In 2011, Gartner predicted that 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes would “gamify” those processes by 2015. It’s now 2015 and, despite research showing the benefits of using incentive-centered design approaches, gamification has not gained as much momentum as predicted1.

Maybe it’s the effort that is required to implement a gamified training approach that’s holding it up. Or perhaps it’s the term itself causing issues. Challenge and recognition are two key elements of employee motivation, but we don’t need to label it as game to provide them.

At a rudimentary level, “gamifying” a traditional collaborative workshop session on strategy development by changing the mission statement to the “quest” and the challenges to “defeating ogres” may trivialize the task at hand. I’m sure many educators would argue that the principles of gaming in learning are nothing new—use of reward, recognizing individual and team achievements, and structuring the learning on a progressive basis are well-established.

Indeed, these principles go back at least as far as the 1930s, when psychologist B.F. Skinner introduced ping-ponging pigeons and the theory of operant conditioning. (Skinner’s research was inspired in part by the behavior theories of Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, which were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

Pigeons playing ping-pong

Still from video of B.F. Skinner using operant conditioning to teach pigeons to play ping-pong. Source: YouTube.

It appears educators—in the corporate space and in higher education—remain divided.

In a 2011 essay, Dr. Ian Bogost, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and founding partner of independent game studio Persuasive Games LLC, argues that “gamification”—the way it’s being sold today—is essentially nonsense (he uses a stronger word, however). The word “gamification” itself holds enormous rhetorical power, he writes. “It takes games—a mysterious, magical, powerful medium that has captured the attention of millions of people—and it makes them accessible in the context of contemporary business.”

This rhetorical power, Bogost says, comes from the “-ification” part of the word, which suggests “simple, repeatable, proven techniques or devices: you can purify, beautify, falsify, terrify and so forth.”

Dr. Bogost argues that, in order for organizations to inspire lasting engagement using game design principles, it would require “changing the very operation of most businesses.” In other words, it’s not as easy as adding leaderboards and levels.

Those who argue for enterprise adoption of gamification agree—partially—with some Dr. Bogost’s sentiments. In particular, that it involves significant effort and an understanding of psychology, design principles and how to extract value from data.

“[Gamification] is not as easy as it looks,” said Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kevin Werbach in a recent interview with Knowledge@Wharton, the school’s online business journal. However, he added, it is valuable because it gets to our very nature.

“We respond to some of these game elements not because it’s some cool new idea that someone came up with, but because it relates to our basic human drives—our motivation for mastery, our desire to be connected to something broader than ourselves, our response to a desire for achievement and so forth,” he said.

Perhaps a rethink of terminology is what’s needed. Could it be that “gamification” needs to be simply recognized as a set of tools in an incentive-centered design approach to learning in the enterprise? Do we need to let terminology get in the way of the higher implementation rates and employee empowerment we’re all striving to achieve?

Considering that the main goal of training and enterprise learning is to inspire workers to make better use of the technology they have, it may just be worth a try.

1. In Gartner’s 2014 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, gamification was stagnating in the “trough of disillusionment.” In this year’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, released on Aug. 18, 2015, gamification is not on the chart at all.

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