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Terry Pearce

Untold Play

Bespoke Learning Designer

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Gamification beyond the buzzword: why it’s not what you think

Gamification has unjustly garnered a bad name. It’s time to revive it.

Resting in the buzzword graveyard (rightfully so) are a host of concepts whose sales pitch outstripped their ability to deliver. Gamification should not be one of them. It is, after all, a proven tool for behavioural change that’s much deeper than cartoon avatars and endless badges.

We’ve seen it all before – a new learning and development concept springs up. Articles abound. Every other stand at every exhibition peddles it as the new essential. Everyone’s buying into it, until it doesn’t meet its promise, people get sick of it, and it’s filed away somewhere to gather dust.

Real gamification goes deeper. It’s about exploring what motivates people to play games, and to keep playing. 

NLP. Web 2.0. Learning AI. All of these may have applications and benefits, but they’re not the all-singing, all-dancing saviours their early buzz implied.

You could be forgiven if you file gamification alongside them. It arrived with much fanfare in the early 2010s. Less than ten years later, however, it’s acquired an air of yesterday’s news in L&D that’s at odds with how well it’s regarded elsewhere, such as in website and app design. This, however, is less the fault of the tool than of how it’s been used.

Giving gamification a bad name

Gamification is about applying game elements and design techniques to things that aren’t games. The shallowest and simplest way to do this for learning is to look at some of the most superficial aspects of games and copy and paste them into a learning experience. Grab a cartoon character, send learners on a quest, and award badges for achievements.

This is the equivalent of a film studio deciding, based on recent successes, that they need to make a film about a secret agent superhero fighting zombies at a wizarding school (and only need to spend five minutes on the script). Mashing up the surface elements of what worked elsewhere – surprise – doesn’t work.

The metrics of motivation

Real gamification goes deeper. It’s about exploring what motivates people to play games, and to keep playing. It’s about adapting those hooks and ideas, sometimes very subtly, always very carefully, to motivate people towards the behaviour we want from them, in learning or anywhere else.

When done well, this is undeniably effective. The gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou has publicised a list of 90 case studies with impressive ROI, in fields from sales and enterprise to lifestyle and consumer behaviour. In education and training, successes include companies from Deloitte to Duolingo, posting enviable figures on metrics like course completion, daily engagement with learning, learner numbers, grades and time spent learning.

The serious side of game elements

In many of these case studies, there isn’t a cartoon character or a leader board to be seen. The elements used in successful gamification include loss aversion, progress indicators, narrative, time pressure, scarcity, choices and consequences, investment, mystery, reward schedules, social status, challenges, customisation, voting and collection sets.

A complete list would be longer than this article, but we can already see that many of these concepts can be used subtly and seriously as well as in fun. Many of them are also important ideas in respected disciplines like psychology, sociology and behavioural economics.

It’s no surprise that some people have tried to substitute names like human-centered design, behavioural design or motivational design for the term ‘gamification’. As an attempt to distance the discipline from the failures of the superficial and an association with the trivial, this is understandable.

Applied gamification: a success story

What distances it much better – whatever we call it – is learning from its successes, especially those that look nothing like arcade games. Stack Overflow, a Q&A site for programmers, is a well known example of social learning via gamification. They wanted users to learn from each other, posing and answering questions about programming and coding. They knew people would ask questions if they knew they’d get good answers, so they focused on asking, ‘how do we encourage great answers’?

They created a system where people could vote on whose answers were best. Those who answered often and got upvoted received carefully planned rewards, based on classic gamification-led ideas around the impacts of status, power and access, in a framework based on gamification insights around what levels of rewards drive behaviour. All of this was implemented via prototyping and testing processes common in game development.

The results made Stack Overflow such a success that they’ve now exported and sold the framework as a product for other non-programming social learning and Q&A sites. Contrast that with the lacklustre engagement in forums that we often see when L&D tries to provide a space for social learning without successfully building motivation into the equation.

For humans, not gamers

As the transferability of the system behind Stack Overflow shows, gamification is far more about ‘how’ than ‘what’, and this means we can use its ideas across L&D. It can go beyond social to individual learning, beyond digital to analog. Whether it’s a single activity in a session, a learning journey for an individual, or the structure of an entire learning portfolio for an organisation, gamification can help drive behaviour.

For gamification to be effective in your organisation, your people don’t have to like games (although you might be surprised how many do, when you think of all the different kinds of games out there). They just have to be human, with human motivations.

What’s your organisation doing to harness the power of human motivation that games exploit so well? If the answer is nothing, it may be time to take another look at what games and gamification can teach you about driving the behaviours you need from your people.

Interested in this topic? Read How to make learning and development relevant for gen Z.

Author Profile Picture
Terry Pearce

Bespoke Learning Designer

Read more from Terry Pearce

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