Levelling up your workforce isn’t all about gamification


With the rise of digital learning in recent years, online gamification has been heralded as the latest development in L&D, but is it the powerhouse that it claims to be?  It is widely regarded as the latest innovation in the field, yet in truth it’s a technique that has been used to help engage learners and improve performance for centuries. 

leaderboardGamification, as it is typically defined, i.e. the application of game mechanics and principles in non-gaming contexts, is nothing new, and if we think back, many of us could recall a time when we were incentivised by the use of games to modify our behaviour – how many of us worked harder at school for the promise of house points or awards?  Or upped our game at work because of an internal competition with colleagues?  These examples may not have involved technology, but they are still gamification. 

In the specific context of L&D it is already a strategy that is widely used; but again not necessarily in the digital frame.  It may not be something encountered within every learning intervention, for example formal presentations, but in the majority, there will almost certainly be some degree of gamification.  It may take the form of a quiz, simulations, role play or an interactive game intended to actively demonstrate the principles of the learning and where the inclusion of competition and distribution of points are utilised to help improve and embed the learning.  There are many methods L&D providers are already using to gamify learning and these techniques are being used in virtually every industry.  The NHS now uses simulations for nurses and doctors, where they get points for their performance.  This not only allows them to practice in a safe environment before exposure to real-life situations, but the points system also provides feedback on their performance and friendly competition with peers.  In the corporate context, many organisations run team building events where gentle rivalry is actively encouraged to help staff learn principles of collaboration and leadership.  The use of gamification is therefore already being widely adopted, just not in the digital context. 

old gamesIs Gamification the future?

It’s inevitable that technologies will continue to play a very important role in how we live our lives; and it will (and already does) have an impact on the way we learn.  Many L&D providers and especially those offering digital solutions are proactively promoting the use of digital gamification, and framing it as the next big step in L&D innovation.  Some reports suggest that the use of digital gamification in certain organisations has significantly improved outcomes for learners and helped increase completion rates of online training.  However, while some argue that it is an effective way to engage learners, and the younger generation in particular, other reports contradict this positive view of digital gamification.  During the 2016 Learning Technologies event, for example, there were several discussions around the use of digital gamification in learning, and in many instances what was reported was relatively low uptake of this approach.  The research presented found that in our increasingly busy lives; many people don’t have the time available to interact with a game to find out the information they need and don’t necessarily respond to incentives such as points or internal competitions with peers.  Instead they want to access it on demand via articles, videos and social interaction; methods that allow them to control the flow of information, and instantly access what they personally need.  Largely the reports stated that online games are too labour intensive to be of value to many learners. 

game-overTo gamify or not to gamify?

It’s clear from the research that some people don’t engage with online gamified learning as effectively as other forms.  But it’s also clear from research that for others, it can be a very useful approach.  That’s not particularly helpful for an L&D function that is trying to implement the most effective strategy for its users.  In truth it’s no different to the challenges that the industry has been facing since its conception; how do you create an L&D strategy that will offer the most impactful learning to a diverse range of learners, all with different needs and preferences?  The simple answer is; you can’t, and the use of digital gamification isn’t going to change that.  It’s not the magic bullet that L&D is looking for, and it’s the not necessarily the answer to the question of how to engage millennials more effectively.  It may help to engage some millennials (and other individuals) more effectively, but it’s not a panacea.  That doesn’t mean that gamification, in all its forms, can’t be a useful addition to the L&D arsenal though.  As with everything, it’s just about how we implement it.  

Tips to make gamification more impactful in L&D

  • Don’t rely on digital – gamification isn’t uniquely applicable to digital training, so if you identify it as an appropriate approach for your workforce, then utilise it both on and offline so everyone can enjoy the benefits
  • Make it relevant – as with any form of learning, it needs to be relevant to have an impact. Whether it’s an online game or an internal competition amongst colleagues, it’s important that not only is the content relevant, but that any rewards or incentives are too.  If people don’t care about the outcomes, it won’t have any impact
  • Be flexible – not everyone is going to want to participate in gamified learning, so it’s vital that it’s not the only option available to them. Find approaches that can incorporate it flexibly into learning programmes, but don’t make it a mandated thing as this may alienate a considerable proportion of your staff
  • Get feedback – if you want to do anything well you need to get feedback, especially if you’re offering a service to others. Find out from your staff if you gamified efforts are being utilised as expected and whether it is having the impact you want.  If people are having a great time getting more points than their colleagues, but still aren’t learning what’s needed, then it may be time to rethink your strategy
  • Do it well – it’s an obvious point, but one that needs saying because it is all too often ignored. If you are going to implement gamification in your learning, make sure you do it well, and also make sure it will be something that adds value to the experience of your learners.  Don’t get absorbed in the hype; decide from a strategic point of view whether it will offer your staff anything, find a way to make it relevant and useable, and use it to compliment your wider L&D offering.  The main goals of gamification are not to simply engage and motivate learners to do more training, but to find an engaging and effective way to enable the mastery of skills, knowledge and behaviours necessary for success in the workplace; this needs to be the main focus when developing any form of gamified learning, anything else is a waste of resources