Gamification is a hot topic that’s showing up everywhere, including in employee training and learning. A 2017 study from learning design company Bottom-Line Performance found that a growing number of employers (35 percent of the employers surveyed) are incorporating games and gamification into their learning strategies.
To get up to speed on this trend, we talked to two learning experts for a primer on games and corporate learning. Keep reading for insights and tips from Bottom-Line Performance founder Sharon Boller and from Kevin Werbach, a Wharton associate professor who teaches a course on gamification on Coursera.
Why Games Matter
Even when employees are learning serious, job-focused material, learning is “an experience,” Werbach says. “It’s a journey.”
“Game thinking forces designers to focus hard on two questions: how to get users to engage, and how to keep them involved over time,” he says. In other words, games push learning designers to think about why employees care about the content, not just about the content itself.
Furthermore, games aren’t about disguising the “vegetables” of a learning program. “The point of adding game elements to any business process is not to hide something inherently boring with flashy pop-ups,” Werbach explains. “It’s to find the fun that makes the process into a more game-like experience.”
Boller, who specializes in designing learning games, says there are several key elements of games that sync with a successful learning program:
- Motivation. We all want to succeed at a new challenge, and a game is the perfect way to dial up motivation and competition.
- Relevant practice to try out what you’re learning. Through turn-based play in a game, we get a chance to practice new skills.
- Specific, timely feedback. Games provide rich, constant feedback, so students can adjust their behavior in real time to improve.
- Spacing over time. Most people play a game multiple times, which helps them learn through repetition.
- A story. Stories and their cousins, themes, are often incorporated into games and serve as powerful memory stimulators.
Learning Games vs. Gamification
Before you jump into gamified learning, it’s important to understand the distinction between learning games and gamification, Boller says. Most people group the two concepts together. If you’re not clear on the difference, here’s what you need to know:
- Gamification is applying game elements to any non-game context. Your frequent-flier program is gamified. Anytime you use leaderboards or points to motivate people, you’re gamifying your program. Gamified elements can be embedded in a curriculum, but they are not the curriculum itself.
- Learning games are actual games, specifically designed to help people learn information more easily. In a learning game, the game is the curriculum.
Both strategies can help people learn more quickly, and enjoy the learning experience. Gamifying an existing learning program is fairly easy — turning a learning program into a competition is a quick tweak. But developing true learning games is a more time-consuming endeavor, and likely involves partnering with a company with experience designing games.
Putting the Concept into Action
Games have been around in K-12 education for a long time, Boller says. Picture the spelling-word races and multiplication-table drills of your elementary school days — simple games to help you remember concepts.
According to Boller, corporations have historically been nervous about using games because they worry that it might seem frivolous. But the gamification trend has made it OK to say the word “game” in business settings, Boller says, opening the door to more learning games at work.
Boller points to two companies that are using learning games in innovative (and very different) ways: TE Connectivity, and Mosaic.
1. TE Connectivity
TE Connectivity is an electrical engineering company that works with independent sales representatives to get its products to buyers. Those reps often sell hundreds of different product lines. TE wanted to expand reps’ knowledge about its product applications and customer types. It created a mobile game, TE Town, to help them build that knowledge through play.
One noteworthy feature of TE Town, Boller explains, is that reps can play it in 5-minute increments. “There’s a ton of spacing and repetition designed into the game,” she says. TE Town has won multiple awards, and anyone can download it on iOS to get a peek.
The Mosaic Co. is a phosphate mining business based in Tampa, Florida. The company was looking for a game to add to its five-day new-employee orientation. It needed the game to be face to face and led by an instructor — not digital. It started using a tabletop cooperative game that reviews all of the key safety behavior employees learn during the course. In the game, new employees work together to respond to critical safety situations, drawing on the curriculum they’ve just learned.
How Employers Can Add Games to a Learning & Development Program
If you’re interested in injecting the fun of a game into your learning and development program, Boller suggests starting small. “Pick an initiative and consider how you could use a game to support it,” she says.
She also encourages learning leaders to think just as much about the implementation as the game design. “Creating the game doesn’t solve the motivation problem,” she says. “Games can be intriguing but also intimidating. You need a whole marketing campaign around the game to get people to engage. It doesn’t just happen on its own.”
Werbach agrees: “So much of successful gamification is not the particular technology or a totally new concept, but the little details of implementation. What works for employee safety training at a fast-food restaurant might not work for professional development in a management consulting firm. Firms have very different cultures, and the gamification solutions that work best will have to match their cultures.” The most important element of designing a learning game, he says, is figuring out what really matters to users, and linking that into their learning experience.
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