There are a lot of valid complaints in the training world about gamification—most notably, corporate leadership doesn't want people screwing around all day. Understandable. This perception of games being a waste of time is largely driven by the poorly designed learning games that are out there in the industry. Here's your rundown on the kind of gamification that gets stuff done.
What makes a game?
There are really fine lines between straight-up learning, gamified learning, and a straight-up game. If you imagine a Venn diagram with learning on one side and gamification on the other, the small overlap is gamified learning. And it is, indeed, small. Learning & Development gets into trouble when their "gamification" programs fall outside of the overlap—this is when you get boring learning cloaked in game-like trappings, or (on the other end of the spectrum, and less common in practice) true games where learning transfer is minimal.
Gamified learning, done properly, is a specialized kind of learning design. It combines things like scenario-based learning (or simulations), rules and probabilities, and sometimes an element of competition via social interaction. The overriding purpose is to change learner behavior, just as in any other kind of training. A gamified program immerses learners in a world where their choices have consequences and things can happen at random. They're given a role to play, a task or goal to accomplish, and a virtual environment in which it all plays out. The sense of randomness helps to make the experience engaging, and it also provides an important element of reality. That's right, reality—not something you often associate with games, but all kinds of random things happen in real life, and gaming elements make that kind of randomness possible in a training program.
What does gamified learning look like?
It can be a very close approximation of the job environment. This often works well for sales and customer service content but is certainly not limited to that content domain. In this case, the role is the learner's actual job role (e.g. sales associate), the environment is branded just like the business (e.g. retail outlet), and the goal is to serve customers and sell products. These are all ingredients of a simulation.
The gamification kicks in when the simulation delivers scenarios at random—in fact, not all learners see all content. If the learner has a negative interaction with a simulated customer, the next customer may be defensive and abrasive, and the learner has to deal with the consequences of his or her prior actions. The game ends when the learner accomplishes the stated goal—perhaps a sales threshold—so some people will finish faster than others based on their performance. The idea is to give learners as much (or as little) practice as they need to confidently serve customers in the real world.
Other gaming elements, like leader boards, badges or rewards, unlocking bonus levels or mini-games, and more can help to make the experience even more engaging for learners. But at its core, this type of course design will successfully change your learners' behavior because they are practicing job skills in a fail-safe environment.
Sometimes content is abstracted for gamified learning. It takes the right kind of content and company culture to pull this off, but it can also be very successful if done correctly. The important thing is to ensure that you've clearly identified the behaviors you want to change and designed the program so that those behavior changes will transfer back to the job.
When gamification is explained as I've done above, it's a lot easier to see the business case—people aren't wasting time playing games, they're taking advantage of innovative technology and design to learn job skills in a way that will change their behavior on the job. Gamification's bad rep comes from those straight-up games that don't incorporate behavior change—corporate learning's version of Angry Birds, anyone?