7 Common Gamification Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Gamification in training has aged well.

In the few years gamified e-learning has been around, it has grown from a buzzword into a mainstay of online training.

The fact that it’s been around for a few years hasn’t dampened the corporate training market’s enthusiasm for adding points, badges, and leaderboards to learning. If anything, L&D leaders are more interested in gamifying training. A new report from Technavio projects the global gamified training market will grow at a rate of 9.99 percent between now and 2022.

Here’s the thing, though: enthusiasm for gamified training (or a mandate from an enthusiastic manager) doesn’t always result in a well-crafted gamified training program. In fact, those who incorporate gamification into their e-learning only because they’re excited about points, badges and leaderboards may end up missing the point of gamification: to encourage learning and retention.  

Below are some common errors made by organizations who are gamifying their training, and some ideas for avoiding them:

  1. Gamifying for gamification’s sake. Slapping points, badges and leaderboards on a training program does not an effective learning experience make. The points and the badges have to mean something to the learner — if badges are tied to meaningful mastery of skills, for example, learners will be more driven to attain them.
  2. Using bad game design (or no game design). Gamification is more than just adding points to an existing course. If points and badges are simply tacked onto an existing course, that may not serve your needs as a trainer. In fact, back in 2014 as the gamification trend was picking up steam, Gartner predicted most gamification efforts in progress at that time would fail – why? Poor design. Gamification works because there’s a psychology to it; a good game designer will be able to exploit that psychology to help your employees learn.
  3. Losing sight of the training in the game. If your company is building a game to deliver learning to employees, make sure that game always serves the e-learning, and not the other way around. Games can get out of control quickly, so always make sure that a learner’s performance in the game is tied to their mastery of content. Also, remember that you want your learners to progress in the game. You’re not trying to design a game that will stump your learners; you want to set attainable goals for them so they’re motivated to learn.
  4. Leaning on leaderboards. Leaderboards are tricky. Used properly, they can spark healthy competition, but leaderboards can also cause competition to go sour. When leaderboards really go wrong, they actually don’t help productivity at all. Picture this: there are two or three employees at the top of the leaderboard, far ahead of everyone else, so intent on trying to reach the top of the leaderboard they’re distracted by their battle with one another. Meanwhile, no one else in the office has any hope of catching up with them, so they’ve just stopped trying. The person at the bottom of the leaderboard is actively demotivated by it. Use your leaderboards judiciously. Know who your employees are and if a public leaderboard is going to be right for them, and use more than a leaderboard — badges for example. Or, if the idea of a publicly displayed leaderboard really appeals to you and you think it will work for your office, maybe take a page from J.K. Rowling and organize your employees into teams. The Hogwarts House Cup in Harry Potter is an example of a public leaderboard that works well because it’s not elevating or shaming individual learners.
  5. Assuming you know which employees will like games and which won’t. Millennials love gamification, right? They’ve been gaming since grade school. Gamification must be meant to interest young employees in training. Not so. Taking this approach to gamifying your training is overly simplistic, and discounts the number of older employees who enjoy games and gaming. According to a 2018 report from the Entertainment Software Association, 33 percent of gamers are over the age of 50. Additionally, 45 percent of gamers in the U.S. are women. In other words, people of all ages love gaming, so don’t focus on one generation over another when you gamify your training.
  6. Remember: not everyone likes games. People of all ages like games, and the same holds true for people who don’t. Not everyone enjoys games and gaming, so don’t force gamified training down your employees’ throats. Provide a non-game alternative if possible to your gamified training. For example, if your training involves playing a mobile game and then answering questions, provide an alternative in which only the quiz is available.
  7. Thinking you have to start big. Reading about all these mistakes may make you think you have to invest in a game designer up front to design a bespoke game, or reinvent your entire L&D program as a gamified program. There’s no need for that kind of an effort. Just pick one thing. It could be a course, or a module, or one game element that will work well with your e-learning. You may also want to work with a learning platform that has already done the game design work for you. That way you can test the waters of gamification slowly while making your learning more fun for those who are already in your training program.