Gamification in learning: why does it work?



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10 mins

illustration of gamification

Gamification in learning – adding ‘game’ style elements such as rewards, badges and leaderboards – is proven to help improve uptake of eLearning courses. Why does it work, and how can you incorporate it into your training programmes?

One of the biggest challenges with onboarding new employees is getting them up to speed. Food chain Leon had been training up new members of staff through a combination of printed learning materials and eLearning, but had been getting mixed results. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, it decided to take a different approach. New employees now complete a series of minigames and interactive scenarios via their smartphones, covering menu content, health and safety, and company values. The company has been able to measure the impact, too: employees’ knowledge has jumped from 50%, when they start the learning, to 92%, while 95% feel they better understand Leon values.

Krister Kristiansen, UK managing director at Attensi, the company that created the gamified learning for Leon, says that learning sticks when delivered in this format because people like to feel a sense of mastery. “People learn better when they actively engage in the content. Think about how we feel when we master a level of a video game: it releases endorphins when we reach that achievement. This creates positive reinforcement to do things the right way, and learning sticks in a way that’s much deeper,” he explains. More and more organisations are catching on to gamified learning as a core element of the training they offer employees: the market is set to grow by 27% a year by 2025, according to business research company MarketsandMarkets.

Gamification as a concept has been around for some time, and the term tends to be used to describe how we apply game-style mechanics to experiences we would not normally associate with ‘play’. Examples include wellbeing apps that encourage users to ‘climb Everest’ by getting enough steps or ‘build streaks’ by completing a certain number of minutes’ meditation. The idea is that by incentivising someone to do the same thing again, it turns that activity into a habit. At work, this might be trying out a difficult customer service conversation or working out how to use a piece of kit. In 2019, a survey by learning management software company Talent LMS found that gamification in learning helped 89% of employees feel more productive, and 88% felt happier at work as a result.

Learn more: How gamified learning platforms support your quest for continuous development >

Far from the perception that games are just for younger employees or learning noncritical skills, gamification in learning is gaining traction across an ever-wider range of scenarios. At one end of the spectrum, quizzes and competitions can help embed knowledge in areas such as health and safety or compliance eLearning, while virtual and augmented reality offer the opportunity for employees to immerse themselves in experiences they need for their role. By engaging in simulations of potential interactions that might come up in their job – such as complex surgery or a difficult engineering procedure – employees can see the results of their actions without the risk that a real-life situation might entail. One example is the Ministry of Defence, which last year announced it would trial a new virtual reality training game using the same simulator engine that underpins the popular combat game Fortnite. The interactive game allows 30 soldiers to take part in a virtual battlefield combat, wearing VR headsets and holding replica guns as they move through the simulation. SimCentric, the company that developed the simulation, claims it will offer a more ‘realistic, intuitive and immersive’ way to experience combat without entering the battlefield.

It may seem counterintuitive to overload employees with more digital learning at a time when many have been spending hours on Zoom calls – technology analysts Fosway Group recently reported that almost half of organisations felt digital learning fatigue, despite the surge in demand for eLearning courses during the pandemic. But the incentive of scoring higher or getting something right encourages repeat attempts and high engagement with the content. Running a Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-style quiz to help employees know their obligations around GDPR compliance (as clothing retailer Superdry did, for example) is more likely to engage employees than a 20-deck slideshow or lengthy video.

Bringing the virtual and the physical together means the learning can be directly applied when employees need it. Toby Gilchrist, head of implementation services – LMS at Digits says: “On-the-job activities capture things that will be used and assessed in the real world, and this can be good for evaluating employees’ performance. Learning platforms such as Digits LMS can connect any rewards or ‘badges’ employees gain through their learning to HR and talent management systems so managers can map where skills may be lacking, or adapt courses based on the feedback from the data.”

Having a ‘safe space’ in which to make mistakes and try again is one of the key benefits of learning through games. “When we relate games to learning we call them ‘serious games’,” says Noorie Sazen, director of learning consultancy Saffron Interactive. “They must have a purpose in terms of changing behaviour – using motivational factors and other techniques that drive that change. They can simulate environments where we have to make decisions, or come across dilemmas we might face at work. Depending on those decisions, certain consequences apply, but because it’s digital you can play [the scenarios] over and over again.”

But while badges, scores and league tables can add an element of fun to the learning process and support how organisations measure success, it’s important not to add these for the sake of it. “It needs to be relevant, personal, and there needs to be emotional investment,” adds Sazen. “Digital games can be enabling but the overall strategy has to underpin them.” In building people’s tolerance for failure they can acquire softer skills and learn to adapt, too. “Organisations worry about people losing motivation when they lose but they learn a lot more that way than if they get a high score. Why was I kicked out of the game? What decision did I get wrong? Denying people the chance to learn from their mistakes is counterproductive,” she says.

While gamification in learning gained in popularity during the pandemic as a way to train up new and existing staff remotely, it also works well as part of a blended learning strategy. Organisations can use it before an in-person training session to bring learners up to a similar level so the classroom training can be delivered more efficiently, or it can be used afterwards (or even during) to reflect on what has been shared. Kristiansen says: “We have clients that use it before, during and after classroom learning. It can ensure you have a minimum common denominator if users play before, or people can discuss their hypothetical experiences. You can use the eLearning to reinforce the high-level messages from the class and people can see how they compare to their peers – the bits they’re good at, and where they struggle.” Delivering short games or quizzes via smartphone apps means that employees who are time-poor can access them on-the-fly, compared with traditional learning approaches that require employees to book time away from their usual tasks to attend a course. Time spent on in-person learning can be reduced but also maximised, Kristiansen points out.

With virtual reality (VR) and other types of immersive learning, many aspects of that in-person experience can be replicated. Cost had been a barrier in the past, but the hardware required for this is becoming cheaper and more accessible. VR headsets still cost an average of £250 to £300 each, but this can work out more cost-effective than sending teams of people on an off-site training course. “It does become more cost-efficient as you begin to roll it out at scale,” says Sophie Thompson, co- founder of Virtual Speech, a training platform for soft skills. “Compare it to flying people to the same location for training or a night in a hotel; you can have a few headsets employees can borrow and you get the cost back immediately.” Virtual Speech helps individuals build skills in areas such as public speaking or communication by allowing them to ‘experience’ that important sales presentation or conference appearance. Artificial intelligence gathers data points about speed, delivery, pauses and other elements so they can receive feedback on their performance and target how they improve. “They have the freedom to make mistakes without consequences or the embarrassment of losing a big sale,” she adds. “It also enables them to quantify their progress in a way we haven’t been able to for soft skills before. It’s really motivating for people to see their scores improve if there’s an area they needed to work on.”

Because games are so effective at promoting behavioural change, they are increasingly used to embed values and culture. One of Saffron Interactive’s most effective projects was with tyre manufacturer Michelin, for example. The company discovered that its most famous asset – the Michelin Man – was being used to advertise off-brand and inferior products, at a potentially huge cost to its reputation. It developed a blended learning programme that included eLearning, face-to-face training and finally a TV-show-style contest at sales conferences, designed to help sales managers understand how dealers could be eroding brand value. This had financial implications for them because cutting ties with certain dealers would mean less commission, so the learning had to encourage them to do the right thing. “The quiz game [created] an emotional investment around the fact the tyres have been shown to save lives,” she explains. “When they measured brand value again, it had increased by $1 billion, with roughly $100 million of this attributed to the dealers’ training programme.”

Just as gaming can help to embed values and culture, it can’t ‘fix’ a culture that is not ready to learn. Introducing gamified learning needs to be part of a wider learning strategy that complements the goals and values of the organisation, rather than being bolted-on because managers think it will be entertaining or fun. Done badly or for the sake of it, gamified learning can end up disengaging employees. It can further embed current (undesirable) habits because they are turned off by the learning and dismissive of it. Sazen concludes: “If it’s too generic learners can’t relate, so they need to see themselves reflected in the learning, or it won’t embed the kind of behavioural change your organisation wants.”

Five key takeaways

  1. Know your strategy and use gamified learning to underpin it. What outcomes do you want to achieve?
  2. Think about how games can be part of a blended learning strategy, embedding classroom learning or preparing learners
  3. Use simple nuggets such as quizzes or short games so time-poor employees can learn on the fly
  4. Make gamified learning relevant. Learners need to see how to apply what they’re doing in their day-to-day role
  5. Don’t dismiss virtual reality as being too expensive. Hardware is becoming cheaper, and VR can be more cost effective than in-person training

This is an extract from Good Work, Great Technology: Enabling strategic success through digital tools.