26h Feb 2015

Gamification is definitely one of the big topics for 2015, and not just in learning - marketing and customer engagement are two areas in which gamification is expected to have an increasing role. However, learning is the area in which gamification really seems to be taking hold and leading the way.

There are a whole raft of startups like Codeacademy that use gamification to teach a wide range of skills (programming in the case of Codeacademy) and it’s making its way into workplace learning too.

Isn’t it all about games?

When I talk to people about gamification, their first response is often to be dismissive, usually because their perception is that gamification is all about playing games. That doesn’t fit well with most organisations because it summons visions of employees playing and having fun without purpose (think about last day of term at primary school when everyone brought in games and you get the picture).

However, it isn’t (just) about playing games. Wikipedia defines it as:

the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users' self contributions.

At its most basic we could think of gamification as building in a degree of challenge to your learning activities and then giving suitable rewards for overcoming them.

But does it work?

In a word, yes. Gamification is big business, and as a result there is a lot of academic interest in measuring its effectiveness. In their paper Does Gamification Work? – A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification. (2014) Hamari, Koivisto, and Sarsa set out to review previously published, peer reviewed empirical studies on gamification. They concluded that:

The review indicates that gamification provides positive effects, however, the effects are greatly dependent on the context in which the gamification is being implemented, as well as on the users using it.

The contexts they are referring to are ecommerce, marketing, health etc. They found that education and learning was the area in which most research had been done. Their review showed that results were mostly positive, with demonstrable increases in motivation, engagement and enjoyment of the learning activity. There was also a note of caution about the possibility that increased competition could have potential negative effects.

The research also concluded that where the users’ interaction with the gamified system was sporadic there was less engagement, probably because they weren’t spending enough time within the system to become interested in it. This may go some way to explaining why it has been shown to work so well in learning - after all it is the nature of workplace learning that employees are usually engaged with it for a specific period (whether that’s hours, days, weeks or months).

So how does this relate to an LMS?

Typically we see gamification applied to learning content, but there are significant advantages in using it within the delivery platform - e.g. the LMS.

In my previous post on this blog, I talked about learning journeys and the importance of the LMS interface to learner engagement, and that could be significantly enhanced by gamification. In that post I said that learning journeys…

…aren’t just fixed paths, they encourage exploration and customisation on the part of the learner in how they approach their learning

We can apply gamification to that scenario by giving learners rewards for their achievements. We might use those rewards to encourage them to take different paths - for example by giving bigger rewards for completing the more challenging elements.

Those rewards are often in a form similar to those you might find in a video game:

  • Unlocking access to higher levels
  • Awarding of points and badges
  • A place on the leaderboard
  • Access to ‘fun’ activities

Rewards need to be appropriate to the type of learning activity. Something short term, perhaps a specific programme such as induction, may well benefit from badges. In a longer term activity, such as a leadership programme that takes many months, badges may not be enough to sustain learner motivation.

It’s also important that rewards are earned. In an induction programme it may be that someone completes a specific activity and receives a badge - participation is enough. In the leadership programme there will need to be more evidence that the reward has been earned - if anyone can easily get the reward, learners will not value it.

Is gamification right for everything?

Gamification is another tool that we can use, but that doesn’t mean it should be applied to every learning intervention. It needs to have a purpose and it needs to be aligned to the learning objectives and therefore, we hope, to business objectives.

What do you think - is gamification right for you and your organisation? Can you think of existing or planned activity that would benefit from gamification?

About the author
Barry Samson

Barry Sampson is a consultant focusing on the use of technology to improve workplace performance. In 2009 he co-founded Onlignment, a consultancy specialising in organisational communication and learning. Previously he worked in a range of delivery and management roles in HR and Learning & Development before becoming Learning Technology Manager at B&Q where he led a number of award-winning elearning and blended learning programmes.

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