When many employees were sent home to work at the beginning of the pandemic, employers looked for ways to connect with and engage them virtually. Many had to shift onboarding and training activities to the digital environment. Making these interactions "game-centric" has helped employers and their HR and learning and development (L&D) leaders boost employee interest in, engagement with and adoption of L&D activities.
Employees Like to Play Games
Playing games is a pastime that many of us have enjoyed since childhood, and the experience can readily be transferred to the workplace.
There's evidence to suggest that employees value a gamified experience on the job, according to Doug Teachey, director of enterprise change with global technology research and advisory firm ISG in Stamford, Conn.
Research from jobs site Zippia "indicates that 95 percent of employees prefer a gamified work experience and that gamification results in a 60 percent increase in engagement and a 40 percent increase in skills retention," he said. "Other metrics track increases in employees' desire to be productive and levels of happiness at work."
Potential Benefits of Gamification for L&D
Gamification is also proving to be a good way to respond to employees' and organizations' needs relating to recruitment, upskilling and reskilling.
Nathan Mondragon is the chief industrial organizational (IO) psychologist at HireVue, which offers game-based tech assessments for hiring. "In today's fiercely competitive labor market, we've seen many companies removing unnecessary college degree requirements and other prerequisites that aren't linked to successful job performance," he said. "Instead, they're using game-based assessments to quickly engage applicants."
The benefits go beyond engagement. In fact, "game-based assessment offers talent acquisition teams a tool that makes their processes fairer, particularly for autistic candidates," Mondragon said. HireVue and its research partners published a peer-reviewed piece on how autistic applicants perform on these game-based assessments.
Simulations, which have been widely used in academic settings, are the best form of game-centric technology for L&D, said Nabeel Ahmad, a lecturer at Columbia University School of Professional Studies in New York City and co-founder of AI analysis platform changeforce.ai. "Business simulations are an effective way to learn because learners' emotional and cognitive processes are stimulated," said Ahmad, who has a doctorate in learning technologies.
This happens in steps. "First, [there's] improved knowledge retention and greater motivation to learn. Next, a perspective change occurs, which leads to greater emotional connection," Ahmad said. This type of training can also help employees form stronger internal networks across levels, specialties and departments.
What Improves Engagement, and What Doesn't?
One of the biggest benefits of game-centric technology in training applications is improved engagement. This is particularly important in globally distributed teams and work models that incorporate hybrid and remote work. Connecting virtually is a must for business interactions of all kinds, said James Micklethwait, a vice president with Kahoot!, a provider of game-based learning and engagement solutions for business, based in Oslo, Norway.
It can be difficult to capture and maintain engagement online, which is a particular concern for training, Micklethwait said. His company's recent workplace culture report captured survey responses from 1,635 employees in the U.S. and found that "online training is the number one place where employees say they mentally check out." Thirty-five percent indicated that this type of training is disengaging. Game-centric technology offers an opportunity to make online learning more engaging—and fun.
Online learning works best when it's live and involves others, Micklethwait said. "In our experience, live, multiplayer game-based experiences are more engaging than single-player, self-paced experiences, which are conversely better suited to deeper learning and can be completed by the end user in their own time," he explained.
Lauren Fitzpatrick Shanks, CEO and founder of game-centric talent development platform KeepWOL, in Phoenix, said her company found employee participants wanted more interactivity. Based on this input, KeepWOL "added bonus points and badges, with more interactive gameplay features on the horizon," Shanks said. These bonus points allow for more competitiveness and provide a way to reward those who go the extra mile.
Benefits Beyond Engagement
Teachey noted that game-centric technology for learning also "creates a safe space to fail gracefully." A gamified environment "creates scenarios where employees are more willing to make mistakes and take risks, further increasing opportunities to course-correct earlier in the talent development cycle," he said.
This type of training activity can have broader applications within the workplace.
"One key point to remember when getting started with a gamification or game-based learning strategy in the workplace is that it doesn't need to be siloed into stand-alone employee engagement activities," Micklethwait said. "It can be applied in experiences throughout the workday and throughout the employee journey. This helps to keep people engaged, connected and collaborating while also enabling leaders to check employees' understanding and uncover knowledge assets on their team."
Considerations When Attempting to 'Gamify' L&D
At the outset, "clearly identify your goals and stick to them," said Glen D. Vondrick, CEO of virtual learning provider CoSo Cloud in South Plainfield, N.J. From there, "start simple and slowly build."
For HR and L&D professionals looking to add more game elements to their offerings, Shanks suggested looking for a platform that has gamification methodology. "It's also beneficial to select a team-based platform," she said. "This removes ownership from HR alone and puts accountability into each employee's hands."
Mondragon said any game-centric technology used for L&D or other applications should be based on strong IO psychology foundations. Providers "should be offering third-party evaluations or audits of their technology and IO psychology science," he said.
Ease of use and the ability to tailor technology to the specific needs of the organization and its managers and employees are also important.
And while competition and opportunities to receive bonus points can be compelling, Shanks cautioned against taking them too far.
"Make sure that gamification is treated as a tool of motivation that brings joy, and not something that will be used to determine performance review ratings and pay," she advised. Ultimately, the goal "should be to obtain insights through a technique that disarms employees, not something that pits them against one another."
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SHRM-SCP, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience.