“How do I tell my boss that gamification is not a good idea?”

and other good questions from Learning and Development…

I recently returned from Orange County, CA, where I had the pleasure to work with the ATD OC chapter on shedding some lights on Game Thinking in L&D. During the Tapas, Wine and Gamify networking event, I had an enthusiastic audience asking all kinds of questions about gamification for learning. Then, during a two-day workshop, we discussed more thought-proving questions, while exploring the Engage the WORL&D framework.

Here’s some of the questions and answers your colleagues asked me:


How do I tell my boss that gamification is not a good idea?

A: You don’t! You completely agree with your boss. Tell them it’s a great idea to use gamification and offer to investigate the best approach. BUT before you would do that, let’s make sure you understand what the business goals are. If your boss can define what behavior changes they want and what obstacalities are holding back employees to do so, you’re on the right track. So, the trick is not to come off defensive (because you’re right, you do not start with a solution) but without clear actionable items, your gamification (and in fact, learning) project will most likely fail.

Should do gamification or serious games?

A: Neither. Do not start out with the implementation tool mind. Start out with Game Thinking in mind. At the end, you may end up with structural gamification, content gamification, game-based assessments or serious games or inbetween. I would even venture to say that it’s possible you don’t even need any game elements. You will not decide either or, you will decide on the angle of implementation below.

Start with the business goals. Cathy Moore’s action planning is a good way to land on actions. Game Thinking requires action-driven instructional design, as opposed to content-driven design. You should identify what actions you want employees to do (differently) under what circumstances (context) at work. Build 2-3 personas for learners/players/users. You’ll need that for identifying motivators.

Can games be too much fun? Too engaging?

A: Yes. We are not in the entertainment business. In fact, as Karl Kapp points out in his book, game-based learning does not even have to be fun in order to be effective. That’s why design is crucial. Ultimately, you want to achieve flow by challenging learners just enough to be “over their head,” while providing constructive feedback. Often, “gamifying” starts with visually displaying progress to mastery. They key is to align the game objectives with the performance objectives. Let participants take risks, make decisions and face consequences and provide a positive feedback loop for them as a motivator for behavioral change. Too much fun happens when players are learning to beat the game but not learning their job. And so, too much fun can either cause cognitive overload (distraction) or absolute engagement where no learning takes place.

What if someone doesn’t like to play? Would gamification still work?

A: Again, gamification is about motivation and not gameplay. You may end up adding some game mechanics that make learning game-like/gameful but not with an actual gameplay. However, motivation in itself is a long story. On the basic level, you should design with OTHERS in mind. Not everyone is a huge fan of the same movie. Motivation also varies, not only depending on people but even over time. A newhire’s motivation changes after the initial excitement of being hired (exploration), through onboarding, figuring out the ropes with the help of others (scaffolding), mastering the role (mastery). To learn more about user types and motivation, we discussed Andrzej Marczewski’s User Types and watched Yu-kai Chou‘s talk about the 8 core drives.

I want to know more about gamification and game design for learning. Who should I follow?

A: Besides the two gentlemen mentioned above, I would start with Karl Kapp and Kevin Werbach. The wonderful Jane McGonigle can teach you the importance of game in life. Amy Jo Kim will enlighten you on how to use Game Thinking. Cathy Moore is recommended, not for gamification, but what happens before! Monica Cornetti is a great resource for gamification as well. For every day elearning examples, check out Articulate eLearning Heroes‘ page with over 30 examples of adding game elements.

Where do I start?

A: Instructional Designers often make the mistake that after learning all about game design they’re working in the L&D bubble on their own. Unless you’re a genius, I would recommend two things:

1) Find people in the organization who likes to play, who are open to playtest early and frequently and give you honest (brutal) feedback. Create your game thinking club. Play games regularly at lunch. You will need more than your brain and fellow IDs.

2) Work out loud! Share what you’re working on. Find people on social media to connect with (like the mentioned above). Participate in chats (like #lrnchat on Thursdays). You must know game mechanics in order use them. And by know, I mean play in action. Not just read about them.

Is it a good idea to include a timer to make learning/gameplay more engaging?

A: Yes and no. Back to the basic question: does a timer support your performance goals? In real life, are people under a time pressure to make decisions? If yes, you may want to include that. If not, it just frustrates the purple haze of out people. Judging the time needed will require lots of playtest. A suggestion is to use timer as a plus, not a punishment. For example, if answered correctly, within a time frame you get bonus points or extra stars or whatever. It should be motivation to do it again, not because you failed but because you want to show mastery. Here’s more on timers.

Lots of other questions were asked but I know the attention span is short. Hit me up if you have some I didn’t answer.


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