By Jonathan Peters, PhD
There is an oft-quoted and perhaps overused prediction by Gartner that 80 percent of gamification efforts are destined for failure. (At least that was the prediction in 2014.) Why will so many gamification efforts be unsuccessful if not outright failures? Could it be that designers and instructors simply slap some game mechanics on a program and declare it gamified? Instead of examining their programs and learners, and then strategically interweaving game mechanics, they settle for some points, badges, and leaderboards and wonder why they see very little changes.
This is why, at Sententia Gamification, we have a five-level process for creating successful gamified learning programs. Each level builds on the one before it, and like a game, you can’t jump ahead (that would be cheating). Each level consists of six stepping stones. If you follow each stepping stone, we basically guarantee a successful gamified learning program.
To give the process a memory hook, let’s use the acronym GAMES:
Let’s discuss each level.
Level 1: Goals
This level can be summarized as the WHAT and the WHO of design. Before we begin to gamify a program, we must first know what we want to accomplish and who will be “playing.” Without knowing these two foundational components, it doesn’t matter what game mechanics we throw at a program; we will never be successful. So, let’s dig a little further into the WHAT and WHO.
In my opinion, Gartner’s prediction was wrong, not because he was off in his numbers, but because most organizations don’t have a metric for success or failure in the first place. In other words, how would you know if a learning program failed if you don’t have a definition for success?
It’s a rare organization that can tell us how they will measure success for their learning programs in business terms. But you can’t measure a return on investment (money, time, effort) if you don’t have a method for determining what a return is.
As tedious as it may be, before we begin to gamify a learning program, we need to invest significant effort in defining business goals for the program, what behavioral changes we want from our learners, and what we will measure as an indicator of performance.
Isn’t it true that you usually design for and deliver to people who are not in your field or department? The problem is we tend to create learning programs and environments that we enjoy. It’s what Stephen Reiss, PhD, labeled “Self-Hugging.” He said, “Not only do we think everyone should be like us, but that they are like us.”
Reiss’s empirically-based taxonomy reveals that each of us places different priorities on certain core drives. For instance, we have found that L&D professionals tend to place more emphasis on the Curiosity core motivator than the rest of population. What does this mean for the programs they create? Well, they are more driven by learning and knowledge than people for whom they create learning programs. So, while they enjoy learning, the people in their programs do not. And because of self-hugging, L&D professionals will not anticipate other people’s resistance to, if not disdain for, learning.
Therefore, before we begin the process of creating a program, we first need to understand who our learners are, what motivates them, and, ultimately, what they consider fun. Remember, we are creating programs for them.
Level 2: Adventure
Since the moment humans first developed complex language, they have been telling stories.
Why? Because it’s how we transferred information from generation to generation, and it’s how we socialized each generation. It is difficult to retain a list of all that will harm us, but a vivid story will not only help us remember that sabre-tooth tigers and white berries are dangerous, but we can also easily pass this information to others. Similarly, a list of, say, ten commandments, cannot cover the nuances of what defines a “lie” and the consequences of breaking that cultural norm. But a story about how Sally lied, and the consequences she faced after telling the lie, is something that will not soon be forgotten.
Even today, with vast information a few clicks away, we still tell stories. In the workplace, gossip has more of an impact on a person’s behavior than an employee manual. And it doesn’t matter how important your learning program is, if employees tell each other how stupid the training is, it will not be effective.
Story gives a context for information, it aids in memory, and it allows listeners to apply the lessons learned to different applications. What if, instead feeling dread before beginning a learning program, the learners were eager to hear the next installment of your narrative?
Level 3: Method
While the first two levels of our gamification process may feel strange, and they may stretch you a bit, the Method level is one that will be more familiar to you. Here is where we decide how we will deliver the program. You probably already understand the differences between instructor-led learning and eLearning; you probably already have your preferred platform for delivering online programs; you have also created some amazing programs on your preferred platform.
This is also the level where we look at learning activities. As we like to say, “Learning happens when the instructor shuts up.” If you’ve been in the L&D field for more than a couple years, you probably already have your go-to learning activities, and you probably have soured for more learning activities when you need to mix things up.
Because you are probably comfortable examining how you’ll present your programs and the inclusion of learning activities, I will move onto the fourth, and most exciting level.
Level 4: Engagement
Finally, we are ready for game elements, mechanics, and dynamics! We have to travel through the territory of the first three levels to prepare ourselves to apply game mechanics to our programs. If we have not laid the proper ground work, we will not know which game mechanics to apply to our learning programs.
If you ask an LMS company if their product supports gamification, they’ll likely say, “Yes, we have points, badges, and leaderboards.” This type of “cosmetic” gamification is not inspiring nor is it successful over time. In fact, leaderboards only appeal to a specific Motivation Profile; most of us don’t like them.
I’ve identified 182 game mechanics that we can use in learning programs. While that’s a lot to choose from, you need to be strategic in which game mechanics you use and how you use them.
Think of a game you enjoyed as a child. Isn’t it true that while you loved that game, you had friends and classmates who weren’t excited to play with you? Maybe you had to coerce your siblings to play. This was because certain game mechanics appeal to your Motivation Profile; meanwhile, your kid sister or brother was motivated differently and was thus drawn to very different game mechanics.
The effectiveness of a mechanic is dependent upon the player’s Motivation Profile. A person who is highly motivated by Social Contact, for instance, will not complete your online program unless you have a mechanic that allows chat between learners. Your highly independent learner will not like working with a Guild. High Savings folks will enjoy collecting badges, while people with a low motivation for Savings will ask what they can do with the badges.
The point is we must match our mechanics to what motivates our learners. That is why, at the first level of this gamification process, we took so much care to identify our typical learner. If we skip that step, we won’t know what game mechanics will entice and engage our learners, nor what mechanics will de-motivate them and cause them to resist our learning program.
Level 5: Sync It
If you’ve carefully leveled up through the GAMES process, this final stage will simply be a matter of play-testing your program. This is the level where you look at all your hard work and make sure your program makes sense. Do you have a single narrative that weaves all the way through? Do your game mechanics motivate your learners? Are your mechanics strategically applied? Do your learning activities support the material, and are they synced with the narrative and game mechanics? Is progress clear to your learners, and are you measuring the correct things?
One of the disciplines of game design iteration; we don’t have to get it perfect the first time out. Therefore, in the final level, you create a paper prototype of your program and test it with a portion of your target audience. Observe where they engage and where they disengage. What do they enjoy, and what appears to be a grind for them? Do they need feedback at certain stages? Where do they become frustrated? Finally, are your mechanics engaging?
When you’re satisfied with the results of your play tests, you are finally ready to roll out your program.
But you have one last stepping stone; after all of this effort, you finally must ask, “Is it FUN?”
After all, fun is in your DNA. Even serious people doing serious work should find your learning programs engaging and fun.
Jonathan Peters, PhD, is the Chief Motivation Officer at Sententia. He has spent over a decade studying the science and art of motivation and persuasion. As a speaker, he has helped audiences from Melbourne, Australia to Augusta, Maine more effectively communicate with their customers and team-members. With Sententia, he applies his knowledge and experience to make learning more enticing, engaging, and encouraging through gamification.
Jonathan is the co-author of Deliberate Fun: A Purposeful Application of Game Mechanics to Learning Experiences, and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, though he calls Austin, Texas home.
You can reach Jonathan at BigHead@SententiaGames.com.