Why Gamification Alone Won’t Solve Your Learning And Development Woes

August 10, 2022
June 26, 2023
Learning And Development

What most people won’t tell you is that gamification isn’t a magic wand – it’s not a case of waving it, and everyone suddenly loves your learning content. There’s a fine line between thought-out gamification and forced fun, and L&D has to tread it carefully.

“Add in a leaderboard” – well, what if you’re not working with an overly competitive bunch.

‘Turn it into a challenge” – what if people need that information right now and any perceived faffing around will do more harm than good.

‘Use points to reward people” – maybe you’re dealing with people who’ve fallen foul of token gestures before and need more considered recognition of their hard work.

The point is, like almost everything in L&D, it’s about applying context. One-size won’t fit all, it might not even fit one team, and so we’ve got to approach gamification in learning and development with more consideration than these ‘ultimate guides’ make out.

Will it be easy, no! Will it be worth it, hopefully so.

What’s gamification? And what’s its role in learning and development?

Let’s think about it logically. Gamification is the idea of incorporating aspects of game-playing into learning and development or training. We’re re-creating that dopamine-hit people get by bringing in some of the elements that hook gamers in for more than eight hours every week on average.

So far, so good.

Now, this is where most people race headfirst into thinking about the gamification tactics they’ll use rather than that vital context we mentioned…

Like playing games, we all approach learning in different ways

We all play games in slightly different ways – let’s take Sonic as an example. Some of us race to the end, desperate to be the first at the finish line, others want to collect every single ring or special item along the way. Some don’t even care about the finish line. They want to explore levels at a leisurely pace. And maybe you’re only interested in playing if Tails and Knuckles are coming along for the ride?

Yes, game-playing often maps onto L&D with its levels, progression and rewards, but it’s a case of establishing which gamification elements resonate with your people, fit the challenge at hand and can be implemented well.

What are you trying to achieve with gamification?

Don’t start with gamification. Start with the behaviour change or performance impact you want to influence, build your learning initiatives around that and incorporate gamification when and how it makes sense.

This is probably the best advice you’ll get in the briefest word count, but we absolutely have to keep this in mind before we move on. We’re not gamifying for the sake of it, there has to be a purpose to it – ironically, unlike gaming in a lot of ways.

This mindset will help you avoid tactics like streaks, which might drive people to log in every day but have very little influence on how they perform…

Why gamify your learning initiatives?

  • 95% of employees enjoy using systems that incorporate gamification.
  • 90% of employees are more productive when gamification is used.
  • Activities that include application of what’s learned – like gamification – can help people retain 90% of that knowledge (far higher than just reading or hearing it).
  • 80% of US employees feel more engaged in game-based learning.

Those four stats sum it up perfectly. When gamification is done well, it makes people happier and more productive, able to retain more information, and, most importantly, it engages them.

L&D without engagement is like a car with no wheels, it’s going nowhere. Motivation, productivity and giving people skills are basically pit stops once we get that engine running (and we have to keep learners engaged en route).

Gamification can help you close The Engagement Gap

Engagement is the first domino when it comes to L&D, and yet so many companies fail to knock it down. That means everything you expect to happen after you launch learning initiatives fails.

No logins to your learning platform, barely a course completed in a library, and manager interest in L&D at rock bottom.

From people wanting to learn on their terms to removing the barriers that prevent people learning when it matters most, we’ve covered The Engagement Gap in detail here.

But gamification can play a huge part in closing that chasm. Maybe we’re borrowing simulations from the gaming world to help people apply what they’re learning (almost) for real, but without the pressure. We could turn learning a new skill into a shared mission, where groups are collaborating as they build that talent. Perhaps you’re rewarding the desired behaviours with points that can be traded in for a meaningful reward later?

Essentially, this is our context point under a different guise. What’s going to engage YOUR people? And how can gamifying learning help people do more of it?

Gamification is absolutely, categorically, not ANY of these things

We tell you one thing it isn’t, and that’s a substitute for good content. If nobody’s engaged with your 300-page PDF on becoming a better sales rep or 9 hours of compliance training videos, there’s not a leaderboard long enough to get them reading every word.

You can’t dress up learning initiatives that aren’t working! And that’s why our earlier point about understanding your desired impact at the very start of building learning experiences is so crucial. We’re setting out to solve problems, not with the sole intention of gamifying learning.

Gamification isn’t something you bolt on later. It’s a calculated addition when you’re working out how learning content helps you move that needle.

Your people aren’t failing to engage with content because of a lack of gamification, and tacked-on gamification fails to engage because it’s attached to content that was never a good fit in the first place.

(The same principle applies to learning platforms, learning culture, and learning leaders – if those things aren’t engaging your people, then gamification alone simply won’t help).

How can we use gamification effectively in L&D?

If you skipped forward to this bit (or would find a summary useful), there are two things to remember here:

  • Understand the impact you want your learning initiatives and gamification to have.
  • Consider the context of your organisation and people before implementing.

Align what you’re doing with business goals

Remember, the goal of gamification isn’t solely to engage. It’s to support learning that drives performance improvements, skill building and behaviour change.

Let’s say you decide to build a cold calling game because you believe it’ll engage the sales team. Great, except the sales team have no problem getting people into the pipeline, they’re finding that leads are dropping off further down the funnel – around decision time.

What your sales manager wants – and what will move the needle – are learning interventions that solve that organisational challenge – how do we close more deals? So, maybe you build multiplayer scenarios where people can practise and coach each other through the situations that are preventing them from achieving that goal.

Leverage internal stakeholders, managers and experts

Expecting L&D to own gamification alone (and development in general) is quite a wild idea. From managers who know what’ll resonate with their people to the design and marketing people who’ll help you create and communicate better, there are people to leverage all over the business.

Then you’ve got your subject matter experts who are worth their weight in gold when it comes to social gamification. From building out those challenges and rewards in the context of your business to acting as a mentor for those who want to build the same skills, they’re a huge weapon in your arsenal.

Get specific: use microlearning to your advantage

It’s a wider L&D point, but people want resources that help them solve specific challenges, can be applied when they arise and are easily revisited when they need a reminder in the future.

Naturally, this should influence the types of content you create, and microlearning really fits the bill. Resources that help people gain and apply the knowledge they need when the moment of need arrives.

Now, bringing in a scavenger hunt, 40-question quiz or some kind of employee head-to-head at the end of one of these will go down like a lead balloon! Gamification has to match the tone of the learning content, which has to be designed to solve real business challenges.

Test on a small scale before rolling out to wider audiences

One thing we can be guilty of in L&D is rushing to roll out what we’ve been working on. And gamification is no exception: scorecards made available to everyone, battles brought in to drive competitiveness and elaborate virtual reality simulations drawing people in.

The trouble is, we’re often rolling them out before testing, which means we have no idea if they’re going to work until they’re out there in business-wide circulation.

Let’s say we create a practice customer call where employees are rewarded for certain actions. We get everyone in the team on the case, and find out a couple of things: nobody’s enjoying the exercise, and it’s not making them any better at their job.

When do you want to know that? When a small group has given it a bash or when the entire team has wasted hours on it. Gamification is no exception to the test, iterate and scale approach that L&D should be adopting.

5 Gamification techniques that tap into context and relevance

Leaderboards that incorporate performance improvement

Rewarding people for completing learning, good. Rewarding them for improving performance, much better.

If gamification has helped people complete learning, but that hasn’t made them better at their job, did it really achieve anything? As we learnt earlier, we want to align what we’re doing with company goals, so it makes sense to take a longer-term view with leaderboards.

Maybe we do incentivise completing the course or resource, but we reward the performance improvements at a far higher level? 10 points for completing ‘How To Close More Deals’, 50 points for actually doing it…

The mistake people make is pitching leaderboards as a way to tap into competitiveness, but they’ll be far more effective if we use them as a tool to drive change and better performance.

Points that mean meaningful prizes

Ever hit the seaside arcades when you were a kid? Getting the tokens wasn’t the reward, figuring out what you’d trade it in for was what the whole day built up to!

If you’re going to incentivise people to collect points, you have to make sure they’re worth something – and this is where that context element is key.

What’s going to motivate YOUR people? What fits the company culture well? How can you create a system that’s fair for everyone?

If in doubt, speak to people – ask them how a points-based gamification system would work for them? You might find out they’re not even remotely interested OR that it’s the best idea they’ve heard yet.

Use quizzes and knowledge checks to unlock the next level

All the best games had end-level bosses. A scrap with Shredder, a bruising encounter with Bowser, a tussle with Team Rocket – and they made progressing to the next stage feel far more important.

While you can’t capture your people’s attention in a Poké Ball, you can capture their interest with knowledge checks and quizzes at the end of key content. In order to progress, they have to demonstrate an understanding of what they’ve learnt. And exercises like this are great for applying knowledge, which drives the chances of them retaining it.

Remember three things: it has to be in-keeping with the length of content, it has to fit your company culture, and it needs to be tied to the impact you’re hoping to have.

Using badges and certificates to create advocates for learning

As long as they’re done in a considered and meaningful way, badges and certificates can offer something tangible to share and celebrate. I’ve built this new skill, I’m pretty proud, and it would be great to shout about it on my socials.

You’ve probably seen them in your LinkedIn feed, internal communications and even on people’s desks from time to time. They’re a lasting reminder of a learner’s achievement and can create word-of-mouth machines for your company and its L&D efforts.

Where you can apply context is in thinking about how they reflect the company brand and culture. Would they be a good reflection of your company when shared with the wider world? How and when should I use them to prevent them becoming a diluted, token gesture? Is everyone getting a fair chance to unlock these rewards?

Group exercises and collaboration

When we play games with others, there’s often two scenarios:

  1. One of us is better and coaches the other through with tips and advice.
  2. We’re at a similar level and have to figure it out.

Both offer a sense of collaboration and accomplishment, and both can be applied to the gamification of learning. If you think about the impact you’re hoping to have and work backward, you’ll naturally work out the best approach for pairing people together.

If the ultimate goal is to improve customer satisfaction scores, you can pair two people with similar responses or connect something who’s struggling with your master of customer engagement.

Check out our other learning and development resources