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The Surprisingly Effective Combination of Learning and Gamification

Most people think of gamification – the use of game mechanics to motivate behavior – as something that is used to inject either “fun” or “competition” into the workplace.  Yet both of these approaches are partially mistaken and are certainly incorrect when considering the huge impact gamification is making in the learning world, an impact that is capturing the attention of chief learning officers and training designers.

In the “fun” version of misunderstanding gamification, employees, such as customer service reps, are supposedly playing a “video game” while working, egged on by the desire to earn more points. In the “competition” version of misunderstanding gamification, employees work to reach the top of an imaginary leaderboard, doing their best to outplay their peers. The reality of using gamification in the workplace is altogether different – and better related to the understanding of human motivation and drivers of engagement. Humans want to work in a meaningful way that gives them feedback and recognition, not to compete at fake games.

Gamification doesn’t imply “game” nor “play”. It is not about playing a game at work or experiencing joy at “winning a game”. What it does is use game mechanics to drive behavior – game mechanics are cues we are hard wired to act on, cues that modify our behavior and create satisfaction. Some game mechanics are competition-centric -  like a leaderboard or badges that signify achievement. But sometimes an indication of a performance target and a cue showing whether or not it was achieved – a form of feedback -  can b fairly compelling, especially to employees which don’t like overly competitive game mechanics (or who find them unfair). 

Yet game mechanics alone don’t make human motivation – what matters is the ability to tie in game mechanics into a method of modifying behavior and increasing a sense of engagement and meaning in the workplace. This is achieved through a sense of growing mastery and autonomy (and this is why successful gamification projects are designed to take employee to mastery and give them a sense of autonomy). Much of this isn’t about achievement per-se but rather the communication of performance metrics and objectives, implemented within a fair and transparent way of tracking them throughout the workplace. These game mechanics communicate communication feedback and recognition and promote self-reflection, to help the employee learn how to work better and stay motivated. In many ways, the best way to think about gamification is as a fitbit activity tracker for work.  In this sense, one of the human activities most associated with a sense of mastery, completion and autonomy is learning. And this is why gamification and learning work together well.

One of the less known benefits of gamification is how well it ties with eLearning. Here are some ideas of how eLearning and gamification work together

1. Gamification of learning works well in the age of shorter attention spans. Our attention spans are shortening – some argue they are beginning to resemble those of goldfish. This is a result of the smartphone era, and the way we consume information on the web. This makes traditional learning less effective. Gamification can use learning – or micro-learning, where each learning activity can be broken into bite-sized pieces – micro-learning – and rewarded through the system. Quizzes can be used to check information retention and create a more engaging and less passive learning environment.

2. Using gamification in eLearning can be used for an onboarding or training program.  As employees pass through levels, they are recognized, and team challenges can encourage team-wide participation (people don’t want to disappoint their peers and this can sometimes drive motivation better than learning for the individual’s sake).

3. Sometimes eLearning gamification can be integrated into a non-eLearning centric scenario. Some of the more interesting implementations use eLearning gamification within a non-eLearning gamification project. An example? A customer service representative using a gamified system for customer service (measuring customer satisfaction, average handling time, resolution and more). The customer service gamification platform will have pre-integrated eLearning activities. Learning opportunities can be prompted when certain metrics aren’t met – when the employee is not performing well – giving them an opportunity to improve. Other implementations can be just-in-time learning, for instance when the representative moves into a different customer service channel (from social to chat), or as a pre-requisite for such a move. eLearning can also be a pre-requisite to being able to enter a leaderboard and see results.

4. Do not underestimate badges: they communicate how much learning was achieved but can also be used to demonstrate what the employee is proud of knowing, how they help train others, or what they are planning to choose as an area of expertise. These signaling effects of badges can play an important part in helping the employee feel recognized.

In conclusion, a more nuanced understanding of gamification and the way it drives learning can support micro-learning and information retention in many gamification scenarios.