As I was checking out the latest issue of Training Magazine, it was quickly obvious that this issue was pretty focused on Gamification. For those of you outside the L&D world, Gamification is one of the latest fads in the industry which focuses on applying elements of games and gaming (like winning badges, unlocking puzzles through questions, etc.) to non-gaming contexts. In L&D, this often means making e-learning modules more like video games instead of boring videos of PowerPoint slides and narration.

Some research has shown that gamification can increase user engagement and help the participants learn the materials presented. Essentially, because the game requires more brain activity than zoning out while watching a boring PowerPoint, it forces you to interact with it. The idea is that when you do this, it essentially tricks your brain into retaining the information that is presented. Plus, since most people like to play games, gamification is also seen as a way to increase employee engagement when it comes to training.

I have no doubt that elements of gamification can help with some of the engagement and learning issues we face as L&D Professionals. But just like anything else, gamification is not the savior of the industry and education it is purported to be. Adding gamification elements to your e-learning is not going to lead to instant engagement and greater learning.

For one thing, gamification is really easy to get wrong. It is not as simple as throwing some badges into your training and voila…instant gamification. Adding game elements to non-game educational contexts requires a lot of thought and planning to make sure that the game activities are actually contributing to the educational purpose of the unit. Purchasing some cool, maze-based game to add into your e-learning may increase engagement in the sense that students are forced to wake up and pay attention to the screen for a bit. But a lot of off-the-shelf gamification elements are just that…off the shelf. They won’t be integrated into your content and learning material, which means they won’t help your students learn what you are trying to teach them. They may think its fun, and they may engage more with the units. But knowledge levels won’t improve if the game elements aren’t customized to your content. Context matters.

Another concern I have is something that was pointed out as a sub-heading in one of the articles: Popular Culture. In order for the games to be fun and interesting, they must match pop culture fads. For instance, Humana’s sales division is going to release a gamified learning module called “Zombie SalesApocalypse”, capitalizing on the popularity of shows like The Walking Dead and Zombies. I am sure that the game will be popular with employees now…but what about two years from now?

Pop culture is in a constant state of flux. Fads change as quickly as the seasons do in some cases. While Zombies have been popular for a while, it was only a few years ago that they weren’t. If past is prologue, in a few years Zombies won’t be popular and it will have moved on to something else. Voila, your e-learning module is out-of-date and out-of-step with pop culture, which leads to less enthusiasm and participation. If you are a big organization with lots of money to throw at your e-learning to keep it up to date as the fads change, this may not be a major concern. But most organizations, even large ones, don’t operate that way. L&D is chronically under-resourced, and when a major re-vamp is done the odds that the organizational will, let alone the resources, will be available to refresh the training as often as it needs to be is slim to none.

Gamification, when done properly, can have some benefits. But it’s not a savior, and more often than not it is not effectively executed to get the best benefits. When it is done poorly, it detracts from learning and makes your employees less enthusiastic about training, which is probably already as popular as a root canal to begin with. Why put up more hurdles for your employees? My advice is this: If you can’t put in the time and the resources to do it properly, and keep it fresh once it is out there, it’s better to just stay away.