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Three Steps to Effective Gamification at Work

Bob Little 

May 4, 2018

In the first part of our series on gamification, we talked about some of the key dos and don’ts of designing and introducing enterprise games. In this instalment, we look at some key successes and failures of gaming in the workplace. We also explore a three-step framework for achieving effective gamification.

The Rise of Gamification

Candy Crush Saga™, Farmville™, Angry Birds™. These are just some of the absurdly simple mobile games that have taken the world by storm in recent years. But why? What is it about these annoyingly addictive games that makes them so… well… addictive?

According to cyberpsychologist Berni Good, and Jamie Madigan from The Psychology of Video Games, one of the main reasons is the quick rewards that these games offer. You perform an action, you’re rewarded, you “level up,” and so on. What this means is that you’re constantly getting “pleasure hits,” which makes you crave more. And, before you know it, you’re addicted!

So, it’s unsurprising that workplaces have begun to increase their interest in gaming in a bid to engage and motivate workers, and to help them learn. Just think about LinkedIn’s progress bar, for example, or Nike+, a website that athletes can use to track their progress toward their fitness goals, which currently has over 28 million users.

And, despite predictions that it could soon be “game over” for gamification, the market is still going strong. In fact, industry analysts, The Company of Thought, estimate that the market will achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 46.3 percent between 2015 and 2020, when it will reach a whopping $11.1 billion! 

But It’s Not Always That Easy

Then again, throwing money at gamification just because it’s “on trend” doesn’t mean it will necessarily work out.

For every success, there’s been a failure, too. Did you know, for example, that you could earn badges on your Google+ profile by reading articles on Google News? No? Because, well, it was a bit of a pointless exercise. People don’t need to be rewarded for reading articles online, as that’s what most of us do, most days.

Another notable failure is Marriott’s Farmville-inspired game My Marriott Hotel, which was introduced as part of its recruitment strategy on Facebook. But, while the game looked very sharp, its limited audience meant that engagement was well below par. And, despite Marriott’s initial plans to launch more games in the series, they have yet to do so.

Many of these missteps, however, are down to organizations “jumping on the bandwagon” without really thinking about what they want their gamification platform to achieve, and how it should be designed to ensure that these goals are met.

As Brian Burke, vice president at Gartner, declared in 2012, “Poor game design is one of the key failings of many gamified applications. The focus is on the obvious game mechanics, such as points, badges and leaderboards, rather than the more subtle and more important game design elements, such as balancing competition and collaboration, or defining a meaningful game economy.”

A Three-Step Framework

An Coppens, chief game designer at Gamification Nation, suggested in 2017 that, for gamification to be truly successful, organizations need to have a clear “endgame” in mind from the outset.

“Organizations need to be mindful that introducing game mechanics may introduce – and encourage – behaviors you don’t want in your workers,” she said.

“For example, a leaderboard of your people’s actions introduces competition, which you may not want to achieve. If, for example, collaboration is an objective, team quests or adventures may be more appropriate.

“Either way, your gamification needs to fit with the culture of the organization and the people working for it.”

Coppens continued, “Many people assume that all learners are looking for competition and that this will stimulate them to learn more.

“Most learners have a plethora of reasons for why they learn. The key is to understand these and design [games] to satisfy the learners’ preferences.”

To create and implement a system that really works, Coppens suggested using a framework that she called the “Three Levels of Learning Gamification.” Before you do this, however, she advises developing a “solid gamification design,” which takes into account your:

  • Business specifics. These include your KPIs and metrics, your business culture, and your objectives.
  • Players. Who are they? What’s their motivation for playing the game? What behavior do you want them to achieve by playing it?
  • Gamification design. The design process, from creation and testing, through to implementation and support.

Once you’ve gathered all this information, you can start to work through the three levels of Coppens’s framework. These are:

Level 1: Content Gamification

At this stage, you need to think about what learning style your people tend to prefer, and how the gamification platform can facilitate this. As Coppens explained, “The starting point for learning-related gamification is all about content. If you think back to your early years, most of the learning you did happened through exploration and feedback of whether it worked or not.

“It is still a default learning setting for a lot of learners to want to be in charge of how, when and which way they learn best.”

So, the key is to make the learner feel like he or she is in charge of the game; that they have choices, and that those choices have consequences (good or bad). Often, the best way to learn is by making mistakes. When we get things right the first time, it can often be a “fluke” and we may find it hard to replicate, or to remember what we did.

Also, think about what type of content will best suit your objectives. For instance, quests and missions will likely help to stimulate collaboration, while scenario-based content will give users the opportunity to explore the real-life applications of their learning.

Level 2: Systems Gamification

You also need to design a system that will allow learners to progress – typically toward mastery. You can do this through either encouragement or competition.

While competition can be a healthy part of business, Coppens argueed that “it is only a positive experience for those at the top of the league table.”

She added, “From the feedback I keep receiving in my work with learners from the corporate sector, I am part of a vast majority of learners who would rather learn privately, and only display a skill publicly once they have mastered it.”

Ultimately, what learners need is a system that lets them know that they are achieving progress toward their learning goals. This helps to encourage regular interaction and to boost engagement over the long term.

It is also at this level that you can begin to think about the fun aspects of the game: for example, badges, reward statements, or bonuses that help to boost your power or energy. Coppens also advised keeping these aspects of the game consistent with your corporate messaging and wider branding.

Level 3: Evidence of Learning Gamification

Finally, you need to provide “proof of mastery” to your learners. Ultimately, this is the purpose of your game and why people will want to play it. It will also enable you to assess how successful your gamification project has been.

There are a number of ways to provide “proof of mastery”:

  • Set an end-of-course quiz or exam for learners.
  • Allow learners to give feedback on the course, and to rate the content.
  • Assign levels to learners based on their performance – Basic, Intermediate or Advanced, for example.
  • Ask learners how they have applied their learning, and get them to provide evidence of this.
  • Get feedback from third parties (for example, teachers or mentors) on the learners’ progress.
  • Allow learners to become coaches or mentors on the topic.

Do you use gamification in your organization? Has it been a success or a failure? What would you do differently next time? Share your thoughts in the Comments section, below.

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