By Ann Grove
Inspired by The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-Based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, by Karl Kapp.
What is gamification?
Gamification is a method of creating a playful environment where people can learn or grow in desired behavior through:
To an extent, people naturally seek to motivate themselves by creating rewards (Adult example: “If I meet my weight-loss goal, I will invest in an island vacation”), challenges (Youth example: “I bet I'm faster than you”), etc.
Let's consider this from the perspective of an instructional designer. Even when developing a new course, the designer typically has access to much data about the trainees, for instance from other courses. The designer can create a trainee persona and start brainstorming with key trainees to get feedback on ideas. For existing training, a designer can consider amplifying any gaming features that are naturally in place.
What isn’t it?
Gamification does not necessarily mean you make an entire learning experience into a game, although that is an option. It can be much simpler than that. For instance, some classroom trainers give candy or class dollars for participation.
Gamification does not necessarily require technology such as software or hardware. For example, an Employee of the Month Award can be gamified by creating a simple points system.
Gamification is not necessarily a complete departure from what came before. It is often an attempt to formalize and tweak what is already in place. Sometimes learners already are instinctively gamifying, and that can be leveraged.
Gamification can be spontaneous. For instance, learners may create games when performance statistics are available. The insurer Highmark found that doctors immediately worked hard at improving their scores when they saw how they ranked compared to peers.
Gamification does not need to be complicated. For example, a personal alcohol breathalyzer asks a user to guess his or her own blood-alcohol number before displaying results. This builds self-awareness.
Gamification can be risky. In fact, sometimes the results can take you significantly away from your goal.
When is gamification most successful?
Gamification works best for certain types of problems, including:
Elements of gamification
These elements create a playful learning experience:
You can implement the desired gamification elements using these constructs:
Creating a game story
When creating a full game (rather than adding a few gaming constructs), you will use a game script or storyline. Many games rely on a storytelling mechanism called a Hero’s Journey. The player is set in the role of a hero who faces a series of quests to overcome hardship, achieve a mission, and save the day. Often, good battles evil.
Like any story, a game has characters, a backstory, a plot, tension, resources, and so on. For instance, here is how one user describes the storyline for Angry Birds:
The story begins when the pigs steal the birds' eggs. The pigs then build themselves a fortress to defend themselves in case the birds seek revenge. The birds, wanting revenge, try to kill the pigs to rescue their eggs. Each time, the pigs get sneakier and sneakier in developing strategies for stealing eggs.
As you can see, Angry Birds is a Hero's Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is powerful for gaming because it is familiar from movies and real life. For instance, think of Todd Beamer, who died a hero on 9/11/2001 on hijacked Flight 93 and made famous the saying, “Let’s roll.” Learners instinctively know that, cast as heroes, they must meet a challenge.
In full games, the learner manages the unfolding of the story, so the storyline design must accommodate numerous minor decision points, called branching. The more immersive or involved the storyline, the greater the importance of testing to identify how users accidentally and deliberately break a game.
What are the risks?
Because you can’t predict learner response, gamification is risky.
Gamification can be demoralizing and detrimental to desired goals when the data collected is used against the learners. For example, some sales teams have a Wall of Shame for the lowest performers. Admittedly, some sales teams will view this practice as good-natured competition. The tone of how it is received depends largely on the overall morale and culture of the organization and team. When salespeople consistently find themselves on the wall, they do not feel encouraged to win; instead they are driven by fear to not fail. Sometimes this is mentioned in Glassdoor employer reviews.
Learners sometimes respond to rules in unexpected ways. They sometimes “game the rules” to improve individual or team performance. This may actually be good, for instance if innovation is a desired behavior. But it could also inspire detrimental behavior. Staples accidentally gamified the purchasing of office supplies in 2014 by selling some items for a penny under a certain contract. Purchasers had fun with those loss leaders. “Staples delivered penny items with a list-price value of $22.3 million in the contract's first few months, for which it was paid $9,300.”
An organization encourages the behavior it measures and rewards. For instance, if you emphasize competition too much, you lose cooperation. But if you emphasize cooperation and teamwork too much, individual performance may slip.
Learners will ignore game rules that don’t line up with real-life high stakes. For instance, let’s say you try to encourage salespeople to update Salesforce through a competition and the reward is bragging rights, but there are rumors of layoffs if sales quotas aren’t met. The salespeople will typically ignore the gamification challenge in favor of meeting quota.
Sometimes gamification kills intrinsic motivation. This can happen when you try to gamify something that is already fun or interesting. Think about the person who turns a passion into a career; sometimes it vacuums the fun right out of it. Some people say you should reward learners for boring tasks and provide feedback for interesting ones.
The science of applied gamification is still in its infancy. While it shows great promise in influencing behavior, user response is often unanticipated.
A few best practices can help improve efficiency and avoid risk: