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Gamification: Win, Lose or Draw for HR?

Many companies are experimenting with using games and social media challenges to facilitate learning. Could gamification be a win-win for HR and employees?

May 2014 Cover​​From the first Olympics in ancient Greece to “The Biggest Loser” television show to the latest Xbox offering, games have always entertained and enthralled people. They tap into our natural competitive drive and our need to make sense of the world through storytelling. Advances in technology and social media have only multiplied the options, making it possible for people to cultivate their own virtual farms or play Scrabble with a friend in another country.

But, as it turns out, fun and games isn’t all, well, fun and games. Increasingly, gaming technology is being used by businesses to engage customers or employees and, ultimately, to change their behavior. So-called “gamification” has been called one of the hottest trends in human resources this year, although the truth is that it has not been adopted in HR as much as it has been hyped.

While it’s still early for HR in the gamification game, game mechanics and game design represent promising tools for the field, especially for learning activities such as onboarding, safety education, product training, career development and even team building. Game-based learning also has the advantage of being available when and where employees need it, since most options have been developed for computers, tablets and/or smartphones.

There are few hard metrics or return-on-investment numbers to prove the effectiveness of gamification programs to date. However, learning theory works in their favor, and experts predict that games will play a role in the future of organizational learning.

The Games and Players

There are two basic types of gamification, according to Karl Kapp, professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa., consultant and author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Field Book (Wiley, 2014). The first is structural gamification, in which gaming elements are added to existing content to help people move through it; the elements might include badges, points, leaderboards and similar devices.

The second type, content-based gamification, turns the content itself into something that resembles a game, but one with business objectives at its core. Some people refer to these learning tools as “serious” games.

SAP Is in the Game

Player: SAP in Walldorf, Germany, which develops enterprise database technology and business applications, including HR information systems and talent management suites.

Objective: Millennial leadership training.

Date of adoption: Pilot program started in April 2014.

Game: Six-week program in which participants complete the first three weeks individually and the second three in a team setting. Participants are asked to read content, watch video and listen to audio. Points are awarded to individuals for completing content and to groups for engaging in discussions and posting relevant material.

Developer: SAP developed its own tool.

Outcome: Too soon to know, but SAP will be looking at increases in employee productivity, engagement and retention, among other factors.

In a global survey of 551 HR, learning and business executives in late 2013
 by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), 25 percent had integrated structural game characteristics and mechanics into a real-world training program or task to promote changes in behavior. Most often the games were used to motivate and engage people, and they included features such as achievement badges, levels to clear and other rewards.

Another 19 percent of companies had used serious game simulations that included elements such as story, goals, feedback and play to help people reinforce their skills, practice a task or increase their contact with content.

Not everyone was on board with gamification, however. Nineteen percent of respondents had no plans to use games with structural elements, and 27 percent had no plans to use serious games.

HR was the most-cited area for future growth: Fifty-six percent of respondents declared that gaming was in their plans for uses related to HR. Among those who were using gamification, common applications were in onboarding, all-employee training and the development of high-potential employees.

Think Engagement

While playing games can be fun, that is not the point of them in this context; rather, the goal is to use game elements to drive engagement in learning, Kapp says. He looks for ways to add game elements to instruction and content without turning the whole thing into a game. He says it is easier to pitch “gamification” to business executives than it is to mention a “game,” which many leaders consider a four-letter word.

Indeed, it is the ability of games to engage people that may be HR’s best argument when trying to convince business executives of gamification’s value. After all, recent Gallup data indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are fully engaged with work, and surveys of CEOs repeatedly show engagement as one of their top concerns.

No-Tech Gamification

Ryan Kleps, an IT process analyst at Boeing Co. in Seattle, used games to teach agile software development long before “gamification” became the buzzword du jour.

He and three colleagues developed a two-day football-themed training program to teach agile development as it applies to Boeing’s software and other IT projects. Two thousand people, including employees from outside IT, have taken the course since it launched in 2009. Agile development emphasizes incremental software improvements by ad hoc teams instead of traditional big software projects.

The idea of a game occurred to Kleps when he was watching his children in their church school class that used competition as a learning technique. “I wondered what would happen if we applied that to our class,” he says. “I had no idea if it would work for adults.”

The game is played between two teams, each made up, preferably, of employees from the same workgroup. Classes include a 25-minute instructional module followed by a 25-minute application period.

Yardage and touchdowns are awarded under three circumstances: for correct quiz answers during the instructional module; for accomplishments during the application period, which requires teams to apply the preceding module’s content to a workplace problem or agile development challenge of their choice; and during a two-minute drill of 10 questions at the end of each day.

Survey results suggest the approach is well-received. There’s no company mandate to use agile development, but the training seems to spur willingness to adopt the methods.

Kleps had never heard of gamification until about 18 months ago, when he realized that he had been ahead of the curve all along.

Engagement has been shown to correlate with retention, productivity and financial results.

At EVault Inc., a San Francisco-based data storage and recovery company that recently implemented a game-based onboarding program, engagement was a key outcome of using gamification. When the company went on a hiring spree two years ago, nearly doubling its staff to more than 500, HR Director Dorothy Serdar wanted to replace the standard employee orientation program of hit-or-miss lectures, readings and meetings with executives.

For a year now, new employees have completed a game-based interactive program on a tablet at their own pace in their first two weeks on the job. It takes about 30 hours to complete, with points given for progress made. The program consists of five “missions” with learning objectives around some aspect of EVault. Each one includes videos, readings and activities that require the employee to meet other employees in person or virtually and ends with a quiz that tests retention and provides managers with information about where employees need more training.

The program is exactly what Serdar had hoped it would be: consistent, comprehensive, efficient, interactive and, according to employees, highly engaging, if not downright fun. “The biggest positive statement is how much they learned in a short period of time,” she says.

Serdar had never heard of gamification before she met with her vendor, Appical, an Amsterdam-based onboarding software developer. Appical offers a software-as-a-service platform, which the adopter populates with its own video, text, audio and other elements along with the game mechanics of its choosing. “I’ve become a fan of game mechanics,” she says. “I think it is the future.”

Objectives First

Game mechanics cannot be sprinkled on learning programs like nuts on ice cream, according to HR and learning professionals. A more thoughtful approach is needed for successful implementation. Key steps include the following:

Determine your objective. As with any type of instructional design, the first step is to figure out what behaviors you are seeking to change and/or which learning objectives you want employees to meet.

“Before you sit down and write software for the game, you have to design the program in detail. That was a big lesson for me,” says Omar Zaki, senior instructional designer at SAP in Walldorf, Germany, which develops enterprise database technology and business applications, including HR information systems and talent management suites. “Figure out the learning objectives first. Then develop the rules of the game before you write any code.”

Decide if game mechanics are appropriate. Gamification is best used for well-defined learning tasks. “Gamification is fantastic in a very targeted way,” says Jenny Dearborn, chief learning officer at SAP, who is responsible for the gamification of employee learning, especially sales training, and for some learning aimed at partners and customers.

Develop game mechanics. As game czar (yes, that is her formal title) at the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) in Fort Belvoir, Va., the corporate university and training establishment for the Department of Defense and its contractors, Alicia Sanchez has created more than 50 serious games. She emphasizes that performing a “task analysis,” or an assessment of which tasks learners should be able to do as a result of training, is critical in guiding development.

“The task analysis is a process through which you understand what the real end performance objective is,” Sanchez says. At DAU, content for games is often based on teaching people about procurement policies. Understanding policy is important, but knowing how to apply it is imperative, she says. Serious games give DAU learners simulated opportunities to face situations that are both routine and rare in their work, make decisions, and experience consequences.

Test, test and test again. Scott Thomas, director of global product enablement at ExactTarget, an Indianapolis-based developer of digital marketing tools, owned by, urges adopters to test as often as possible.

In 2012, ExactTarget used game mechanics to train all 2,000 employees on a major new product, a suite of tools for mobile marketing. One reason game mechanics worked, he says, is his team had a lead time of several months—longer than most product launches. His team had time to work with a consultant to analyze tasks, write objectives, design instruction, choose game mechanics, and then test before rolling out the learning tool to the entire employee base and later to partners and customers.

Ignore the foregoing advice at your own peril, experts caution. Brian Burke, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. a Stamford, Conn.-based technology research and advisory company, predicts that more than 70 percent of Global 2000 companies will use game mechanics this year in at least one area of their business, mostly for marketing purposes. As many as 80 percent of those will fail to meet business objectives primarily due to poor design, Burke says. “Gamification is a powerful tool, but we see a lot of misguided implementations.”

What’s the Score?

So far, few companies have cited improved metrics or business benefits from gamification. Burke’s failure estimate is based, in part, on his review of a couple hundred write-ups about early efforts across organizational domains. They include details about what was done but little about results, he says. “I would assume that if they were improving business benefits, they would write about them, and I didn’t find that except in a few cases—less than 10 percent,” he explains.

Despite positive anecdotal feedback, many companies have not used game mechanics long enough to produce measurable results. In the ASTD survey, only about a third of respondents that used gamification measured its effectiveness.

By contrast, more than 80 percent of them had measured the effectiveness of traditional classroom training techniques, and 74 percent assessed the effectiveness for other e-learning efforts. Despite the lack of hard data, 37 percent of respondents from organizations that used gamification, and 51 percent of those using serious games, rated the methods as highly effective.

Moreover, many that have measured have seen good results. NTT Data reports several business benefits from a leadership development program that uses gamification. Based in Plano, Texas, and Tokyo, NTT Data is the IT services and consulting company of the NTT Group, which includes various telecom-related businesses. The purpose of the leadership program is to improve employee engagement as measured by certain metrics, says Naureen Meraj, senior global director for gamification and employee engagement practices.

Employees work through modules on leadership skills such as negotiating, time management and delegating.

Giant Eagle Is in the Game

Player: Giant Eagle grocery chain, which has nearly 400 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.
Objective: Reducing repetitive stress injuries among cashiers.
Date of adoption: January 2014.
Game: A simulation game played on a desktop computer in a dedicated training room. It gives team members the tools and resources to safely perform everyday tasks and reduce work-related injuries.
Developer: Etc. Edutainment, Pittsburgh.
Outcome: It is too soon to measure the results, according to a spokesperson for Giant Eagle.

Modules include readings, videos, puzzles and scenario-based quizzes that help learners understand the contextual basis for leadership decisions. Not everyone is expected to become a manager, but each person has opportunities to be a project leader, mentor and teacher.

“We structured this game to give people the ability to experience the skills of being a good leader without the pressure of becoming a manager,” Meraj says. “As people complete modules, they get points and move through different levels and appear on a leaderboard.”

About 700 of the 7,000 employees completed the pilot program in 2012. Fifty have assumed team lead roles, which is 50 percent more than assumed team lead roles after participating in traditional leadership training and coaching. Those 50 people generated 30 ideas that created $1 million in new revenue or costs savings for clients, Meraj says. Organizationwide, employee referrals increased by 30 percent, reducing recruiting costs by $500,000 a year.

ExactTarget also reports business benefits of gamification. In the six to nine months after it concluded its product training program, the company measured improvements compared to traditional product training on three metrics: a higher, faster sales rate with larger average contract values; more support cases closed on first calls; and faster time-to-implement with less scope creep for customers.

“In all three areas, we had positive results compared to other similar products,” Thomas says. “Gamification of the product training definitely contributed.”

Ultimately, time will tell how gaming technologies can be best integrated into HR. Effectiveness will likely depend on careful planning around well-defined business objectives. With many employers experimenting in this area—or planning to—hopefully there will be more data on outcomes to come. Game on!

Bill Roberts is technology contributing editor for HR Magazine. He is based in Silicon Valley.


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