Beyond competition

Recently I attended a seminar about gamification and serious games. The presenters were nice and some of the cases were interesting, but I was amazed by the narrowness of the approaches being represented. It was all about competition and how to use prizes, rewards and high-scores to trick employees into engaging with colourful digital solutions. 

There were a lot of bragging about results, but when you took a closer look at the numbers all the data was about activities – how long time the participants played the game, how many quizzes were completed, how many users they attracted, etc.

Any focus on real business or organisational impacts was missing – did the solutions change behaviour in the work place? Did they provide real skills that people could actually use? Did the training support the strategic objectives of the company? 

I know that it is hard to measure the long-term business and behavioural impact of training but it was as if the presenters hardly considered the real-life impact of what they were doing. It was as if they only saw gamification as a way of motivating people to participate in the training.

One of the cases presented provided a direct oxymoron – in a sales organisation that should learn to be better at collaborating, the training was designed as an individual competition where the colleagues were supposed to be motivated by beating each other’s high-scores. To me it didn’t make sense. 

To me it didn’t make sense [...] It was a case in point on how the eagerness of using gamification to create short term motivation can undermine the real purpose of a session

The one-sided focus on prizes and competition had a very direct impact on the conclusion of the seminar. Instead of engaging the participants in a concluding dialogue about the use and potential of gamification and serious-games, the final minutes of the session were spent on declaring a winner of a banal smartphone quiz where one of the participants could bring home two bottles of wine. It was a case in point on how the eagerness of using gamification to create short term motivation can undermine the real purpose of a session. 

Three thoughts in hindsight after the session:

Gamification is more than competition

First we need to broaden our understanding of gamification, which is commonly defined as “the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts”.

I like this definition, but competitions and rewards are just a few of the elements that can be transferred from games.

Good game design is also about identification, engaging storytelling, collaboration, moral dilemmas, etc. Not all games are about winning. And even in games about winning, the best part of the experience is rarely the victory itself. 

Adding competition changes things

Secondly we must take a critical look at competition and how it impacts the real results we are looking for.

If you want your key account managers to have a more aggressive and competitive mind-set as lone-wolf hunters for new business, it might be a good idea to use game-based training with a high degree of player vs. player competition.

But if you would like your colleagues to collaborate and be better at helping each other out, it may be a better investment to use a training solution that integrates collaborative activities into the game mechanics themselves.

From my experience, competition can often be the easiest way to motivate people, but it is almost never the best way to create motivation. I think that we should look at competition in training design as a spice, that can add some nice “heat” to a solution but it should always be used with moderation.

Focus on behaviour

Thirdly the seminar reminded me that all development and training is about changing behaviour.

Understanding, commitment, knowledge, learning and skills can be great, but if it isn’t turned into new real-life behaviour it doesn’t matter.

We need to talk a lot less about motivating people to participate in the training and a lot more about the actual behaviour we seek to encourage. 

Back to work.