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It’s back to school time 🍎🚌, and while lockdown-induced online learning is (hopefully) a thing of the past, classrooms are still leveraging some of the gamification and game-based learning tactics they adopted and honed during the pandemic. 

Why? Gamification works. “Games are the only force in the known universe that can get people to take actions against their self-interest, in a predictable way, without using force,” says Gabe Zichermann, co-author of Gamification in Design. Whenever we do activities that stimulate our bodies and minds, our body releases endorphins, which naturally improve our mood. This gives learners a feeling of excitement whenever they complete a game-based lesson, as well as a sense of accomplishment. As a result, they are motivated to engage with the lesson more and keep learning. 

Most studies on gamification in schools have reported an increase of learning and/or motivation among participating students. Game elements associated with competition, such as leaderboards and points, have been the most common ones, resulting in higher levels of engagement and learning outcomes, with similar results being reported in simulation procedures and quizzes. 

Clearly, there’s a thing or two organizations can learn from those who have been leveraging gamification to great effect: teachers. So let’s head back into the classroom for seven things that hybrid learning can teach us about gamification. 

1. Make gamified initiatives competitive, not destructive

Many games include at least some degree of competition such as leaderboards, rewards for top players, and badges of recognition for high achievements. Educators leverage this to drive students to participate and improve learning effectiveness.But the aim of learning gamification isn’t to create cutthroat competition: it’s to foster a positive environment. 

Competition can have a constructive effect on participation and learning, but it also has the potential to undermine a student’s motivation. Destructive competition that requires tearing other people down makes people feel irrelevant and oppressed, which is not what frontliners should be experiencing. Instead, consider constructive competition that requires collaboration and mutual support, such as exercises aimed at improving everyone’s skills instead of defeating someone. 

2. Capitalize on the instant feedback gamification encourages

One of the biggest benefits of gamification is how quickly your frontline can get feedback. Whether organizations are leveraging it for training, communication, task execution or other initiatives, there’s a valuable opportunity for continuous improvement and growth. “Players” know instantly how they did, thus allowing for quicker learning and better information retention. Leverage this as much as possible when constructing your own gamified programs, with quizzes, challenges, and puzzles that instantly tell stuff how they did and – how they could do better. 

3. Focus on competence, not performance

In the study, Why Gamification Fails in Education and How to Make It Successful, authors Rob van Roy and Bieke Zaman write,“Learners who experience competence are found to be more persistent and have better study results than learners who feel incompetent. In order to optimally motivate learners, tasks should be designed in such a way that they just fall outside the learners’ comfort zone while still being perceived as attainable.” 

In other words: gamification is supposed to challenge staff, but not to the point where they begin to feel incompetent. Judging by performance means there is always going to be a loser. An employee could do a perfectly good job and learn all of their job skills properly, yet still be considered a “failure” because one of their peers outperformed everyone else on the leaderboard. That’s not very motivating, is it?

4. Offer badges of achievement

They worked for Cub Scouts for a reason! Badges provide validation that participants excel – or are at least competent – at a task, even if they’re not the top employee. And, the better they look, the bigger the impact. 

“Compared to traditional grading in educational settings, these badges can provide more information and yield more motivational power,” explain van Roy and Zaman. “More particularly, well-designed badges can give both outcome and progress feedback.” 

5. Award points for non-academic objectives

When it comes to gamification, organizations should remember that it’s not just about training employees to learn concepts or absorb knowledge. It’s about enabling staff to do their jobs more effectively. You want to use gamification to incentivize the right behavior – and points can help. For example, an employee might collect points for helping a coworker, or successfully resolving a customer complaint. 

The idea behind this kind of system is that it’s positive reinforcement. Nothing bad happens to the employee if they’re too busy to help a co-worker, but they do get rewarded if they do so. Penalizing employees or deducting points will just lower morale and make them less likely to participate, especially if they’re already overworked or burnt out. 

6. Make it social

The magic of game-based learning is that it can bring a classroom together, and create camaraderie among the students and teachers. Maybe there’s a little friendly competition between classes, or grades – all of it helps to drive participation and enthusiasm in the program. 

The same is true of frontlines. Organizations can implement group challenges where employees will have to work with others in order to accomplish goals, or set up a competition between locations. The competition could be as simple as driving awareness around a certain new product or menu item – don’t overthink it. 

7. Allow for choice and autonomy

People don’t love being told to do things. Students, employees… some things don’t change. So embedding a sense of choice in your gamified programs will set your organization up for success.

“If the challenges form an obligatory part of the course, learners will rather feel externally controlled by the obligation to complete the challenges, and as a result may start feeling anxious and losing autonomous motivation,” explain van Roy and Zaman.

The key here is to give a choice. According to van Roy and Zaman’s research, staff can feel autonomous in a no-choice situation if they are given the freedom to choose how they want to approach the task. One example could be letting the employee choose which training they want to start with, or what skill testing question they want to answer. The study notes, however, that the choice should align with your staff’s values and priorities. If you are giving an employee sales training but they don’t want to be in sales, then no amount of choice or gamification is going to motivate them. 

Gamification can be a powerful and effective tool for training your frontline employees, but it has to be approached with care and thought. By adopting hard-earned lessons from the academic community, you’ll be ready to embed a little competition into any program. Game on!