By way of instant feedback, interactive elements and a little friendly competition, gamification has proven to be effective in engaging a wide variety of learners. In fact, the 2018 TalentLMS Gamification at Work Survey found that 84% of employees feel that gamification makes them more engaged, 87% feel it makes them more productive and 82% feel it makes them happier at work.

Due to its ability to engage learners, gamification is commonly used for knowledge transfer in the workplace — but its benefits extend far beyond that use. Gamification also has the power to reinforce key concepts, behaviors and skills that, when applied, will drive impactful business results.

Gaming With a Purpose

Gamification makes training fun. For many learners, it often doesn’t feel like training but, rather, something they would do in the comfort of their own home. This aspect is part of what makes gamification so effective in engaging learners. In addition, gamification is effective in reinforcing learning, as it helps ensure learners are ready to apply what they’ve learned in pursuit of key business goals.

Clare Dygert, director of instructional design at SweetRush, says of gamification, “It’s going to make the learning more effective. If we look at where the learner is before they start the training, where the business needs them to be and how to make that leap, then we’re choosing from our tool chest all the things that will make that happen. Gamification plays a part in making that transformation actually happen.”

Blaze Performance Solutions is currently using gamification to reinforce learning and transform business results. “We have created a platform that, instead of being about knowledge transfer, is almost entirely about the reinforcement and the application after the fact,” says Brian Cox, managing partner and co-founder at Blaze Performance Solutions.

When leveraging gamification for reinforcement, training professionals should narrow the training’s focus. “What we’ve found is that, if you really want to reinforce, you cannot be too broad,” Cox shares. Focusing on specific topic areas, such as how to have a difficult conversation with a team member or how to give an effective performance review, can help gamification reinforce key behaviors for organizational success.

Gamification must happen in spurts to effectively reinforce learning. “You have to do it in a way that is effective for people, meaning you cannot do it three hours a week,” Cox notes. “You have to do it fast … maybe three to five times a week.” This approach helps learners better retain the content and avoid information overload — but improving retention is only the first step in using gamification for reinforcement.

Kent Vaughn, Cox’s managing partner and co-founder at Blaze Performance Solutions, says, “Half of the battle with gamification for reinforcement is remembering, but think about it: Are there things that you know to do that you don’t do as consistently [you] ought to? I think, for all of us, that’s the case.”

Therefore, gamification must go beyond helping learners remember key concepts to effectively reinforce learning. “It’s about making the next step: How do we get people to actually do it?” Vaughn says. “Truly great gamification takes the next step.”

By keeping the focus narrow and delivering content in digestible chunks, learners will likely remember the program’s content. However, training professionals should consider the role neuroscience and psychology principles play in gamification to achieve even greater organizational change.

The Science of Reinforcement

According to “The Neuroscience of Learning & Development,” a white paper published by PageUp People, “Like the muscles in our body, the ‘use it or lose it’ principle also applies to our brain cells. Continual stimulation of neural pathways keeps them healthy and active, but connections weaken and recede through lack of activation … To guard against this, continual mental stimulation, or learning, is essential.” So, learners must exercise their brain with continuous reinforcement in order for learning to stick — but what do games have to do with it?

Eric Myers, account director at MindSpace, says that gaming, by design, is closely tied to both neuroscience and psychology. When thinking about a game you like to play, Myers says, “Chances are that you ‘learned’ to play it because it was thoughtfully gamified. The makers of the game understood you, how you think and what you needed to become proficient at the game. They understood what you cared about and what motivated you.” Training professionals can follow suit by working to understand their audience when using gamification for reinforcement. Just as game designers and marketers do, considering demographics such as age, industry and future career goals can help L&D professionals tailor gamification to their specific audience and optimize reinforcement.

Also, Myers explains, the inner workings of gamification make it an ideal way to influence behavior, because “at the core of nearly any game mechanic is an underlying psychological principle (or two).” For example, reinforcement schedules are commonly used in games to signify achievement through rewards, such as points and badges. This approach stems from the concept of positive reinforcement, which “involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future,” according to Kendra Cherry, author of “The Everything Psychology Book.”

Ultimately, Myers says, “When it comes to creating behavior change or retaining information, these principles are important to understand … Gamification is like the wrapper that you put around these well-studied psychological principles of learning.”

Training professionals must use gamification strategically for it to effectively reinforce learning. John-Carlos Lozano, chief creative officer at SweetRush, says that all too often, training professionals think that anytime you add gamification to a program, it will be successful — but that’s not the case. It must be strategically integrated into the training, with the learner and business goals in mind. “One of the reasons why gamification is misunderstood is that people see it as a ‘magic bullet,’” Lozano says. “I feel like gamification is really a bunch of ingredients that you can use in different ways in order to create the results you want.”

Gamification is a powerful tool for reinforcement, but it must be used strategically. By ensuring the content is specific, digestible and focused on application, training professionals can help learners retain information, which is the first step in using gamification for reinforcement. To take it a step further, however, training professionals must keep in mind that neuroscience and psychology concepts are at the core of both gamification and reinforcement. In doing so, they will be better able to use gamification for reinforcement and shape learners into agents of organizational change.