Gamification is one of those contemporary terms that business owners feel they should understand. However, oftentimes they feel like they are on the outside looking in. The “cloud” is the same kind of term.

What business owners interested in employee training should understand is the term “gamification” is a euphemism. It is a marketing term in much the same way “the cloud” is another word for “server.” Gamification is simply a progressive reward system built to imitate the same kinds of systems in modern video games. It is a concept that can be effectively applied to employee training and development.

Game design as reward

Video games have always been designed to entice players with a reward. The earliest arcade games had leaderboards where high-scoring players could enter their initials. Early console systems had rudimentary levels meant to track progress. Pen and paper role-playing games reward players with levels that grant them additional power.

All of these training delivery methods are progressive, meaning they replace old rewards with new ones each time a player reaches their goal. In game design, this leads to “replayability.” In training, this leads to advanced knowledge and skill as basic concepts are used to support more complex subjects.

Training methods

Knowledge is its own reward, but most people still respond favorably to something a little more fanciful when approaching a complex subject. When training employees, managers often run into the problem of novice mistakes engendering discouragement. This is where the progressive reward system can be best applied.

Companies like SAP and Deloitte are participating in what Forbes estimates is a $5.5 billion industry by “gamifying” their training programs, and both have seen considerable success. Their methods include the same progressive system of rewards for successful completion of incremental tasks as many of the games their employees play.

Not just a game

However, there is a difference between gamification and game. A game is a challenging activity which can be played, won or lost. Games are, by definition, atomic activities. This means there is a point where the game is over and each player earns a result.

Gamification, on the other hand, is a process. It is a constructed system of more and more advanced rewards. It could be said that gamification is a series of games, each serving as a prerequisite for the next challenge in the series.

Better training results

In any learning context, students often feel overwhelmed and unsure of their ability to understand and master the material. What a system of progressive rewards does is present learning in a more inviting and less demanding context: a game.

People gravitate to something they expect to be fun. Sitting and listening to someone read a story is far more interesting to the average second-grader than sitting by themselves and filling in a worksheet. Being asked to earn five gold coins by working out the answers to five introductory questions about themselves is often a better alternative to new students than sitting through a two-hour lecture followed by an intimidating test.

This phenomenon has been documented already. Deloitte saw a 50 percent reduction in the time requirements for training and has also experienced much better retention than before their training was reorganized.

How training is changing

The younger generation’s understanding of how games motivate a desire to overcome obstacles is being put to better use as companies learn the power of progressive rewards. Like “gold stars” in school, students who succeed in earning the best rewards can show them off to others, which encourages both greater effort and competition.

In the end, these kinds of results are possible without gamification, but a properly designed game-based system puts emphasis on the right elements without confusing the instructional material with the system designed to convey it. The results are exciting, and likely to improve over time just like the students and players themselves.