Game On

Chelsea Rowe Chelsea Rowe, Driving Productivity, Influence, Innovation, Learning, Learning and Development, Organizational Development, Performance, T+D

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been elbow deep in online learning.  Newsflash: Translating a dynamic live training experience into an equally engaging online learning experience isn’t for the faint of heart.

With the right material, I can get a group of groaning managers to submit themselves to dreaded roll-play exercises in a way that keeps them asking for more role-play opportunities. But can I really translate the same great content with live exercises into an online format where there’s guaranteed to be significantly less interaction and still get the good level of engagement and similar learning outcome?


Gamification! The scientists and the pundits say it works like a charm. Not to mention, all the cool kids are doing it these days (e.g., Nike, Spotify).

But sh*t – there’s my dear old friend, the budget.


So, I do a little more digging into what gamification is, more specifically why it works and when it doesn’t:

– Gamification is a way to get the learner to think about what they’re supposed to be learning… which, in turn, helps them learn it (good ole’ meta-cognition). Which means it doesn’t necessarily mean the design of an immersive and expensive role play video game (“serious games”) like the one the Army uses to recruit. Any time you ask the learner to respond as though they were in a particular scenario, you’re using gamification. If you introduce competition, you’re using gamification. The list goes on, and the right LMS platform can be a great start. Point is, you don’t necessarily have to break the bank to use gamification.

– Gamification doesn’t work by tricking anyone into having fun or being artificially excited (although sometimes it does). I’m naturally skeptical of anything that attempts to trick me into being excited about something that I’m just, well, not into… like cheesy online learning modules—so this came as relief.

– Gamification doesn’t work in scenarios where the learning material is compulsory or mandatory (e.g. critical job skills). The moment something is required, you’ve removed the game aspect. But you can still impact critical talent needs via gamification. There are success stories that show gamification can be used to impact attraction, engagement, and learning/development.

– The overwhelming majority of gamification initiatives fail. One of the first projections I find is one from Gaertner last year which was estimating that 80% of gamification initiatives would fail in 2014. But it’s not because gamification doesn’t work—most experts will tell you it’s because the initiative was poorly designed. Turns out, where most companies and HR pros go wrong is in designing their gamification initiative by going about the process backwards: they started with the goal of using a specific type of gamification and then looked for a problem to solve.

With all that in mind, how do you use gamification in a way that doesn’t set you up for failure from the jump? Here are three steps to get you on the right track:

Step 1: Start by identifying the specific problem you’re trying to solve. Are you trying to affect engagement? Are you trying to address a skill gap? For me, the problem is training.

Step 2: Call out the behaviors or KSAOs you’re looking to change to solve the problem you identified in Step 1. In the example I’m facing—it’s online learner engagement.

Step 3: Match a gamification technique to the behavior/KSAOs you’re trying to impact.

I think it goes without saying—before I get called out in the comments—that the successful use of gamification to address one of your training needs takes more than a good plan. You’ve still got to execute on a high level and commit to continuous testing and improvement. But there’s no reason to set yourself up for failure by going about it backwards. It will likely require some investment, but that cost will largely be a reflection of the gamification strategy you choose. Start here, and you’ll be set up to game it up with the best of them.

FOT Note: This Rant is brought to you by the good folks at Meridian, who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our learning and development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). They’re also up for having fun to the extent that they’re sponsoring a video series, so keep your eyes peeled for that to drop soon.