What exactly is gamification?
Gamification is the “application of game-design elements and game principles (dynamics and mechanics) in non-game contexts” (Wikipedia). The idea behind it is: games are fun, work is (often) not. Bring some playful elements into work, and it will be more fun. Or paraphrasing Wikipedia: “The integration of these game-design elements is essentially intended to increase the motivation of people who otherwise have to perform tasks that are either not very challenging, or too monotonous or too complex”. Applied to our field of Learning & Development, this means that an unattractive learning process can become more attractive through gamification and, in the best case, even be fun.
Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Well, in our opinion, it is not that easy. Because this is not a simple recipe along the lines of “if learners don’t feel like learning, add a few game elements, then everyone will be totally motivated, and learning will be really fun”. However, stating that gamification is a waste of time is also not true. Let’s clear up two misconceptions of gamification to understand its benefits.
Misconception no. 1: A reward leads to the repetition of the desired behaviour
The game elements that are frequently chosen when implementing gamification in training concepts are points, badges, leaderboards and levels. These are all extrinsic motivators, namely: if you do A, you will get B. And that’s exactly the problem. The extrinsic motivation, i.e., the points, badges and rank in the leaderboard, replace the actual goal of the activity (learning, in our case). What does this lead to? It may actually result in people (unconsciously) spending more time on training content, but it often doesn’t result in them learning more. On the contrary, when it comes to points or even a bigger win, people are quick to focus their energies on finding shortcuts to get there. This is colloquially known as cheating. We have implemented gamification projects in which we saw this behaviour first hand. That is why we are now more careful when dealing with gamification’s alleged motivation booster.
Misconception no. 2: The mediocrity of the masses
The theory of the mediocrity of the masses (Douglas McGregor: Theory X and Theory Y) assumes that the average person prefers to be guided, does not want to take responsibility, has relatively little ambition and, above all, plays it safe. If you believe in the mediocrity of the masses, then tools like control, instruction, and gamification make sense. However, if we assume that the average person is not work-shy per se and derives satisfaction and motivation from meaningful tasks, the instruments mentioned above become superfluous. In short: we believe that people are intrinsically motivated. We at SAPERED are motivated to do our job well, to learn and to become better at what we do, and we are definitely awesome, but average people. Of course, there are also the unmotivated and uninspired, but they certainly cannot be saved by gamification.
What does this mean for gamification in trainings?
Gamification as a collection of extrinsic motivators has no place in trainings since learning is always intrinsically motivated. If intrinsic motivation is lacking, it must be created through appropriate experiences (see Nick Shackelton Jones, “How people learn”) or through a clear definition of purpose that places work in a meaningful context.
Gamification can be a source of inspiration to create a work environment that promotes intrinsic motivation. Here are a few examples to make the idea more tangible:
The assumption that we can learn anything and constantly evolve can lead to a (learning) culture in which employees see learning as part of their work and develop themselves further beyond ready-made career paths.
In a game, players get constant feedback on their performance: a foul in sports leads to a sanction and a poorly controlled Mario quickly loses a life in glowing lava. Employees also want to know where they stand in the work environment. As in a game, direct feedback promotes continuous development and intrinsic motivation to keep going.
The better you get at a game, the more challenging it becomes. Applying this principle to work means that employees take on new tasks that allow them to grow. Maybe they can even have the opportunity to devote themselves to completely new topics?
You usually lose more often than you win. In a game, this has bearable consequences, in real life, not so much. Safe spaces can also be integrated into the work environment, as can a positive view on failure. A safe space promotes the courage to learn and apply new behaviours and helps creatures of habit like us to change.
As you can see, gamification is much more than points and badges, and it’s not about climbing to the top of a leaderboard either. In our opinion, gamification in the field of Learning & Development is about creating an environment (maybe even a culture) in which people can develop in a self-motivated manner. Gamification serves us as a source of inspiration. We want to turn employees into players, not pawns.
PS: If you want to read more about motivation, we recommend “Drive” by Daniel H. Pink. If you would rather have a summary on the topic, you can read a blog post about it here soon.