Do not pass go
spotting the dangers of gamification in corporate eLearning
If you’re an eLearning professional, you have probably been to conferences or read trade journals that insist the buzzword du jour “gamification” is your golden ticket to developing and engaging your workforce, especially your “millennials”. After plenty of experience developing and producing corporate eLearning courses for a variety of companies, I can tell you I don’t believe in golden tickets. There’s no magic tool that by itself addresses the multiple needs of a myriad of companies with differing objectives and vastly different learning cultures.
It is true though that gamification is on track to become an 11 billion dollar market by 2020 and when used properly has shown itself to be one of a host of tools that are effective in the aggregate. However, overexposure to and overemphasis on peer performance coupled with content disconnection and a rush to overuse popular methodologies could negate an otherwise useful technique. Gamification, however, is unlike other tools that when misused are simply ineffective. New research and thought are suggesting that poorly implemented gamification has the potential to lead to apathetic, distracted or disengaged learners.
The employee of the month myth
One of the more popular components of gamification in eLearning is badging, whereby learners earn badges to indicate levels of completion and competency. Industry professionals have tried to encourage competition and positive peer-pressure between learners using this function and based on traditional “employee of the month” type modalities. Susan Poser with Oracle goes as far as to say that “Implementing gamification into a company, however, will likely fall flat without incorporating a way for employees to be recognized publicly for their efforts.”
The problem with this traditional thinking is that it flies in the face of fresh research and data. A new study released in February of 2016 from the Harvard Kennedy School and the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley indicates that “exposure to exemplary peer performances can undermine motivation and success by causing people to perceive that they cannot attain their peers’ high levels of performance. It also causes de-identification with the relevant domain.” This seems to suggest that not only does the “employee of the month” method for motivating and inspiring excellence potentially have the opposite effect; it can actually lead to a disengagement with content or purpose entirely. Engagement and self-motivation are two extremely important factors in achieving an effective learning culture.
Another Harvard Business School study released in 2013 by professor Ian Lamar also illustrated this effect. Lamar studied an employee attendance incentive program designed to reduce tardiness whereby employees without tardiness were identified and entered into a game or raffle for gift cards. The study actually revealed that employees began to worry more about the game than they did its purpose, preferring to call in sick altogether than risk being late. “Stellar employees who previously had excellent attendance and were highly productive ended up suffering a 6 to 8 percent productivity decrease . . . suggesting that employees were actually turned off—and their motivation dropped—when the managers introduced awards for good behavior they were already exhibiting.”
Taking this recent thinking into consideration, reason would argue then that the use of badging as a component of a gamified learning culture should be downplayed or used to motivate the individual privately, perhaps as part of ones personal learning record. These studies seem to suggest that moving away from the “employee of the month” model and into a varied and multifaceted approach to recognition and motivation may be a more appropriate response to a modern corporate culture.
Many companies implementing enterprise gamification do so in the most generic ways.
When gamification was early in its buzz, I was creating an interaction as part of an eLearning for a regional university and became convinced that a game based interaction would be truly engaging and cutting edge. My team and I spent the bulk of our energy and creativity focused on the mechanics of the game and its fun factor. We became immersed in the shiny new object that our industry was telling us was not only ok to use, but was the new way forward.
Upon proud delivery we were immediately shocked to find we had missed the mark. The client was rightfully concerned that we had made two major errors. First we had failed to connect the game to the content in a truly meaningful way. Secondly the client was concerned our use of gamification, in several discernable ways, diminished the importance and seriousness of the content. We had failed to ask ourselves if the technique we were using was the best presentation of the subject matter. Lesson learned.
This disconnect with the content has unfortunately become far too common across the industry and is a major pitfall to avoid when implanting gamification into an eLearning strategy. In his blog Nir and Far, Nir Eyal writes, “Many companies implementing enterprise gamification do so in the most generic ways. They slap point systems, badges, and leaderboards onto any work process they can think of rather than creating thoughtful experiences that balance competition and collaboration.”
As with all development and presentation tools, the subject matter must be the guiding principle in choice. Married to one another, design and subject matter, must support and complement, enhance and showcase each other. They must work together to create something that feels very comfortable and natural and gamification techniques must follow suit.
The trouble with novelty
At some point, most games get tiresome. Remember FarmVille?
I fear an environment where there is great distance between academia and the actual business world where this issue is concerned. I worry that we are graduating instructional designers who’s skill sets are aimed only at the fortune five hundreds of the world. The simple reality in the field is that most companies have limited resources (time, money, manpower) with which to build the best learning culture they can. Often concerned far more with meeting and proving compliance and safety than with professional development, many companies see gamification as a distraction from content and an unnecessary expense. Right or wrong, they see this tool as a novelty that will like all fads, disappear with the next corporate whim. The trouble with novelty is that it fades and these concerns are not unfounded. Eyal states “At some point, most games get tiresome. Remember FarmVille? . . . Workers may tire of badges, leaderboards, and challenges designed to keep them motivated.”
Eyal is not alone in his caution. Karl Kapp also decries the notion of a single solution found in gamification. In an article for Forbes he asserts, “Adding game mechanics into a curriculum does not ensure that you will forever gain and hold a learners’ attention, nor will it trick them into something they really don’t want to do.”
These are potent warnings against a knee-jerk instinct to install the latest technological bauble and the danger of holding it up as the messianic solution to the woes of engagement and self-motivation. There must be an effort made to avoid using gamification for its own sake.
Keep the baby, get rid of the bath water
Assuming thoughtful development around motivation and an understanding of current research on engagement is deployed, gamification has a place. Requiring that content and subject matter stay married to design and functionality will ensure that gamification does not seem out of context. Finally making sure to implement gamification as a single part of a multi-faceted, rich and varied learning culture is the best way to ensure your learners don’t feel your culture is as passing and impermanent as the most current corporate trends.
I am proud to say we have learned from our early mistakes with gamification. We have had our successes too though and proudly place gamification on the workbench with the rest of the eLearning tools we use to execute our craft. When we look at this tool though we remember that we injured ourselves once using it in ignorance. We now use gamification with much more wisdom and from a place of experience and respect for its dangers. Our team now focuses on trying with everything we have to build eLearnings that mimic the situations that require the skills being taught by our clients. The movement from games for the sake of games and into true simulation based learning has to be where we are placing our energies.