That’s why single-player campaigns nowadays effectively split their stories, not into levels, but episodes. Single-player games are designed to respect individual skill levels which is sometimes necessary for our youth work programme or learning activity. It also gives us the space for young people who are more comfortable with individual learning style to go through their preferred learning experience.

Sense of ownership

Customization is essential in allowing young people to personalize their projects and experiences, overall it creates a sense of ownership. Ownership can be developed by using customized trading cards, badges, rewards, etc.

Participation in ongoing decision making

Young people should take part in deciding which activities or tasks the group shall undertake, and thus create a sense of choice and equal say in decisions. With this element, players who like influencing changes are more committed and engaged in the activities but also the group bears a sense of responsibility for the decisions made.

Encouraging creative thinking

Mix things up by allowing young people to innovate and think outside the box. This will give them a chance to challenge designs and build new ideas. An innovative platform allows young people with a disruptive player type to take control over and develop new ways of doing things. This is about how you can change the space, move activities and games online, move outside or use music. Taking Cluedo, for example, why not suggest running it around town using different public buildings as the various rooms? 

Keep it fun

Both games and youth work are meant to be fun. If your messages don’t reflect this, there’s a good chance that your learners will forget that they are supposed to be enjoying a fully gamified learning experience. Crank your enthusiasm up, inject some humor wherever you can and make it a fun process!