Posted by Tim Youngman ● February 2, 2017

Gamification is Overrated... Unless We're Talking Serious Games

serious game.jpgGamification is often cited by enthusiastic supporters as a tactic to engage and motivate learners by providing a more enjoyable learning experience. More importantly, when done well, gamification can provide meaningful context for the performance intervention while reducing time to competency, creating higher proficiency, and increasing retention.

Those things are generally true, yet gamification is lately losing steam as a learning trend because of the time and expense to develop and its difficulty to maintain. The question learning leaders need to ask is whether gamification is the right solution to achieve a given business objective. In most cases, it’s not.

Before we delve into when it's a good idea to use gamification, let's first define exactly what we are referring to—and what we aren't—when we talk about gamification.

Defining the Term

The term gamification is not used consistently across the L&D industry, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. When people talk about gamification, they could mean one of four things...

Simple Reinforcement Games

Simple reinforcement games are generally incorporated with the intent to make learning more fun, increase engagement, and potentially allow learners to compete. These games are usually based on formats that are found in popular culture, such as game shows or puzzles, and they assess the lowest level learning objectives. Even if a template already exists, reinforcement games don’t add much, if any, instructional value, and are mainly used to test core knowledge. They don’t challenge learners to achieve higher-level objectives, and it’s debatable whether they improve motivation. To some, they could be a disincentive.

Gaming Elements Within eLearning

There are other gamification fans who value adding gaming elements, such as avatars, point systems, badges, and collectables (unlocking a downloadable prize), to otherwise standard eLearning courses. While such elements may increase user engagement or motivation, as many have suggested, the more important question is whether they add any true instructional value. If they don’t serve to help learners achieve a higher level of mastery or support more complex learning objectives, then it’s unlikely to be worth the extra cost to develop and maintain. There are other less costly solutions to meet the same objective, such as incorporating a running storyline into a course, providing real-world examples to demonstrate application of key skills in context, using flexible theme-based course navigation, or implementing a focused microlearning approach that provides learning at the point of need.


Get Guidelines for Developing Simulation-Based Learning Simulations are usually incorporated as a part of standard eLearning modules to achieve higher-level learning objectives. While there are different types, they often use branching activities, in which learners make decisions, see the outcome, evaluate the result, and try again. Essentially, there is an optimal pathway that learners are trying to discover through their interaction. To be successful, learners first need to develop core knowledge and/or skills, which is why they are not usually standalone activities. Simulations can be gamified by adding elements such as scoring systems, timers, “Easter eggs,” high-fidelity media, leaderboards, or extrinsic rewards like badges. As a learning activity, simulations serve a justifiable purpose; however, there is little value to adding gaming elements, because in this context, the gaming elements do not serve to advance the learning beyond what can be accomplished through an otherwise well-designed simulation.

Serious Games

Many people consider serious games to be a type of gamification, but truthfully they fall into a different category entirely. A serious game has a meaningful purpose, and the gameplay itself is what accomplishes the learning objectives. Properly designed serious games are underpinned by both learning theory and game theory, and they are effective at achieving cognitive learning outcomes that are otherwise difficult to teach through more traditional eLearning, such as solving a complex problem, determining and testing a strategy, or managing a difficult and multifaceted situation. In other words, they develop the skills to achieve learning outcomes at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. They are viable solutions to achieve goals critical to an organization’s mission.

When to Use Serious Games

There are many factors to consider before making an investment in a serious game, because it is a solution that can be cost- and time-prohibitive without a good business case. Some questions to consider:

  • Are the skills that need to be developed complex?
  • What is the financial risk if these skills are not developed?
  • Are the skills and/or context specific to your organization/business model?
  • Are there alternate approaches available, such as an off-the-shelf solution or classroom-based training?
  • Is there an ongoing need to train people on these skills?

The size of the audience is considered last, because sometimes the financial risk and complexity of skills outweigh the need to have a large audience. However, in most corporate scenarios, it is desirable to have a sizable user base to justify the investment.

While there is no simple formula to determine whether a serious game is the right solution, the format is best used to teach complex skills that are mission-critical to the organization. For example, a serious game to teach management skills in a large quick-service restaurant chain is a viable option for several reasons:

  • A manager has to apply multiple complex skills throughout the day—often simultaneously—such as team management, customer service, quality control, inventory management, scheduling, and loss control.
  • Inconsistency among restaurants, and the associated potential for negative publicity, create financial risk arising from poor reputation.
  • While many of the same skills are applied across different restaurant chains, each company has specific policies, procedures, and operational models that require content to be specific and contextual.
  • Although classroom training may be useful in teaching core knowledge, it does not emulate the experience of working in actual restaurant. A serious game provides that experience, while allowing users to practice in a safe, low risk environment.
  • The audience is large, and there is likely a high turnover rate.

In the situation described above, a justifiable business case could be made to develop a serious game, and there are a variety of metrics that could be used in measuring the return on investment, such as profitability and customer satisfaction.

However, in many cases there is not a justifiable business case to develop a serious game. For example, converting a general new-hire orientation program to a serious game is unlikely to deliver a high return on investment relative to other types of solutions, even in rapidly growing organizations. The reason is very simple: the cognitive learning outcomes of a new-hire orientation program are generally at the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy—there are no complex skills to be taught. While there are certainly some risks when a new-hire orientation program is not well designed, these risks are generally not going to result in a substantial financial risk to the organization. A game may be engaging and motivating for some learners, but there many other techniques that can be implemented to achieve these affective objectives throughout the onboarding experience.

Gamification is an often misunderstood concept that creates confusion in the learning industry. There must be a robust business case before pursuing the serious games approach, in which complex skills need to be trained at highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. In most cases, alternate approaches should be considered first.

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Topics: Learning Trends