Game On? or Off?

We don’t need no badges!

We’re probably all seeing the heightened push for  “gamification” in the learning space, along with some mumbled caveats about how it might not be a panacea and there are some situations in which it is the inappropriate approach.

I think I’d like to raise the volume on those caveats, but first, a disclaimer. I’ve got nothing against games.  In their highest and best form, games for training are simulations, bringing the learner very close to a real-work situation, but removing the element of risk to life, limb, and customer base posed by putting newbies in the pilot seat of the Real Thing.

In their lowest, most simplistic form, games are also useful. For memorization tasks, they can spice up what is an essential but not overly engaging exercise.  The end-of-unit  review which involved a classroom round of “Concentration”  brings back fond memories even now.  You need me to memorize some definitions, give me a jeopardy game and I’ll likely get those definitions down – though I won’t necessarily be able to connect them to anything other than the jargon they represent, and won’t have done any practice in skillfully applying the concepts they point to.

For anything else, I feel I need to quote Humphrey Bogart’s immortal words from The Treasure of Sierra Madre:

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

The idea of rewarding adult learners for competent execution of the responsibilities of their position with something as irrelevant as a badge or listing on a high-point scoring board is disrespectful in the extreme.

Yes, I know all the research about how well people in general respond to the immediate feedback available in a game situation.  This knowledge needs to inform our management strategies – all workers should be receiving regular feedback on how well or poorly their performance is being received by  people important in their lives – their boss, their customers,  and other stakeholders.

The point of training is to create behavior change which is rewarded by

  1. A sense of mastery over new skills which promise to improve effectiveness
  2. Improved effectiveness as measured with the normal workplace performance evaluation tools
  3. Recognition for that improved effectiveness in the form of increased responsibilities and/or better pay

I don’t know anybody who would trade these things for some kind of in-game gold star.  Our co-workers are adults who are already playing that very important game which we call “performing in the workplace.”  The ones who are stars on our sales team are already pretty competitive, but they also have a keen eye for which parts of the game really matter.  If they lack the motivation to train to “up their game”  we may be looking at a recruitment issue.  Alternatively, the training experiences we are offering them may not be well-tuned to provide that mastery of new skills.  Either way, the solution to the problem is not in dressing up learning experiences in game clothing!