Skip to main content

It’s almost 2017. So, chances are, you’ve probably heard of the term gamification thrown around in some capacity. In fact, since its popularisation in 2011, interest has grown exponentially as we understand more about the concept. While the hype has curtailed past the point of senseless noise, it’s time to take stock and reflect on how far gamification has taken us, specifically within the talent management and HR space. I’m going to attempt to do this by providing a brief definition of gamification, followed by a discussion of some interesting applications and examples. Some future speculations are also thrown in for good measure!

Okay, so what exactly is gamification?

There are several definitions of gamification ranging from a “process that makes an experience more game-like” to “the use of game design elements in a non-game context to increase motivation towards an objective”. Wordplay aside, my favourite, and arguably the most accurate, is a definition has by Keith Ng:

Gamification is the use of game-design elements and psychological principles to engage the target audience and motivate specific behaviours

The theme or central idea that cuts through just about every known definition is the idea of engagement. Specifically, gamification engages the target audience by optimising a process or product – whatever it may be- by tapping into the user’s psychology. Which aspects of psychology? Arguably, gamification draws on just about every aspect of psychology ranging from cognition, emotion, to personality, but principally, gamification engages the target audience by tapping into their motivation. Motivation, as a topic, is far too large a topic for the scope of this article, but a very simplified description of two of the most core aspects that assists us in understanding gamification is provided below (not surprisingly, these aspects are also important for our mental health and productivity, as I have outlined in a previous article):

  1. Autonomy: We’re motivated when we feel in charge, whether by a burning desire to be the master of our own destiny, or something entirely other. The energy or extent to which we pursue a task is directly related to how much autonomy we’re provided and thus has implications for how we approach a task.
  2. Competence: Accomplishing stuff makes us feel good on a psychological and neurobiological level. Hence, when we get better at something we’re more likely to continue doing it. In doing so, we gain a steady influx of dopamine from our brain’s reward centre, as well as a boost to our self esteem.

At this point, you may be asking yourself – that sounds vaguely familiar, where have I seen this before?

You’ve seen it in your day-to-day experience. One of the most basic forms of gamification is the “collect 10 stamps and you’ll get a free X” cliche (as no stranger to coffee shops, I’ve fallen victim to this too many times!). In this case, the reward system draws on motivational theory and is applied through technology – today, as membership cards with a QR code. While simplistic in nature, this technique taps into our intrinsic need to accomplish things. On a neurobiological level, the same chemicals (i.e., dopamine) is released, even though we know in full that this kind of accomplishment is somewhat shallow. And on a psychological level, the presentation of a freebie at the end of the 10th stamp creates a state of cognitive dissonance, which we then resolve by making the decision to use the same coffee shop for our next purchase. We convince ourselves that we made that decision consciously and autonomously. The net result is that we’re more motivated to visit the same coffee shop to chase that glorious free coffee! Humour aside, our motivation, and subsequently, our behaviour has ultimately been changed in a meaningful and measurable way.

The Bottom Line: The design philosophy for any process or product needs to incorporate psychological principles

Companies understand the power of gamification and have basically run with it, with wide-reaching applications across healthcare, education, and business, as well as a market estimated at 2.8 billion in 2016. Gamification is prolific within the smartphone app market with just about every product claiming to change behaviour through gamification in some capacity, with varying degrees of success. But what about the area in which we spend a majority of our waking hours: the workplace? 

Gamification within talent management and HR

In the wake of the “War for Talent” – a phrase dubbed by McKinsey to denote the importance of recruiting the best talent to remain competitive, companies draw on a wide range of technologies and strategies to ensure that they meet this objective. Is gamification a new weapon in the global arms race for talent, or just another passing fad?

Recruitment and selection

Within the context of recruitment, gamification has been applied to psychometric testing, particularly, with IQ and personality. By virtue of a more enjoyable user experience, and by tapping into some of the psychological principles described above, gamified psychometric assessments are a valid alternative to assessing and indeed attracting new talent. Gamified psychometric assessments have the added advantage of having higher response rates, lower dropout rates, and a “fun” factor that is absent from traditional methods. Some caveats exist in the cost of such assessments as well as the accuracy (i.e., the stats behind the assessments) but as the cost of technology decreases, and as more research comes in, these caveats will be negligible. There’s also something to be said about using gamified assessments to build a brand or culture. Need to convey the message that you’re a fun and innovative company? There’s nothing like a funky game to send that message! Here are some of the best examples of gamification within recruitment:

  1.  America’s Army: America’s army is a product developed by the US defence department that allows prospective recruits to get a realistic job preview – a taste of the army life beyond the guts and glory highlighted by contemporary titles such as Battlefield and Call of Duty. Additionally, the game serves as a tool for measuring aptitude within a military context.
  2. Theme Park Hero: A product developed by Revelian in which the candidate are tasked with the duty of resolving any issues that arise within the management of the park. Despite feeling very “game-like”, the mini games are powered by the same science that underpins other top tier assessment tools, and taps into a variety of psychological constructs such as numerical processing ability, attention, and spacial reasoning.
  3. Immersify: A tool developed by the folks at Talegent, Immersify is product that assesses learning agility (how fast people learn), and learning ability (how effectively, expressed in the number of correct responses people learn) – both competencies that are statistically predictive of job performance.

Source: Revelian

Training and development

Despite the natural fit between training and gamification, the majority of training, even in 2016 is dry and uninspired. Likewise, the applications of gamification within training and development have been slower, relative to other arenas, with a dearth of innovation within the market. Gamified training, at the most cutting-edge can be seen within virtual reality or augmented reality based training in very specific contexts (e.g., military or medical) where even an incremental increase in job performance could mean the difference between success and failure, between life and death.

Image: A gamified training simulation delivered via VR

Outside of highly specialised domains, one could argue that E-learning or learning management services – both within university and corporate learning – is an innovative step forward. To this, I would rebuke and say that E-learning is a step forward only insofar as it provides a convenient portal to access educational content. In reality, gamification principles are largely absent from design and practice – anyone who has gone through university education in the last 5-10 years can relate to a poor user experience with regards to their learning management system!

Notwithstanding some of the criticisms above, gamification has seen some success within onboarding programs. Beyond the obvious benefits such as a better user experience, engagement, and an increase in learning outcomes, gamified onboarding programs can set a precedent for continuous learning and helps promote a culture of learning and improvement. One of the most interesting examples is provided by Eidesign, which showcases an e-learning module of an induction plan that maps onto a mission-like format where participants clear various levels of content. Users also progress through a level-up system and are also benchmarked against fellow team members within a leaderboard to promote that sense of accomplishment. 

Source: Eidesign

Final thoughts

While I can’t comment on the advent of gamification as a whole, its applications within talent management is somewhat mixed. But one thing is clear: gamification is not a passing fad, it’s becoming entrenched within talent management, and it’s here to stay. Within recruitment and selection, we see a maturing industry with bold new ideas and a scientific literature that is almost keeping up. The challenge here is within market acceptance and more research to close the gap, especially around predictive validity. Within training and development, we see innovation with VR and AR technologies in very highly specific areas and slow growth in other areas (e.g., non-military or medical). With this lack of growth comes an opportunity for disruption, especially as technology advances. The future of gamification within talent management seems poised for change – and with the direction that its currently headed, that future seems exciting! What about your thoughts – how has the promise of gamification played out with your experiences?

Leave a Reply