What I've Learned After 15 Years of Playing Games at Work
April 18, 2017 • JD Dillon • Games
Are we still arguing about the potential for games to help
people get better at their jobs? I’ve never been able to wrap my head around
this conflict. In real life, we are surrounded by game elements as influencers
try to shift our behaviors and achieve their desired outcomes.
For example, how many stars do you have in your Starbucks Rewards account right now? Do you have any certificates hanging on
the wall in your office? Have you cheered or cried while watching a movie
lately? The worldwide gaming industry raked in $91 billion last year, out-earning the
Hollywood box office, but we’re still hemming and hawing over the potential for
these same concepts at work. Why?!
Figure 1: I’m not going out of my way to stay there because I love
The argument against games and gamification has never made
sense to me because I’ve been immersed in these concepts my entire life—both
academically and professionally. Did you play Oregon Trail
in grade school? It’s my earliest memory of gameplay within learning. Not only
did it help me better understand the historical context, but it also continues
to remind me just how deadly a broken arm can be when you’re crossing a river.
Fast-forward to my 19-year-old manager self at AMC Theatres.
I was always running contests and sharing stories to motivate my team members
to drive concession sales or improve customer service scores. My application of
game mechanics has continued to progress as I shifted from operational to
learning and development roles over the past 15 years.
Rather than reiterate the conceptual potential of game
elements (Karl Kapp
has that handled), I’d like to share a few of my biggest takeaways from
game-related projects I’ve worked on throughout my career.
I told a lot of stories when I worked for Disney. Some were
scripted, third-party retellings of guest experiences, but most were personal
memories about my time with the company. Content elements like narrative and
character were essential tools for engaging cast members in almost every
learning program. Sure, these stories demonstrated the desired behaviors we
were looking to instill. However, I was quick to realize the real value of
narrative in this environment. This was how we helped cast members connect with
the greater organization and its mission. After all, changing bed sheets and
wiping down restaurant tables isn’t fundamentally magical. However, when we put
these common tasks in the context of the greater impact the Disney experience
could have on our guests, we were more successful in fostering the desired
I took this strategy to the next level when I got into
custom learning design. We had recently established new guest service
guidelines for the 65,000 cast members at the Walt Disney World Resort.
However, given the extensive variety of roles performed on property, these
guidelines were quite high-level. We needed a way to help cast members connect
these expectations to their day-to-day behaviors. To that end, I built an ILT
series to immerse cast members into a story based on their specific work
The skeleton of the class was the same for every location,
always asking participants to apply guest-service tactics to overcome a
fictitious obstacle. However, the narrative elements and activities were built
for the specific location and featured familiar elements. For example, the
first session, which was designed for a new Kim Possible attraction at Epcot,
tasked cast members to defeat a villain character. Sure, it sounds cheesy now,
but the series was successful based on both participant feedback and improved guest-service
scores. We had created a game-based bridge to help cast members connect their
daily work activities to the greater expectations of the organization.
employees feel distanced from the larger purpose of their organization. Game
elements can help restore this connection and show employees how their actions
have a greater impact.
I made a brief pit stop in the world of global logistics a
few years ago. During my time with Brambles, we released a casual online game
called Ship It developed by LEO Learning (teaser video here).
The game required players to make decisions regarding pallet shipments to
various customer personas, and it displayed performance scores based on company
priorities, such as satisfaction, CO2 reduction, and profitability.
No, you can’t learn everything you need to know about
logistics from this game, but that was never the point. Rather, moving through
the increasingly difficult levels helped the player understand how logistical
decisions—decisions they potentially never made in their own roles—impact
business outcomes. Players gained an improved understanding of how the
different functions within the company work together to reach each goal. As a
new employee, it helped me reach outside the L&D bubble and gain
appreciation for the challenges our logistics teams were facing every day.
can easily become trapped in a functional silo. Game elements can improve their
awareness and appreciation of other employees’ roles, as well as their
relationship to one another.
My role with Kaplan afforded me the freedom to experiment
with a variety of learning tactics, including game elements. In my first few
months on the job, it became clear that we were stuck in a one-size-fits-all
mentality due to both the speed with which the organization was growing and the
increasing role complexity. I was looking for a way to ensure each learning
experience was a clear value-add, but I didn’t have a lot of technology to play
with (yet). So, I turned to game elements in my next eLearning project.
Figure 2: Users played the role of Skip, who was dramatically
unqualified for this game show
Rather than deliver the same process update training to
every call center and campus employee, I positioned the eLearning as a game
show (Figure 2). However, this design was actually hiding the branching setup
within a pretty standard, Captivate-authored module. The player started with a
simple question on the topic—in this case, students’ prior academic
transcripts. If the player answered correctly, they earned points and moved on
to a more difficult question. If they got it wrong, they were presented with a
“commercial break” that included refresher information. They then returned to
answer a similar question and prove their renewed understanding. Unlike most
training modules, which are designed to ensure completion, this one included
the risk of losing the game, which triggered greater user focus. Sure, I could
have just given everyone a quiz on the topic and pushed a simple eLearning to
those who failed. The game elements added a layer of engagement while enabling
a simple but personalized learning experience.
I eventually expanded my tactics from just content to include
structural game elements. I started by
applying gamification as part of a side project to tackle the organization’s
shared knowledge problem. We found ourselves in a familiar position for a big
company: We had a lot of great information out there, but it just wasn’t well curated
in an easily accessible spot.
To create a simple, familiar, budget-friendly knowledge-sharing
experience, we introduced Confluence as our enterprise wiki. I then added a
selection of game mechanics, including the oft-maligned points, badges, and
leaderboards, to motivate users to share their knowledge. I didn’t realize just
how much of an impact these elements were having on our users until I
accidentally turned them off one day. I heard about it—immediately! While some users didn’t care at all, there was a group
who had associated the value of their work with this gamified recognition.
We ultimately refined our gamification strategy to leverage
these elements as a way to establish subject matter credibility and grant
advanced contribution permissions. Not only did we get more content, but inexperienced
employees were able to more readily trust information shared by our recognized
contributors, despite never having worked directly with them.
Takeaway: Value is
unique to the individual. Therefore, a variety of game elements and tactics
must be employed for maximum impact.
I continue to expand my use of game elements in my role with
as I help organizations achieve results through knowledge growth and behavior
change. I have found that our research into the application of game elements
with our tens of thousands of users, across a variety of industries and use
cases, echoes my earlier career takeaways. The right game elements not only
motivate employees to engage in continuous learning, but also foster improved
connections to the message being shared.
I’ll be sharing more information about our research, as well
as my practical experience with game elements, at FocusOn Learning 2017 Conference & Expo in San Diego this June. Join me for two
You can also check out my past Learning Solutions Magazine article on the “Top 10 Objection to Gamification (and the Best Way to Respond).”
elements in workplace learning are no different than other organizational
strategies. When applied the right way, and with a focus on value and context,
they can meaningfully support knowledge growth, behavior change, and
performance outcomes. However, when executed poorly, game elements can come off
as gimmicks and result in negative outcomes. L&D pros must do their
homework and understand the potential for game elements within their own
learning ecosystems. After all, we all want people to care as much about
learning as they do their Starbucks Rewards stars, right?