Everyone seems to have the idea that games motivate trainees to be more involved, to learn faster and to retain more information. Gamification is the new buzz word of the learning industry.

I’ll share a secret with you: Games can be good, but they’re not always the best solution – and you know it! In the back of your head, there is something telling you that games might be like the BetaMax of training, and perhaps a sizable investment isn’t worth it.

Listen to that little voice, but only to a certain extent. Gamification, just like all tools, can produce brilliant results when used properly, but it can also wreak havoc when wielded inappropriately.

When are games right?

Here are three questions to ask to determine if games are right:

  • Will the content change often? If your content changes more than once every year or two, building a game probably isn’t your best bet.
  • Who is your learner? What is the subject? It’s not a good idea to throw your new learners into games as their first experience with your company. Think about it: They just joined your company, and they hear, “Welcome aboard! Here’s a boating-style game to teach you about your job. Go play and be successful!” That lacks an immediate feedback loop. However, do you have a group of salespeople you want to encourage to use a new system? A “Mission Impossible” game for core functions could be the ticket.
  • Are you trying to change behavior or deliver information? A game in and of itself probably won’t change behavior. However, if you are trying to help learners through an educational journey, a game-based scenario might immerse them in the experience.

Part of the belief that gamification is too expensive is rooted in the misconception that gamification means creating elegant, interactive games like Minecraft, flight simulators or The Sims. That’s not the case. The best games are often the simplest (think of Pass the Pigs or Candy Crush!). They’re simple, engaging, fun, short, easy to learn and flexible for different numbers of players.

The Two Mediums: Live and E-Learning Games

In-person games are perfect for conferences and workshops or instructor-led, virtual instructor-led or initiative team training. They cost you just a little time in creativity.

E-learning games can become expensive quickly. Let the impact of the learning be your guide. It may make sense to build a multi-million-dollar simulation; if you’re training pilots, practicing in a simulator is a lot less expensive than crashing a plane.

Here are some tried-and-true techniques for online games:

  • Competitive point systems: Use star ratings, level-ups, point systems, leader boards and time trials to incorporate an element of competition in the learning interaction.
  • Individual achievement structures: As learners progress, they achieve higher levels, game pieces, tokens or any number of trinkets to represent their passage to the end of the learning. Think in terms of the levels of Candy Crush or the money and property in Monopoly. In one learning game, for example, players had to collect puzzle pieces and earn a certification by listening to recorded calls and answering questions.
  • Learner-centered feedback: An immediate feedback loop based on the learner environment encourages learners to think critically about their scenario and choose the correct response – essentially, a quiz. The twist is that the feedback is learner-centered. In a customer service game, for example, wrong responses could result in a customer growing angrier and angrier. In a sales game, the learner might win deals for correct responses. These simple, unexpected, credible structures relate information to the actual environment, with a goal in mind. Instead of scoring 80 percent on a quiz, learners are making at least four customers happy.
  • Consider development carefully: If you are thinking of a mobile app with specialized coding, break out your wallet. However, many solutions can be easily developed using authoring tools like Storyline or Captivate. They can also be developed as web-based apps using the browser in HTML5. It’s important to understand how your learners will access the game. Those business requirements will drive your development decisions.