One of the most unique and new organizational learning strategies is gamification. The theory arises from the increasing embrace of gamer culture as a whole with younger generations rising to take the reins left them by their predecessors.

There are several different angles of gamification dealing with training, but to get started, let's look at the nature of gamification and what the tenets of the philosophy are. We'll also examine and compare two opposing theories on the ramifications, positive and negative, of practicing gamification as an organized learning strategy in practical application.

First, at a very basic level, what is a game? The definition of a game can have variable meanings, and is often spontaneously defined by personal opinions on what makes a game and what does not.

But at its core, a game is any kind of activity with a set goal through which a player must face adversity within the constraints of defined rules, to achieve said end goal, or in which multiple players attempt to achieve a set of goals within a set of rules in a competitive manner.

Games can be built on anything, with this definition in mind.

Games at Work?

So, what is gamification as an organizational learning theory? Rather brilliant, at least on paper. The basic principle behind gamification is to incentivize employees in their work or in organized learning via providing accomplishments, rewards and even competition as drives.

In gamification, a leader may establish tropes common to tabletop and video game systems such as leveling and accomplishment "trophies," with varying levels of rewards for each. When an achievement is unlocked or a level is reached (done so by accomplishing specific learning or business goals), rewards may be tendered. These rewards may be something as simple as congratulating them before their peers, but can also be something tangible, such as a free lunch at their favorite restaurant, minor pay raises or any number of things (within reason).

Gamification is a way to make the process fun, and to provide a sense of accomplishment for the employees, a real metric by which they may gauge the value of their learning or their completed work.
However, there are competing theories on the ramifications of gamification, one focusing on the potential benefits, and the opposing side stressing the negative consequences that might come about as a result of gamification implementation.

The Pros and Cons of Game Mechanics

Supporters say that gamification will lead to enthusiasm for learning and work, by bringing the ever-increasingly valued "gamer" mentality to the mundane of daily work. It will incentivize employees by making their day feel less like drudgery and more like another kind of game.

Proponents claim that gamification may also improve the competitive nature business professionals need to cultivate, which garners further learning, skill improvement and productivity on the whole.After all, they claim, competition is a good and healthy part of life, one which keeps workers motivated to try to continue to work successfully.

Learning Opportunities

By this theory, gamification is a very viable solution in just about any business for it incentivizes organizational learning as well as productivity in normal work. They will also point out the potential to increase bonds between employees and improve cooperation through the rules of the established game, something that has been widely documented in various traditional gaming environments such as online games and tabletop.

Gamification opponents, however, will claim that with the competition inherent to gamification, office politics may be overclocked, resulting in increased hostility, unrest and discontent between employees as some outperform others within the "game" and its set rules and points of achievement. Some people thrive in competition, while others shy away.

In addition, in contrast to the supporters who say gamification can make even menial tasks meaningful and part of larger projects, opponents warn that the drive to succeed may result in a tendency of some employees to cut corners in learning, and in normal everyday work as well, in a rush to reach an achievement or a level depending on the system. If the rewards are too great, this is a severe risk, but if the rewards are not very motivational, the system will break altogether.

Another caveat that the negative view of gamification poses is that it may result in a lack of work or learning being taken seriously, which in some industries could be physically dangerous. However, until gamification has been tested in controlled environments for some time these are merely concerns, not definite problems. It goes without saying that the other camp, in favor of gamification on a grand scale, can only theorize at this point on how effective and practical it is off paper.

Debate aside, gamification is one of the more interesting and unique organizational learning strategies that are worth considering trying, if for no other reason than the science alone. Since there is no quick-fix for any real problem, gamification may serve to simply aid a good amount of the workforce, while others benefit in a more traditional setting. Until a credible case study arises, gamification is only an innovative concept-solution to training.

Image courtesy of Volkov Roman (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Want to read more about game mechanics as a tool for employee engagement? Check out Hyoun Park's Gamifying the Intranet