3 Steps to Gamification that Works

Whether you’ve had a bad experience with gamification in the past and want to understand why, or if your planning to gamify for the first time, following these 3 simple steps will allow you to both avoid the most common pitfalls, and help you build gamification that not only engages people, but changes people.

Step 1 – Gamify behavioural change, not time spent

Let’s start with one of the most common mistakes you see made by gamification. The gamification is built primarily around the amount of time spent in the app.

Let’s use a learning platform or LMS as an example.

Whether it’s a milestone to “watch 20 videos” or “share 5 courses”, the reward here is primarily based around the amount of time spent in the app, and generally rewards existing behaviour – those who like video training will watch 20 videos, with or without the milestone. Those who already share everything on their personal social feeds will also be hitting the share button on your LMS, and those who don’t won’t use your share button either.

This problem is prevalent everywhere in gamification. It’s actually a symptom of copying mechanics from games, and not thinking hard enough when reapplying them. Most actual games now days are delivered with a “Games as a Service” model. In this model game developers want three things from players:

  1. For players to have a fun experience while playing to build commitment to their brand.
  2. For players to come back to a game regularly so they will be more open to opportunities to be sold the next instalment or upgrade for the game (or spend on micro-transactions).
  3. For players to play the game socially, so they are more likely to talk about and share the game with new and potential players.

To achieve these goals reward systems such as levels, virtual items, , and achievements are used to engage users at different parts of the games cycle:

  1.  Levels for when new content is available
  2. Virtual items to keep people coming back each week for a chance at something they want to wear or use.
  3. And achievements to give those who want to put hour after hour into the game something to aim after during the quiet periods between content updates.

These along with complementary systems around unlocking, resources, and plot animations, etc. are designed to achieve the three primary goals of the game developers. There is a direct link between the reward type being targeted at each player at any one time, and changing the players behaviour to make them play regularly, share the game with others, and have fun doing so. All of these behaviours can primarily be measured by the amount of time somebody spends playing.

When we talk about learning, we do not have the same goals, but often gamify the same things. Unsurprisingly when we treat our user as if they were playing a game, we fail to get the behaviour change we want.

While the specific behavioural changes you are after depending on your company’s culture and values, they usually include:

  1. Wanting people to take the things learnt and make them part of your everyday work.
  2. Wanting to build a culture where learning is seen as a natural part of the job, not a separate activity. Want to try something new? Learn about it in some quiet time. Got a pressing problem you’ve not sure of how to solve? Why not find a brief piece of learning right now while you need it. Unsure on a new product you are selling? Why not have a quick refresh on its features before going in to the next meeting or call.
  3. Wanting to capture and share bottom-up learning as well as top down learning. How are things actually done? What is best practice? How is help provided between peers? Can we make capture a natural part of sharing?

When you look at these behaviours and goals carefully, you’ll see that regularity rather than time spent is the best measure of success.

Build your gamification around these behaviours, rather than time spent. This one change alone will transform the effectiveness of your gamification.

Step 2 – Aim at peoples “need time” not their “down time”

Casual gaming had a huge surge when smartphones became common place. Now when someone is bored waiting for an appointment, commuting to work, watching TV, or even visiting the restroom – they have in hand something to pass the time and relieve their boredom.

Gaming wasn’t the only industry that grew into this down time. Perhaps even more successful was the growth of social media into this same segment of our time. Like casual gaming, social media provides instant emotional reward, it contains easy to pick up and harder to put down behaviours. It’s just as much fun.

Because of the success of these two giants in dominating peoples down time, many who design gamification aim their product at the same block of time. Though if you stop to think about it, there is nothing less likely to succeed than asking for your compliance training being chosen over Facebook during a train commute, or expecting someone to watch about your newest product while sat on the toilet rather than playing Candy Crush. Not only is competition for that time dominated by giants, but it’s also an awful time for knowledge retention in the first place.

Instead of aiming for, and failing to get, peoples down time, aim for their “need time”. When do people need compliance training? When the join the company? Yes. When rules change? Yes. Annually? Yes – sometimes. Is it a pain to try keep reminding people about the mandatory need to complete the training? Yes – always! So what reward should people get for compliance training? One that’s based on completing the training as early as possible. One that’s based on how few reminders it took to get the training completed. One that’s based on a feeling of “we succeed together” when everyone in a team completes the training quicker than other teams.

How about our other example of new product training? When is the point of need for this?  Assuming we are talking about sales or customer support with this example, the point of need is both at the products launch, and right before providing support or sales to a customer about the product. When should we be rewarding people for this learning then? Well when they do it right before providing support or sales to a customer of course!

Aiming learning at peoples “need time” instead of “down time” and rewarding that behaviour creates a culture where learning solves problems and engages teams, rather than defining learning as a distraction that could just as easily be done while also watching TV. If you don’t want a passive “downtime” mindset being taken with your learning, don’t make the mistake of aiming for peoples downtime and experiencing the associated poor uptake and retention.

Step 3 – Don’t make it a game, make it a culture

This last step is pretty self-explanatory, but too often ignored.

I’ve seen many examples of people trying to make an actual game out of a piece of learning. The thing is we’re all so used to games now, that what we produce isn’t normally as good as any game we would actually choose to install and play.

We’ve already talked about the pitfalls of aiming at peoples down time, but let’s look again at King who make Candy Crush. In 2017 King a turnover of almost 2 billion USD. How does your budget compare to that? Which one of you is most likely to define what a user considers “good” when it comes to casual games?

Gamification should reward culture, not try and make a game out of a quiz. Reward people for making learning and sharing part of their job, don’t try and make them learn something they don’t want to and make them match three gems in a row before you let them move on to the next question.


None of the steps above are complex, but they do all break the mould of the gamification solutions we still see talked about at conferences and tacked on to too many LMSs.

So next time you are looking at gamification, make sure you follow these steps and get the behaviours and cultures you want.

By following these steps you will: create behavioural change, provide learning when people need it, and build a culture where learning and sharing is seen as part of everybody’s job.

Isn’t that better than another gold medal for giving a thumbs up to your 200th video?



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