It’s a passionate debate. Skeptics brush off gamification as nothing more than hype, while believers assert it drives engagement.

The reality is there hasn’t been any hard data in the public domain to support either side of the argument. So, the two sides have continued to square off with fiery claims that are based more on opinion than fact.

We think it’s time to get the truth out there and change the conversation. In June, 2014, we put together our report card about what works with gamification in learning. But this year, we’re taking our insights a step further and revealing data that proves gamification works.

Thousands of employees from the world’s leading organizations, including Walmart, Toyota, Johnson & Johnson, Bloomingdale’s, John Hancock, and more, interact daily with gamification elements delivered through the microlearning and performance support components of our Axonify Employee Knowledge Platform. This has allowed Axonify to build what we believe is the largest body of gamification-related data.

Based on a three-year analysis of more than 9.5 million sessions on the platform, we’d like to share our findings. The data shows gamification has a significant impact on employee engagement and that this higher engagement drives substantial knowledge lifts, which have huge business impact.

Gamification defined

But before we get into the numbers, let’s get on the same page about what gamification means. While many interpretations of gamification exist, our definition aligns with Karl Kapp’s, a respected expert on the convergence of learning and technology. Kapp defines gamification as, “a careful and considered application of game thinking to solving problems and encouraging learning, using all the elements of games that are appropriate.”

Just to make this definition crystal clear, gamification is different from game-based learning. Game-based learning uses game play to help learners achieve a specific learning objective. It has a distinct starting point, followed by structured play and a defined ending. An example would be a game that simulates an operating room environment, which teaches surgeons how to perform a specific type of surgery.

Gamification, on the other hand, applies game-based mechanics and game thinking to help engage individuals in learning, motivate them to act, and foster ongoing learning. While it can include game play, it relies on other game mechanics as well— such as rewards, points, leaderboards, competition, and more—to make learning fun. An example would be a learning solution that employees would be encouraged to use daily. It would award points for correct answers to questions on particular topics, encourage employees to compete for prizes, and allow employees to play a game, while learning about subject matter that pertains to their role.

Axonify incorporates more than 15 game mechanics into its platform, including game play, points and rewards, leaderboards, badges, coaches, and more, allowing us to observe them in isolation as well as in combination with each other. Here’s how we know gamification drives engagement, which, in turn, leads to knowledge growth and business impact.

Six game mechanics that drive the most engagement

We know from our research that organizations need to employ a combination of game mechanics to drive employee engagement in learning. But, based on all the game mechanics we include in the Axonify Employee Knowledge Platform, we’ve identified six that impact engagement the most:

  1. Rewards Page—Displays prizes and allows employees to bid on them with points earned from their learning sessions
  2. Leaderboard—Allows employees to see how their performance measures up against their team
  3. Report Card—Displays individual learning progress and milestones employees have achieved
  4. Achievement Badges—Showcases the learning accomplishments of individual employees
  5. News Feed—Features news about employees and their peers
  6. Game Scores—Reveals who has achieved top game scores for various games

Figure 1: Game mechanics r values: game mechanics drive higher participation in learning

Figure 1 showcases the statistical significance or “r value” of these mechanics. Without getting too deep into stats, the correlation coefficient r measures the strength of the correlation between two variables (in this case, it’s the correlation between the game mechanic and participation frequency on the Axonify Employee Knowledge Platform). Correlation is positive when the values increase together.

1      1 is a perfect positive correlation

2      0 is no correlation (the values don't seem linked at all)

3      -1 is a perfect negative correlation

Typically, anything above .3 is considered to be a significant correlation. In our case, the data shows that all six of these game mechanics have a high correlation-to-participation. That means employees who interact with these game mechanics more often have higher participation frequency on the Axonify platform. Similarly, those who participate more frequently on the platform interact with these game mechanics the most often.

This is significant because we know that many organizations have great difficulty encouraging employees to participate in learning. Organizations that use Axonify make participation voluntary. So, it’s pretty clear that these game mechanics play a huge role in driving engagement.

Extrinsic rewards have a long-term impact on engagement

Some strong arguments have been published that claim extrinsic rewards have a temporary impact on engagement. But our research demonstrates the contrary. Out of all the game mechanics included on the Axonify platform, the rewards page (as illustrated above) is the most visited. In fact, our data shows that those who participate in regular learning sessions get tremendous value and enjoyment out of the rewards. What matters most is that employees value the rewards being offered. Axonify customers offer all kinds of different rewards to their employees, including gift cards, t-shirts, free lunches, and more.

Figure 2 shows the level of engagement with the rewards page versus learning session frequency. The sessions were tracked over a 12-month period (approximately 260 working days). In this case, the data indicates that employees who visited the rewards page 75% to 100% of the time, completed 110 learning sessions in 12 months. The employees who visited the rewards page 0% to 25% of the time completed only 33 learning sessions in 12 months. This data confirms the link between rewards and the frequency of employee participation. By having a meaningful rewards program, employees have increased motivation to participate in learning sessions on an ongoing basis.

Figure 2: Employees who visit the rewards page most often complete the most sessions

After tracking this data over a three-year period, we’ve identified that extrinsic rewards still appear as the highest driver of employee participation. And because this correlation still exists, it’s clear it stands the test of time.

That said, just because rewards are the highest-driving game mechanic when it comes to participation, this doesn’t mean the other game mechanics should be shut off. Rewards work in concert with the other drivers. That’s why we recommend using a combination of game mechanics—they all contribute to a certain amount of engagement and fun. The point is that if organizations want high participation, they shouldn’t leave rewards off the table.

Gamification increases engagement, knowledge growth, and business impact

We know that the more people are engaged in gamified learning, the higher their knowledge levels will be.

Figure 3 highlights significant employee knowledge growth from three different types of organizations. The blue bars display employee knowledge growth according to a participation frequency of five or less sessions per month. The green bars showcase employee knowledge growth from a participation frequency of 20 or more sessions per month. The more frequently employees participate in gamified learning, the higher the knowledge lift.


Figure 3: Higher participation = higher knowledge growth

What’s even more significant is the business impact. The specialty retailer, for example, has tied employee knowledge lift (from gamified learning) directly to safety and shrink results. Stores that use Axonify are 33% less likely to have an accident and these stores also have a 24% lower shrink rate—translating into millions of dollars of annual savings.

Gamification drives engagement across all industries and genders

A common objection to gamification is that it won’t appeal to a diverse workforce or motivate those in professional roles. We beg to differ. When we’ve sliced and diced the data to examine this argument, the result has been the same. Gamification works across age, gender, industry, and role.

Figure 4 compares males and females in different industries, demonstrating that they behave in virtually the same way. What’s even more interesting though, is that the professional sales group visits the Employee Knowledge Platform leaderboard even more often than retail associates. This proves their competitive nature motivates them to participate more frequently in learning, refuting the argument that professionals aren’t interested in gamification.

Figure 4: Men and women behave the same in a gamified environment

The proof is in the data

Clearly gamification isn’t just a fad without any substance. When done right, gamified learning is a proven method of driving employee engagement, knowledge growth, and business impact. We’ve analyzed the data. We’ve seen it in action. And we know it works!