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Where in the world is fun employee learning?

  • Gamification is intended to make learning enjoyable and cement educational objectives in the workplace.

  • Relying on game mechanics that preference external rewards and competition can have a negative effect.

  • New mechanics, such as loops, builds and playgrounds, can bring back the fun and make learning intrinsically successful.

If you’ve ever earned a badge for completing workplace training, or points on an employee leaderboard for the most sales or steps, you can probably thank Carmen Sandiego. When Broderbund Software published Carmen in 1985, it was one of the earliest examples of gamification in the education space.1

Thirty-six years on, points, badges, and leaderboards make up the cornerstone of today’s workplace gamification. They are extrinsic motivators that allow learners to compete against their peers or themselves.2 While it’s true that they drive ongoing engagement, when it comes to learning, old-style gamification can also drive negative outcomes alongside positive ones.

While gamification isn’t going away anytime soon, it does need to keep up with the times. A glance at the top rated games of the last five years show new mechanics being used to excite players: playgrounds, builds, and loops.3

The limitations of rewards

In 1973, a field experiment was conducted to test the ‘overjustification’ theory.4 It was hypothesised that by giving a group of children an extrinsic reward, their intrinsic motivation would decrease. The results showed this to be true — when the children knew to expect a reward, their desire to complete the exercise decreased. And yet, rewards are still central to gamification. Why? Because, broadly speaking, gamification circumvents the decrease in motivation by increasing compulsion. 

When a player achieves a task in a game, and is rewarded for it, science tells us they also receive a dopamine hit, motivating them to play more.5 This compulsion is useful for selling and playing games, but when it comes to learning, is it really a desirable outcome?

What’s more, incentives and peer comparisons have also been shown to decrease innovation,6 creativity,7 and increase cheating8. This means that the opportunity to compete against peers can negatively impact an employee’s experience, ambition, and moral code. 

When used in the workplace, gamification is intended to drive a learner to continue playing until the lesson is completed. Dopamine releases can help here, but relying solely on external rewards means that learners are engaged in the pursuit of points, rather than education. In a sense, organisations are bribing employees to learn with feel-good brain moments.

Playing for the journey

A lot of popular video games use points, badges, and leaderboards, but these mechanics are rarely central to the experience for the player. They are a means to an end, providing players with the resources they need to continue, not necessarily the desire to. In fact, top rated games from the last five years show other game mechanics that are central to driving player engagement: 

  • Playgrounds

  • Builds

  • Loops

These three mechanics add to the enjoyment of a game, usually alongside very good storytelling and art direction. They provide players with a chance to take risks9, be creative,10 and generate stories11 about the journey, not the incremental achievement. 

Let’s take a look at each in more detail as they could be applied to workplace learning.


(As seen in: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, Hitman 3)

Playgrounds are immersive, non-linear spaces where players put their skills to the test, generating their own narratives as they complete challenges in their own uniquely chosen way. Providing employees with playgrounds, immersive spaces and toolkits, doesn’t have to mean building worlds in VR. Instead, this can be done by creating spaces that respond and react to the actions and choices taken by learners. Doing so means that employees can explore an endless stream of alternate approaches to completing a challenge, allowing them to generate emergent narratives as they solve problems in their own way. Rather than a leaderboard to breed competition, a playground provides peer comparison through storytelling. Playgrounds could be useful in employees learning management skills, strategic planning or exploring culture skills.


(As seen in: Disco Elysium, Persona 5, Demon's Souls)

Builds are customised collections of skills and tools chosen by the player to approach a particular challenge. As they relate to learning, builds encourage people to explore different approaches to a task and give them opportunities to iterate and experiment. In essence, builds force creativity as they ask learners to consider how their skills work in concert, not isolation. This means that they are also fantastic for team based learning, it’s one thing to work on a build just for yourself, but when you’re forced to consider how it plays into a team with differing responsibilities, builds become indispensable. For example, a build scenario could be used in teaching product development, better customer engagement or Agile ways of working.


(As seen in: Hades, Outer Wilds, Deathloop)

Loops have had a resurgence on the gaming mechanic roster, but they provide a safe space for learners to fail and try again. They are typically fast-paced, repeatable sections that allow for experimentation and greater risk taking by removing the finality of more linear games. Loops are all about trying new tactics, because if you know that a reset will wipe any mistakes clear, why not try something different? Loops force learners not to hold too dear to their plans and to take risks. Loop mechanics are typically tied to time, and they give learners the time to reset, try again, and explore freely. In the workplaces, loops could be useful in helping employees adopt cyber safe behaviours, handle data or sales approaches. 

Where in the world do we go from here?

Carmen Sandiego probably didn’t know what she was getting us into back in the day. In truth, the game of the globetrotting detectives was not something most people saw as ‘learning,’ even as it taught world facts, culture, geography and history. It was just fun.

Somewhere along the way, gamification became the bribe to keep employees learning, rather than a better way to learn. Gamification, if fashioned after the best mechanics of today, could provide us with a way to engage learners through more compelling internal mechanics, without a focus on external rewards. 

Learning at work may not always be what people want to do with their time, but by making it an experience that drives their intrinsic motivation we can rely less on dopamine and more on engagement to get them to skill up.

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