Gamification is no longer news: it began attracting massive attention as a practice in 2010 and has had plenty of exposure in the training and L&D press ever since. However, in the ensuing 11 years, there has been plenty of churn in both communities, with new hires, retirements, and job changes, and plenty of practitioners are what the world-class expert in learning design and management Cammy Bean made famous in her referentially-titled book: Accidental Instructional Designers.

Never mind the back story—what is gamification?

So for all those new to the field, or those who never expected to enter it, or those who no longer remember the formal definition of gamification, here it is:

  • Gamification is the application of game-playing elements such as point scoring and competition to other non-game areas of activity. There may be other elements that reinforce the competitive aspects (scoreboards, leaderboards) and offer social communication support.

The reason for gamification in learning activities and training is to increase engagement, enjoyment, and even fun. Gamification should be a counter to boring training.

What makes gamification work? There have been gamification initiatives that failed or were abandoned because they were not user-centric. They were implemented with the intention of controlling the users or benefitting management. In some cases, they may have created unintended effects, such as an increase in accidents. It does not have to be that way. To work, gamification only needs three things:

  1. Clear goals and tracking of progress, especially visual displays of the latter
  2. Openness to failure: no punishment for getting things wrong
  3. Socialization: support for communication and interaction with other users

Why does gamification matter more right now?

As the world emerges from the misery of the pandemic, we are finding that much has changed in the last year. The world did not stand still, and technology progressed. There are skill gaps now and more that are impending that did not exist (or that we simply did not notice or pay attention to) in 2019.

Automation, driven by investment and adoption of technology, is reshaping the workforce. Business leadership across the board is recognizing the need to reskill and upskill the workforce on a pretty massive scale in less than 10 years, and that is our job in L&D. And there's more to be concerned about beyond automation. The recognition is driven by statistics like these:

  • "The U.S. will likely experience a shortfall in its workforce of 600,000 to 12.5 million people—between 0.9% and 4.2%—by 2030. With the deficit in tech-driven industries such as architecture, engineering, computers and technical support expected to soar, the surplus of workers in office and admin support roles will also rise from 1.4 million in 2020 to 3.0 million in 2030." (Source: Human Resource Executive, May 5, 2021, What the 2030 Workforce Could Look Like Without Reskilling, citing a report, The Future of Jobs in the Era of AI, from Faethm AI and Boston Consulting Group)

Gamification will be an important part of dealing with this skill shortfall. Gamification works. Management believes in it. Not only that, many organizations adopted the use of gamification during 2020 and workers found time while working at home to increase their use of instruction that employed gamification. With the emergence of "hybrid" work patterns, this is even more significant.

Remember the deskless workers and the frontline. Gamification works great for these workers, when designed to accommodate their constraints. Many of them were furloughed and are returning to a workplace that will have changed in many ways, so reskilling and upskilling are relevant needs that will have to be met.

The bottom line

Finally, remember the generation gap. It is true that only about a third of Gen X and Baby Boomers feel compelled to improve their skills for the sake of vertical advancement or job security. But for Millennials and Gen Z, over half understand the importance to the success of their careers of updating their skills and knowledge. In fact, ongoing learning initiatives are more important than other perks and benefits to them for that reason. Retention is an important benefit for employers to consider. Training is cheaper than turnover.

Gamification is an important element for the success of reskilling and upskilling.