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The Role of Gamification in Learning

May 18, 2022 | by SumTotal Blog | 6 min read

Although the concept of gamification has been around for decades, it came storming into the public consciousness with Jane McDonigal’s popular 2010 TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make A Better World.”

In the years since McDonigal’s talk, gamification has been applied in workplaces, classrooms, and even product design with the goal of shaping participants’ behavior — and more than a decade later, its momentum is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, one report shows that the gamification market size is projected to grow from $9.1 billion in 2020 to $30.7 billion by 2025, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 27.4%.

In this article, we’ll explore what gamification is and how it applies to workplace learning. We’ll also provide some tips to help you incorporate it into your learning program.

What Is Gamification and How Does It Apply to Learning?

“Gamification” refers to the application of game design principles and mechanics to tasks and processes that aren’t ordinarily considered games, such as learning or workplace training.

That said, gamification isn’t necessarily about playing games, though that can be one way to deliver training and foster skill-building — it’s more about incorporating some of the features that popular games use to keep players engaged and motivated, such as badges, points, rankings, and leveling up.

If you’re considering adding gamification elements to your learning and development (L&D) program, it’s important to note that gamification isn’t a cure-all for a program not meeting its goals.

According to a paper titled “Gamification of Adult Learning: Gamifying Employee Training and Development” and published by Landers et al., one of the biggest mistakes you can make is assuming that gamification can compensate for poor learning materials. Ultimately, gamification is an instructional design process — it’s not the material itself.

“A gamification intervention could be as simple as adding a progress bar to an employee leadership training slide presentation,” the authors wrote. “In this case, a progress bar would not be the method by which a user learned, and consequently could not improve the training if the existing content was inadequate. However, if the instructional content facilitated learning, the progress bar could indirectly improve learning by increasing a user’s motivation to learn by providing progress feedback.”

Examples of Gamification in Learning and Development

Defining gamification is one thing, but figuring out how you might apply it to L&D at your company is quite another. Here are just a few examples of how learning can be gamified:

  • Quizzes with leaderboards: Many learning platforms test information retention with quizzes, so why not add a leaderboard to incorporate a competitive edge?
  • Gamified learning paths: Visualize your employees’ learning and career paths as “levels” to be unlocked. As each participant completes modules and earns certifications, the badges and titles they accrue will drive them to advance along their own personal path.
  • Team-based learning: Split employees into teams or pairs and have them learn together to foster a spirit of cooperation — not just competition.
  • Scenario-based training: Presenting common workplace scenarios as a puzzle can change learners’ mindsets from rote memorization to curiosity while also providing real-time feedback.

How Can Gamification Benefit Learners in Workplace Training?

Clearly, gamification stands to benefit learners — but how?

  • It provides a source of intrinsic motivation. Self-Determination Theory states that people feel most motivated when they have a strong sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Gamification gives employees more control over their learning and illustrates their competence via scores and public recognition. This boosts their intrinsic motivation, which is a more durable form of encouragement than its external counterpart.
  • It encourages social ties and interactions. Gamified learning gives employees a reason to collaborate with and get to know their co-workers, which in turn facilitates relationship-building.
  • It gives employees rapid feedback. Progress bars, scores, leaderboards, and other gamification elements provide real-time feedback on where employees stand.
  • It provides applications for learning. According to a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, one of the key reasons why leadership training fails is that learners can’t figure out how to apply their training to real situations. Gamification can provide structured activities based on scenarios that employees will see on the job, thereby giving them a chance to truly apply what they’ve learned.

How to Implement a Gamification Strategy

Now that you know what gamification is and how to deploy it within the workplace, let’s look at some key things to keep in mind when gamifying your learning program.

1. Audit your existing instructional material

Gamification can help improve learner attitudes and retention, but it shouldn’t be used to overcome outdated or irrelevant material. Remember: Gamification isn’t a substitute for useful material, it’s simply a way to improve how learning is delivered.

With this in mind, audit your existing training materials to ensure they are relevant, up to date, and provide everything your employees need to do their jobs and grow in their careers.

2. Determine whether you really need gamification

As Landers et al. stated in their research, gamification should be a way to enhance and rethink existing learning delivery mechanisms. If your learning programs are already driving strong outcomes, you may not actually need to add any gamified elements. Don’t do it just for the sake of jumping on the trend.

3. Remember that it’s about learning, not winning

While gamification can help motivate employees and build a layer of fun into training, your employees should be focused on learning and growing — not beating their co-workers at a game. Be sure to check in from time to time to ensure your desired learning outcomes are still the top priority.

4. Start small and test

One great thing about gamification is that it doesn’t require you to throw out what you already have or immediately make a large investment. Before going all in, why not experiment by adding one or two gamified elements to a portion of your L&D program, then seeing how that impacts the outcomes you want to drive?

5. Make results visible

Encourage learners to share their results on internal and external social media platforms — seeing how they stack up against the competition will motivate them to stay engaged and focused.

Find a Performance Management Platform That Makes It Easy

Gamifying your L&D programs can be difficult to do at scale, which is where performance management platforms come in. That said, not every performance management platform is created equal, so look for systems that offer features like:

  • Leaderboards
  • Badges
  • Social media integrations
  • Artificial intelligence (AI)-based matching to help learners connect with peers

Although it shouldn’t be viewed as a substitute for instructional material that’s missing the mark, gamification can be a powerful tool to increase learner engagement and outcomes. When incorporating it into your learning program, start slowly and see how your learners react — it could be exactly what you need to take your L&D program to the next level.

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