Why gamification works

20th Nov 2015

I previously wrote a post here about gamification and concluded (with some small caveats) that it is a useful technique which can work. In this post I’d like to highlight some of the key reasons why it works.

1. Gamification creates experiences

As learning professionals, we may be able to produce great learning interventions, but that alone may not be enough. We can learn here from companies like Nike.

They had a reputation for making some of the world’s best sportswear, but found themselves facing increasing competition from other brands. The introduction of Nike+ gave their customers a platform where they could record and share their achievements, benchmark their own performance and compete with others. What was previously just a product, became an experience that was focussed on using the product to increase performance.

Workplace learning is largely focussed on producing training as an event (product) when it should be creating experiences.

2. People respond to rewards

Reward is at the heart of most gamification strategies, and with good reason.

Here’s the science bit: There is a whole area of the human brain (and that of other mammals) given over to reward. When we are rewarded for doing something our brain produces a chemical called dopamine. This travels along several neural pathways, one of which leads to a group of structures in the brain called the reward system, which when stimulated gives us a pleasurable feeling. [1]

In really simple terms - when we are rewarded there is a real, physical response which makes us feel good.

3. Instant recognition

Gamified systems provide immediate reward and recognition, which is something that many people don’t get as part of their work.

Take a look around you and you’ll probably see a good number of people wearing fitness trackers, smart watches or some other wearable device. They might be tracking their everyday activity, or using them to focus on some serious fitness goals.

There are also work based tools like Todoist, which reward users with karma points for completing tasks on their to do lists. Even email gets the gamification treatment with apps like Mailbox, Boxer and Mail Pilot all coming up with new ways to get you to plough through your inbox.

4. People value what they have to work for

Whether it’s tracking every day activity, improving your fitness, ticking tasks of a to do list or emptying your inbox, there are some common factors that we should be aware of.

  1. We value these things more when we have to work for them. We link the effort that we have put in with the reward that we get back.

  2. Gamification adds value to things that we would have done anyway. The tasks on the to do list need to be done whether or not we get karma points, but the additional reward provides motivation beyond the act of completing the task.

  3. We don’t value things if we think that they are too easy. Being rewarded for showing up is not enough - we need to feel that we’ve achieved something.

Most of us are using gamified systems of some kind or another - to get fit, be more productive, or learn something like a language or to play a musical instrument. What are you using, and how can the same techniques be applied to your learning materials?


  [1]       I am not a neuroscientist and this is a gross oversimplification of the processes that are actually happening in the brain!

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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