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Gamification Dos and Don’ts for Business

Bob Little 

April 27, 2018

“Ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve and then build a game around it. If you want to get something done, turn it into a game.”

– Mark Twain, “Tom Sawyer”


Games are key to human development. From the moment that we’re born, play helps us learn to walk, run, speak, count, read, and so on. Games give us a “safe space” in which we can explore different tactics and scenarios without having to face any of the real-life consequences.

So, it’s unsurprising that many workplaces use games to encourage their people to learn. After all, computer-based games are often cheaper and more convenient than face-to-face training. They can also slot into workers’ busy schedules relatively easily. In addition, they offer people the chance to learn practical, workplace skills in a way that’s engaging, immersive and fun.

Games, Game-Based Learning and Gamification

First let’s define exactly what we mean by the term “gamification.”

People often confuse it with more generalized games or game-based learning. But, in fact, all three are very different.

Let’s start with games. These can include anything from chess to Super Mario World™. They are fun and enjoyable, but this doesn’t mean that you will necessarily learn anything by playing them. However, when you apply aspects of game theory to learning, you create game-based learning. Some schools, for instance, have begun to use the popular sandbox building game Minecraft™ in the classroom, because it enables students to be creative and problem-solve.

Similar to game-based learning, gamification’s core objective is to help people to learn. But while game-based learning is about missions, challenges, time factors, and rules, gamification is about points, levels, badges, and leaderboards.

Gamification is built around a system of “participation and reward.”

Many companies use it to engage learners by rewarding them once they’ve successfully completed a certain task or reached a certain skill level. The use of leaderboards, badges and medals also adds a layer of competition to gamification. This can be a powerful tool for boosting motivation, engagement and productivity.

The Benefits of Gamification

The main benefit of gamification is its ability to turn something that’s relatively boring into something that’s engaging, fun and interesting.

In 2016, for instance, global consultancy KPMG launched the web-based game, KPMG Globerunner, which gets employees to answer questions on tax and policy to unlock new locations and earn points. These scores go up on a global leaderboard.

As Christian Gossan, director at KMPG International explains, “It’s dry material. We needed to do something different and fun – and which involved game elements like time pressure, rapid feedback and scores to engage people.”

So far, Globerunner has proved largely successful, with over 25,000 KPMG workers playing it. And, although it’s mandatory for new workers, many existing executives – including senior staff members – play to refresh their knowledge.

Gamification has been shown to improve the rate at which people absorb and retain knowledge. It also allows people to clearly see the benefits and real-life applications of their learning.

The Dos and Don’ts of Good Gamification

Unfortunately, not all enterprise games are as successful as KPMG Globerunner, with research firm Gartner estimating that a whopping 80 percent fail.

So, in this section, we’ll take a look at some of the key dos and don’ts of choosing gamification software.


1. Let special effects seduce you.

Don’t let “snazzy” graphics fool you. Sure, your game may look great. But will it actually get the job done?

“People look at the game’s ‘polish’ and don’t have the time or expertise to dig into whether it does what it’s supposed to do,” says Lee Sheldon, professor of interactive media and game development. Instead, Sheldon encourages organizations to get employees to test the game first, so they can check that it works in the way it’s supposed to.

“Serious games can be graphically ‘clunky’ but they get the job done and can be fun,” says gaming expert, Dr. Pam Kato.

Games don’t have to be computer-based, either. They could be board games or group role-playing games, which can be useful when teaching leadership, negotiation, sales techniques, and cooperation.

2. Unthinkingly opt for games that offer “rewards.” 

While rewards and leaderboards are a great way to instil some healthy competition among your people and boost motivation, engagement with this type of game play can be short-lived.

As Kato explains, “Extrinsic rewards, such as points, badges and leaderboards, provide an appealing dopamine rush for learners/players. But the learners’ motivation risks tailing off when those rewards stop.

“What gains attention, and helps players remember and practice what they learn, are the intrinsic rewards that one might get from simply mastering a subject or helping others.” An intrinsic reward ultimately has to mean something to the user: learning for its own sake, for instance, or because it helps him or her to progress in their career.

3. Use it to shame people.

A game is meant to be fun and challenging, whether you win or lose. However, a work-based, educational game that focuses on both top performers and underperformers (especially one that’s made public) can have the opposite effect. It may even damage the confidence, morale and motivation of learners – particularly those with low scores.

As Lee Sheldon puts it, “That’s not a game. It’s punishment.”

Instead, aim to focus on the positives. KPMG Globerunner’s annual global tournament – which pits teams from different countries against one another – uses a leaderboard that lists only the top 100 players, for instance. As KPMG’s Gossan clarifies, “There’s no loserboard. We’re not using performance to grade employees.”


1. Embrace Fantasy

Although some professions, like medicine or the armed forces, will require simulations and games to be serious, others don’t have to be! In fact, precise, real-life simulations aren’t always necessary to get the job done. An element of fantasy can be humorous and fun, and it can allow players to relax and experiment.

As Sheldon asserts, “When it’s too serious, they feel evaluated or judged. The game needs to be abstract enough so it doesn’t feel like you’re on the firing line, without losing sight of what the game has to teach.”

Fitness gaming app Zombie’s Run, for instance, gamifies exercise for users by getting runners to imagine they are in a post-apocalyptic world. The app sends you messages and missions while you’re out on your run to enhance your motivation, and to make the experience more exciting.

2. Buy off the shelf and then customize. 

One of the main reasons enterprise gamification can fail is because the games chosen haven’t been tailored to meet the company’s learning objectives. At the same time, designing and implementing a bespoke gamification program will likely take a long time to create, and will be extremely expensive.

This means it can often be better to buy existing games and then customize them to suit the needs of the organization and its learners. Many “off-the-shelf” games allow buyers to make questions harder, to alter the number of reward points, to change deadlines, or to create shorter episodes. However, the game’s basic psychology should be preserved.

And, if the game you choose involves multiple-choice questions, remember to update them regularly. Users will soon figure out the right answers after a few plays. This will make it harder for the learning to sink in, and it could lead to a drop-off in engagement over time.

3. Get the difficulty level right.

If a game is too easy, people will likely fly through it, without really thinking about the questions or challenges that they are working through. They’ll certainly feel a sense of satisfaction at “winning” the game so fast, but they probably won’t learn anything.

However, when a game’s too hard, learners will likely become stuck at a certain level. This may lead to frustration, shame and irritation. On top of this, they could be missing out on essential learning because they cannot move forward.

Yes, games need to challenge learners, but not to the extent that they are put off or give up. So, it’s vital that organizations strike the right balance between simplicity and difficulty.

It can be a good idea to set up different levels of difficulty, to make the game accessible to learners of varying ability. For instance, by creating easy, medium and hard questions; offering different levels of support; or letting learners choose the difficulty level that they want to play at.


To learn more about enterprise games and how to launch them successfully in your organization, check out Part Two of our series on Gamification.

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