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Pressing play on the biggest gamification questions

Posted on: May 16, 2022

“Shall we play a game?”

Gamification in the workplace has been a polarizin topic in L&D for the past 15 years. Some believe that playing games at work is a big waste of time. Others think that, when done right, it can be game-changing for frontline performance.

So is gamification little more than another buzzword or can it foster motivation and build good learning habits?

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect at Axonify, led an interactive, TLDR discussion with Karl Kapp—Bloomsburg University professor, author and gamification consultant—to settle the debate once and for all.

Karl tackled some of the biggest questions and criticisms about gamification and game mechanics. Dive into their Q&A below to find out if gamification is the right fit for your organization and better understand why it’s about much more than just games.

Ball going through a maze

JD: What are your favorite studies to cite when customers question the efficacy of gamification?

Karl: Traci Sitzmann did a great meta-analysis study on the topic, but usually when people ask about the research it’s not the citations they really want. I’ve actually done an article on that on LinkedIn that walks through evidence for skeptics. People that dig into the evidence aren’t as interested in finding out if it works. They’re more interested in learning if it’s specific enough to support its implementation in their own industry..

JD: How would you respond to someone who says, ‘Games are a waste of time, people are too busy to do this kind of stuff at work’?

Karl: It’s not the format, it’s the learning that occurs. If you want deep thought and for people to think non-linearly, games are a great tool to do that. I’d ask those people: ‘How’s your current training working, by the way’?

JD: What about the people who say employees don’t care about points and leaderboards?

Karl: I would say, you’re right: no, they don’t. If you don’t design it right, they will never care. One of the great things about points is that they can give you feedback on the level of correctness. Giving somebody points for logging in is not as effective as answer-specific point attribution.

Leaderboards are interesting because it’s also about how you use them. I would say group leaderboards are far more effective than individual leaderboards. You have to be careful about how you design them, but they can be an effective tool.

JD: Is gamification a short-term engagement tactic? Or is it proven to work long-term for the same employees?

Karl: You would think from a lot of the research about intrinsic and extrinsic learning that it would be short-term. But that research is flawed in a lot of ways.

I’ve done a 2-year study of people using gamification and in fact, engagement has not dropped off. It kept going. You would assume that it would drop off, but the thought is you have a variety of different games and activities you can play. If you did the same thing over and over again it gets boring—anything does. For gamification to work you need to switch things up, but the answer is yes: it can work long-term.

JD: How do you respond to someone who says that gamified learning doesn’t cater to all age groups—only the young people?

Karl: Great question. There’s a misconception that gamification equals games, but it’s about the technique. When we frame gamification as the tools of games—rather than the elements of games themselves—we can apply it to many more places. Take it as a different approach to problem-solving and cater learning to your specific audience’s needs instead.

Learn more about how gamification can help your employees build a habit of everyday learning.

JD: What’s the first step an Instructional Designer can take to integrate gamification into corporate eLearning?

Karl: To me, gamification is not about the tools or the technology, it’s an affordance—a way of looking at design. If you want to know how to design good games, start playing games: ones you like, you don’t like, some you’re not familiar with, and different genres and platforms. Build your game literacy and you can borrow a lot of different elements or ideas from the games that fit naturally with the content you’re trying to teach rather than vice versa.

JD: What’s your response to someone that feels gamification isn’t a fit for their organization’s culture?

Karl: You need to match the game affordances to the culture and goals of the learning. There’s no one way to do gamification (and it doesn’t always have to be games).

I did a workshop one time and I had created a game for salespeople called Zombie Sales Apocalypse. I had one woman say upfront, ‘This is the worst game I’ve ever played,’ while another person in the back said, ‘My gosh, I love this game’. What was the difference? The audience. One person had more of an HR focus and wasn’t as competitive, the other was in sales and competitive. So, you’ve got to be careful about how you design games. One type of game that’s missed a lot is cooperative games. They’re huge, especially in Europe, as great ways to build teamwork, so if you want to build a team, don’t play a competitive game, aim for a cooperative game.

You can also add gamification into practice exercises rather than points or badges for knowledge. There’s not one great way to do gamification.

JD: Some bad examples of gamification tend to draw out the time to finish a course without adding value. What are your thoughts?

Karl: First, bad gamification is like any other bad design. I’ve also been to bad lectures and discussions. Start by asking: What if I didn’t gamify this? How else would we deliver this information?

Get the feedback you need to improve the training content, then add the gamification elements. But don’t start with gamification for the subject and try to figure out how to make it work in reverse. You should be strategic with not only the gamification but any instruction that you design. Make it meaningful.

JD: Does the game have to be part of the learning experience to make gamification work?

Karl: Research shows the best way to put in place a game into learning is to:

1. Talk about what you’re going to cover in the game
2. Address the learning you want to come out of it
3. Play the game
4. Debrief it

You have to have that debriefing for the game to work and it should be part of the integrated curriculum.

Also, the game and the learning shouldn’t live in two separate places. You want to make sure that it’s an integrated part of the curriculum because learning works best when it’s in a flow. Games are good for answering the “what ifs” on a job.

To me, there’s no learning without reflection. There’s only experience.

JD: What are the most common mistakes designers make when designing games?

Karl: There are a couple of mistakes they make.

One is not including the learners in the game design. The research shows that you do include them, they’ll like it much better, and it’ll be more effective.

The other is they assume the games they like to play are the games that everybody likes to play. You have to branch out to match the game affordances and elements with the right learning objectives. For example, if the job is about making connections and thinking deeply, don’t add time as a game element because that’s not as important as your key goals. When those diverge, that’s when it’s a horrible gamification experience which unfortunately many people have been involved in.

JD: Is it better to do what you can with an under-resourced gamification program or to not have one at all? Is it all or nothing?

Karl: I think that you need to try it. Pilot the program with a small group of people—you will learn so much. There’s no need to go big at first. And don’t look for perfection because you won’t find it.

Gamification can and does work, but it’s not a magic bullet. It can be a powerful tool for creating interesting learning experiences and scenarios that engage users. In the end, it’s still up to the leaders who deploy it to make sure it’s the right fit for their audience. If used properly, gamification can inspire and motivate employees to complete their training in a fun, fresh way that works.

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.