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Report Card: Is Gamification All Hype or Does It Really Work?

by Carol Leaman

January 4, 2016


by Carol Leaman

January 4, 2016

“Clearly gamification isn’t just a fad without any substance. When done right, gamified learning is a proven method of driving employee engagement, knowledge growth, and business impact. We’ve analyzed the data. We’ve seen it in action. And we know it works!”

It’s a passionate debate. Skeptics brush off gamification as nothing more than hype, while believers assert it drives engagement.

The reality is there hasn’t been any hard data in the public domain to support either side of the argument. So, the two sides have continued to square off with fiery claims that are based more on opinion than fact.

We think it’s time to get the truth out there and change the conversation. In June, 2014, we put together our report card about what works with gamification in learning. But this year, we’re taking our insights a step further and revealing data that proves gamification works.

Thousands of employees from the world’s leading organizations, including Walmart, Toyota, Johnson & Johnson, Bloomingdale’s, John Hancock, and more, interact daily with gamification elements delivered through the microlearning and performance support components of our Axonify Employee Knowledge Platform. This has allowed Axonify to build what we believe is the largest body of gamification-related data.

Based on a three-year analysis of more than 9.5 million sessions on the platform, we’d like to share our findings. The data shows gamification has a significant impact on employee engagement and that this higher engagement drives substantial knowledge lifts, which have huge business impact.

Gamification defined

But before we get into the numbers, let’s get on the same page about what gamification means. While many interpretations of gamification exist, our definition aligns with Karl Kapp’s, a respected expert on the convergence of learning and technology. Kapp defines gamification as, “a careful and considered application of game thinking to solving problems and encouraging learning, using all the elements of games that are appropriate.”

Just to make this definition crystal clear, gamification is different from game-based learning. Game-based learning uses game play to help learners achieve a specific learning objective. It has a distinct starting point, followed by structured play and a defined ending. An example would be a game that simulates an operating room environment, which teaches surgeons how to perform a specific type of surgery.

Gamification, on the other hand, applies game-based mechanics and game thinking to help engage individuals in learning, motivate them to act, and foster ongoing learning. While it can include game play, it relies on other game mechanics as well— such as rewards, points, leaderboards, competition, and more—to make learning fun. An example would be a learning solution that employees would be encouraged to use daily. It would award points for correct answers to questions on particular topics, encourage employees to compete for prizes, and allow employees to play a game, while learning about subject matter that pertains to their role.

Axonify incorporates more than 15 game mechanics into its platform, including game play, points and rewards, leaderboards, badges, coaches, and more, allowing us to observe them in isolation as well as in combination with each other. Here’s how we know gamification drives engagement, which, in turn, leads to knowledge growth and business impact.

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I believe that game logic and gamification (not the same thing) are parts of a serious subject -- motivation in learning -- and represent an opportunity to improve our perspectives on learning. The very notion of how games work raises serious questions about pedagogical methodology. This report reads like propaganda or advertising for what I would call first generation gamification ideology. The most obvious indicator is its cheerleading tone. The real issues that should focus on learning itself (learning what, at what level of depth) and motivation (to learn?, to practice?, to share?) are treated in an extremely superficial way. The results are interesting, but it would be nice to see some serious research.
I agree with pisackson in that the article is pretty one-sided and lacks empirical evidence. However, gamification certainly has its place in learning although there is a move towards gameful design that focuses more on meeting intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation of which this article focuses on. For those serious about understanding the underpinning psychology of gamification and gameful design and not wanting to rely on commercially generated data alone, I recommend the article by Dichev, Dicheva, Angelova, and Agre (2014).

Dichev C., Dicheva D., Angelova G., Agre G. (2014), From Gamification to Gameful
Design and Gameful Experience in Learning, Cybernetics and Information
Technologies, 14(4), 80-100.
The intent of the article is to report what one provider has found to be effective. In that way, it is empirical evidence (defined in the dictionary as being based on observation or experience rather than on logic). I think the correct characterization of it would be "anecdotal" and as such it can be useful to practitioners as long as they understand what that word means. As @pisackson said, the results are interesting and until actual research gets done, they may provide a rough guide for where to put your efforts in gamification. As to intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, my understanding is that the matter is not completely resolved. I do think it may be significant that the groups described in the article are involved in sales, and culturally speaking, it seems to me to make sense that sales people (who are used to extrinsic rewards, e.g. for meeting and exceeding quotas) would be motivated by the extrinsic motivation.

Thanks to both of you for your comments. I don't think anybody would or should take what is reported in this as canonical, more in the nature of sharing experience. When we get more definitive and research-based studies, we will publish them in a heartbeat.

Bill the Editor
I'm glad to see colleagues questioning this piece, which talks a great deal about "data" and "research," but is rife with logical fallacies. For example, "people who visit a rewards page take more lessons" attributes cause to the existence of a rewards page. But the opposite might equally be true, since only those who have taken many lessons--and accumulated points--have any reason to visit the rewards page. In fact, we have no way of ascertaining cause from the "data" provided.
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