Ask the people in your next meeting to share the name of their favorite game from childhood and you're likely to get a wide range of responses as they happily reminisce about tag, hopscotch, Monopoly, marbles and more. It's not just children who like playing games, of course. We all do.
That reality isn't lost on proponents of gamification. In fact, according to a TalentLMS survey, 89 percent of employees say that gamification makes them feel more productive, and 88 percent say it makes them feel happier at work. Gamification has a marked impact on training effectiveness, too, with 83 percent of those who had received gamified training saying it made them feel motivated, compared with only 61 percent who felt the same way after receiving non-gamified training.
Gamification in the workplace today can run the gamut from traditional analog activities like scavenger hunts to high-tech, AI-fueled interactions incorporating augmented or virtual reality. Whatever the format, research supports the idea that gamifying learning works.
Better Learning Results Through Gamification
Some of the challenges with the adoption of gamification prior to the pandemic may have been potential confusion between gamification and video games.
"It seems in the last few years, it's finally sunk in that gamification and gaming aren't necessarily the same thing," said Courtney Bentley, senior director of customer success at Open LMS. Effective gamification doesn't have to be about advanced technology and astronomical development costs, she said.
"It's much more common and cost-effective to mix smaller interactive exercises to reinforce concepts," Bentley said. "Instead of [trainers] thinking they always have to spend months with a programmer developing virtual reality simulations, we're seeing the use of images and video that are readily available overlaid with interactive hotspots. And instead of full game simulations, organizations are incorporating badges with leaderboards and sometimes allowing learners to exchange their digital recognition for real-world discounts to other courses or branded swag in the company store."
Research has long supported the idea that people learn more from doing than from simply listening to lectures. The National Training Laboratory's "learning pyramid," or "cone of learning," indicates that learners remember only about 5 percent of what they hear in a lecture, but 75 percent of what they learn through practical doing. Gamification offers the opportunity to practice while not only learning, but also having fun.
In fact, the fun element helps to enhance engagement—and learning.
Making Gamification Fun
Andrew Phelps is the co-founder and CEO of IncentivePilot, a company that offers gamified and automated contests and engagement tools.
"The key to successful gamification is fun," he said.
Five years ago, he added, companies weren't really ready to embrace the idea of fun at work. "Gamification was dismissed as a threat to professional efficiency or dictated from the top down with so much buzz-killing bureaucracy that it was doomed to fail from the beginning," Phelps said.
That has changed, he said, thanks in some degree to the pandemic. As organizations of all types and sizes had to embrace remote and hybrid work, they faced new challenges in keeping employees engaged.
"With some new credibility and a super-charged demand for engaging employees, gamification is poised for a comeback as organizations search for anything that will help them solve their talent retention problems," he said.
Bentley agrees. "Gamification has been in the background for a very long time," she said. "The pandemic and shift to online for so many users have really just propelled the pace and forced us to consider more intrinsic motivation rather than relying on external factors—less sticks, more carrots."
Gamification in Practice
Like many companies, Glovo, an on-demand courier service provider with 5,000 employees operating in 20 countries, was challenged during the pandemic to onboard and train staff remotely. It decided to introduce gamification into the mix and worked with Totara to make it happen.
"It was a huge hit," recalls Miquel Gomez Roura, who was the global training manager for Glovo at the time. "One aspect of the program was that we had our own company currency they earned as they moved through the programs. They could then cash out into their country's currency and trade in for items ranging from toasters to high-end bicycles."
The solution was a success, he added, for onboarding and training. In addition, he said, "it really created a culture of closeness, despite the pandemic-caused physical separation."
Tiffany Hiscock, senior consultant with The Vaya Group, a global leadership consultancy, said that HR and learning and development pros can achieve some key goals by incorporating gamification into their training efforts:
- Boosting productivity and engagement.
- Strengthening teamwork and increasing social interaction. This is something that has been especially important for employees in remote and hybrid settings during the pandemic. "Gamification elements include a competitive element which allows employees to engage each other in friendly competition and bond while learning crucial areas of their job," Hiscock said.
- Enhancing the corporate image. Gamification, she said, can help an organization "stand out and be viewed by competitors, employees and the public as innovative, dynamic and contemporary."
- Encouraging creative innovation. Simulations can help employees think unconventionally, Hiscock said. "This prepares them for bewildering situations they could face in the real world and promotes creativity and problem-solving."
- Pointing to next steps. Employees get instant feedback through gamification and, Hiscock said, "can improve their performance by following the action steps that will advance them."
Phelps recommended starting small with gamification. "Play a five- or 10-minute game with your team and see how people react," he suggested. "It will likely take a few times for people to loosen up in a traditionally stiffer culture."
He also suggested layering games on top of other initiatives. "For example, if the organization is trying to hit a new sales goal, create a contest that rewards sales activity with participation in a companywide game."
Bentley added that HR should also weigh the costs and benefits of gamification options as they would with any training initiative.
"If a lightweight image map with hotspots, immediate feedback and a gold star at the end proves to increase retention for basic safety training for all employees, it may free up the budget to create a VR simulation on a million-dollar piece of rescue equipment that you hope to rarely need to use," she said. "Smaller gamification elements like badges, leaderboards and smaller modules are just as important as larger-scale initiatives as they can work to your advantage to hook learners and keep them coming back."
Finally, Phelps cautioned, don't try to outsource the process. "There are a lot of good resources out there, but someone needs to own gamification inside your organization for it to be successful."
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.