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Debunking 4 Myths of Gamification in Learning

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

“Corporate” and “training” are two words that, when put together, often induce sleepy eye rolls and heavy sighs. It’s unfortunate that those two words encompass so many different topics - from onboarding new employees to up-leveling critical soft skills - and yet carry a stigma that isn’t easily shed.

Learning and Development leaders struggle with this stigma everyday. It’s their job to put corporate training programs together for a wide variety of audiences across many different topics. That load in and of itself isn’t easy to manage, but add on the pressure of making those training programs interesting, engaging, and (dare I say) fun? That task can feel insurmountable.

Gamification, however, is a great tool to help overcome this challenge. The problem is that gamification doesn’t carry with it a clear-cut system or formula for applying it to existing training content. The actual term itself is even somewhat nebulous in its definition. We’ve discussed this conundrum before, so we won’t spend a lot of time on it here. Needless to say, it’s important to understand what gamification is before you dive into applying it to your learning and training programs.

Even when you think you have a handle on the type of gamification you want to use to enhance your corporate training programs, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for. We think of these as the myths of gamification. They represent the equivalent of junk food when it comes to nourishing your training content with gamification; it might taste good on the surface, but long-term consumption might do more harm than good.

Let’s break down each “junk food” myth and give you some healthier food for thought.


Myth 1: Gamification is just adding games

Logically, yes, this makes sense on the surface. Here’s the problem: adding games for the sake of adding games doesn’t do a darn thing for learning. We won’t name names here, but there are some course authoring platforms out there that claim to incorporate gamification into their suite of course building tools.

What this actually means is that you can drop your content into the equivalent of a digital slideshow and “reward” completion of the elearning course (glorified PowerPoint) by allowing the learner to play a game. The game, however, has no connection to the learning content whatsoever. The learner could transition from reading a few slides of content about negotiation skills to putting a ball into a hole.

Next, they might view a video of a simulated negotiation and then play a random bowling game. The gamification isn’t integrated with the content and merely appears as a bolted-on piece of entertainment. Oftentimes, the quality of these games is so poor that they actually detract from the overall learning experience itself.

Adding games for the sake of games might appear to be gamification, but it’s a myth to believe that this approach will engage learners in the long-term and turn them into ravenous fans of your learning and training programs.


Myth 2: Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (PBLs) will save the day

This myth is a dangerous one. There’s significant upside to implementing a PBL-based learning or training program. However, there’s a hidden downside that’s often missed because PBLs are fairly easy to apply to existing programs or training content.

In a nutshell, you create a points economy for consuming different types of content or completing certain activities, sprinkle in some special badges for achievements, and post a leaderboard to foster competition. There’s a lot of good that can come from all three of these things!

Here’s the caution: it’s a myth to believe that PBLs will solve all of your engagement problems for the long haul. Think about it outside of the learning and training space for a moment. The first time you ever got a stamp card for your favorite coffee shop, I bet you visited that coffee shop a lot more when you first got the card.

Maybe you filled it up a few times and earned yourself a couple free coffees. Over time, however, the stamp card lost a little bit of its lustre. Heck, you may have even forgotten to use it or left it in the glovebox from time to time. The perceived value of the stamp card decreased over time once the novelty wore off.

The same is true of PBLs.

They work wonders in the short term because of their novelty in the learner’s mind. If new rewards, badges, levels of achievement, and fresh content aren’t regularly pumped into the system, however, PBLs die a slow death. This isn’t to say that PBLs can’t be great for programs that require short-term engagement and achievement, but they aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution.


Myth 3: Gamification is child’s play

While there are plenty of platforms, products, and services out there that are intentionally marketed toward a younger generation, the concept of gamification isn’t one of them. This myth endures thanks to the myopic perspective that gamification is only found in console or mobile-based games, and that kids are the only ones engaging in that activity. The data says otherwise. Thanks to a comprehensive survey conducted by the Entertainment Software Association, we see some stunning results that debunk this myth outright:

65% of American adults play video games (regardless of platform).
62% of Gen X’ers play games on their smartphones.
58% of female Boomers play games on their smartphones.

And if you’re thinking, “Well, the Millennials must be at 100%” the survey found that 69% of Millennials most often play games on their consoles with 69% of female Millennials preferring to play on their smartphone.

The majority of people who own smartphones, regardless of age, play games.

And when you step outside of games for entertainment, there are plenty of examples of gamification in normal life that have nothing to do with a smartphone, console, or laptop. Ever played the lottery? That’s gamification. Ever signed up for a loyalty or rewards card? You’ve been gamified. Gamification is about using game-inspired tools to enhance the user experience. These game-inspired tools have their roots in a number of powerful psychological principles that, when applied correctly, create a value exchange inside of a person’s brain. When the perceived value of engaging with a gamified activity outweighs the perceived cost, people engage.

That’s what gamification is all about. It has nothing to do with age. If you want to apply this in a learning or training environment, you need to partner with someone who understands this value equation and can help identify what your learning audience will perceive as high cognitive value with low cognitive cost.


Myth 4: Gamification breeds unhealthy competition

This myth makes me chuckle. I can’t help but think of the scene from Glengarry Glen Ross where Alec Baldwin tears into a low performing sales team and “inspires” them with a sales competition:

First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado.
Second prize is a set of steak knives.
Third prize is you’re fired.

This is the kind of competition some people fear when they think about building gamification into any sort of sales-oriented training or process. And yes, this sort of punitive approach is certainly unhealthy.

It motivates from a place of fear and self-preservation, and so competition becomes less about the positive rewards gained from competency and autonomy and more about survival.

When done right, gamficiation leads with intrinsic rewards first and foremost. Intrinsic rewards make the individual feel good about themselves and their performance, and so these kinds of rewards can be very motivating without fostering unhealthy external competition.

By experiencing early wins that give them an internal sense of accomplishment, people who participate in this type of gamified experience will be more motivated to attack the next goal before them because it makes them feel good. It’s not about beating someone else or saving your own neck.

Extrinsic rewards should always come second so that gamification doesn’t drive unhealthy competition between co-workers...unless you’re really obsessed with getting that Cadillac El Dorado.


Choose your own path

When you’re looking for a fresh way to deliver learning or training content, gamification can be a great tool. If you do it right, it’ll certainly reduce the number of sleepy eye rolls or nod-offs that can accompany boring and static training. Your learners will definitely thank you for that. In fact, gamification can actually transform your training into something people want to take. It can turn learners into brand advocates, and that has benefits that extend far beyond the subject matter being trained.

While it’s unfortunate that the term “gamification” has suffered from nebulous definitions and more than a few unfounded myths in the learning and training space, hopefully we’ve cleared some of that up for you.

At the end of the day, it’s your choice about the strategies you use to develop a new learning or training program. Our recommendation is to be bold and try something new if applying gamification seems like the shot in the arm your training needs.

Before you make the leap, though, find a competent partner you can trust and ask them to articulate both the upsides and downsides of gamification. If they know the myths and how to debunk them, you’ve probably chosen wisely.




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