Where Does Gamification Play in Corporate Learning?

Jerry Zandstra (JZ): I’m looking forward to this conversation. I’ve been studying games and their applications in learning for several years. It seems like a certain level of gamification is now expected in most learning experiences which is good. But it also seems that we are on the cusp of something completely new with the advent of artificial intelligence. 

Miriam Taylor: (MT): I agree.  I remember when the concepts of gamification were fairly new but that is not the case anymore. Now most learning professionals commonly look for ways to include some level of game in what they create. Things are about to get a lot more intense with AI.

JZ: We will come to AI in a bit, but let’s start with the basics so we are all on the same level. What do you mean by gamification and why does it matter for learning?

MT: Almost all games are some sort of play or sport. They can be played alone, against another person, or sometimes in very large groups. There are some basic components to games.  They are competitive and are played according to set rules. Some games are based on pure luck. Others require skills or strategies that will be key in determining the outcome. Most of the time, people play games simply for fun. They can be very simple, like checkers, or highly complex like chess. 

JZ: What are the different types of games?

MT: There are so many different types of games that it would be a real challenge to list them all. But there are key components found in every game.. Let’s begin with motivation. In one way or another, all games include some form of motivation.Yu-Kai Chou’s research in Gamification Book: Actionable Gamification – Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards has been especially helpful to me and I would encourage people interested in a deep dive to read it. Let’s start with a simple classification for motivations: white hat versus black hat games. White hat games tend to be positive games that enable players to feel happy or fulfilled. There is a sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Black hat games usually involve avoiding something bad. They are played in the face of scarcity as players compete to avoid negative outcomes. These are the games that can raise the anxiety of those playing.  Some can be very intense. 

You can find these motivations throughout all different kinds of games then. There are competitive games in which players compete against each other and those in which winning involves cooperating with the other players. There are symmetric games where all players adopt the same strategy and asymmetric games in which each player chooses a different strategy and even final objective. There are also some games in which each player takes a turn and others in which all players make their moves simultaneously. 

JZ: Let’s take this into the world of learning and development. What are the different types of levels of gamification in learning?

MT: In its most basic form, gamification can be as simple as learners achieving something as they complete the learning.  In other words, there is something to be won. Often, these are things like badges which can give learners a sense of achievement.  They have made progress and the badge is the reinforcement. Over the years, I’ve seen many learning professions use leaderboards in which learners can see how well they are doing against their peers. Leaderboards make use of competition to motivate learners. These kinds of games are often built inside an eLearning module but can also be done in virtual instructor-led or instructor-led learning experiences. People might be divided into teams, given an objective, and then compete against other teams to accomplish a goal. They can be their own learning experiences or they can be used as reinforcement of what a learner has already learned. A way of putting new knowledge or skills into practice.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are full video games. These might be app-based experiences that can compete in quality and complexity with commercial gaming. They are often a complete learning experience so that they are not part of something else. Players learn what they need to learn to advance in the game. 

JZ: How does gamification connect to learning science?

MT: Games tend to be built making use of common design principles. There are objectives or goals to be achieved. The game often is personalized so that players get to choose their character, a name, and in some cases, their position in the game. Engaging games will usually provide almost instant feedback. This enables players to know how well they are doing as they are playing. Games usually give players some level of control so that their choices and behavior can have an impact on the outcome. The level of difficulty is an important feature of games. If the game is too easy, players will quickly master it and never play it again.  If it is too difficult, they will give up. And finally, if possible, games will have some level of social interaction with others. This night be around a card table or players could be separated by thousands of miles but still competing against each other. 

JZ: I think I see where you are going, but connect these common game design principles to learning science.

MT: Learning science is focused on how adults learn and come to master information and skills that they then put into practice. It  is really a mix of other disciplines and includes things like cognitive theory, psychology, sociology, linguistics, and behavioral sciences among others. It takes into account learner experience, motivation, reinforcement, and retention. 

Matching learning science with gamification can help learning professionals create powerful learning experiences. Learners are more highly motivated if they have the freedom to make choices as they do in many games.  If they can personalize their characters, they will have a greater sense of ownership. Playing a game where there can be both the pain of loss or the exhilaration of victory connects well to what we know about chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. This is part of what makes people play games for long periods of time. Achieving a new level or winning a game releases these chemicals and give a player a feeling of happiness and accomplishment. 

Games or simulations can also help us practice something we have recently learned, changing behavior. Games can give us the opportunity to put new skills to the test. They can fit nicely into reinforcing what we are learning, which is a key part of learning science. Think of a blended learning experience in which new information and new skills are taught in a series of eLearning modules. When the modules are completed, learners now have the opportunity to play a game that reinforces what they have just learned. At a very high level, virtual reality is one of the best ways to reinforce learning and, in some cases, even create muscle memory for learners.

JZ: Are there challenges in using games for global learning audiences?

MT: There certainly are. Different cultures are motivated by different things. In cultures that are highly competitive and individualistic, games requiring strong cooperation between players might not achieve their objectives. The players would be more motivated by winning as individuals where their achievement is known to others. Other cultures place higher value on cooperation and direct competition can be unseemly or even offensive. Group success could be prized over individual achievement. Some motivations seem to be common to many cultures. They include things like achievement, growth, and responsibility. 

My best advice would be to include people from different cultures in the design process as the game is being developed. This is an excellent way to ensure that gamification included in our learning experiences actually helps to achieve our objectives. 

JZ: Can artificial intelligence be a useful tool for creating games?

MT: AI is advancing so quickly that I think whatever I say now will soon become outdated in relatively short order. But here are some high-level thoughts. AI can create many of the elements that are essential for games. It can build the rules and objectives for a game. It can create the background and characters. It can determine a reasonable path to success for players. It can create sounds and voices that will bring characters to life. And this is only the application of AI in actually constructing a game. I read an article from 2023 that predicted that in 5 to 10 years, AI will manage more than 50% of all game development. I actually think it might be low. 

AI can also interact with players. In other words, AI can build the game experience as an individual player makes decisions and moves. It will enable the game to be responsive to a single individual. If the player is consistently failing, AI can create an easier path to keep the player engaged. If the player is highly experienced, AI will make the game more difficult. I’ve also read that AI will be able to build the story of the game as the game progresses depending on the choices of the players. 

JZ: This is amazing. And as you said, we are only at the beginning of understanding what AI will mean for gamification in learning.  As always, I am grateful to you for sharing your thoughts and insights. I look forward to our next conversation.

MT: I appreciate these conversations and I hope that this information is helpful to learning leaders who are using all the resources available to them to make great learning experiences.