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Human Resources

Why gaming is the future of business learning

Published 18 May 2023 in Human Resources • 7 min read

We are finally using games and gamification effectively for workplace learning and development, says IMD’s Sarah Toms. 


Games can be both compelling and constitute powerful learning tools. Take Duolingo, the languages app that uses a gamified teaching approach; its offering has proven so popular that it has more than 575m users worldwide, with daily users numbering more than 14m. So, how can organizations use gaming to drive engagement with learning and development in the workplace? 

Many employers are already experimenting in this area, with encouraging results. One recent study found that employees were almost three times as likely to engage positively with training that incorporated gaming elements as were those taking part in conventional learning programs at work. 

There are, however, some caveats for employers. The gamified approach does not always translate perfectly into workplace learning. The most successful learning and development programs are carefully calibrated to be inclusive of the learning needs and character types of all those taking part. 

Avoid dividing people into winners and losers 

One important point is the distinction between games and gamification. Games are activities in their own right. Gamification, by contrast, is the principle of incorporating the features of games that people enjoy into learning. This could mean, for example, incorporating leader boards into activities, constructing point systems or acknowledging achievements to drive competition. Gamification, in other words, harnesses the natural competitiveness of the workplace to encourage “stickiness” – that is, bringing additional engagement and commitment to the learning process. 

A key distinction is that gamification requires consent. Users tacitly agree to ascribe subjective value to a game-based concept. For example, Duolingo is sticky because users ascribe value to maintaining a “streak” – the number of consecutive days on which they log in to learn. It’s a powerfully habit-forming feature, embedding language learning into daily routines, even though there is no intrinsic value to a streak ‒ rather, it gains currency with users by appealing to their sense of competition and pride in personal performance. 


“Would-be drivers don’t merely listen to a webinar about how to drive a car before sitting their tests; they 'play' at driving under the supervision of an instructor who provides real-time, continuous support in an environment free from (serious) penalties.”

This competition-based approach can, however, prove counter-productive in a work context. Rewarding people for achievement, or asking players to compete for position conflicts with a fundamental feature of much business education: that is, the establishment of a “safe” environment, in which there is no penalty for failure or underperformance. A gamified environment could make people reluctant to venture beyond their comfort zones for fear of slipping down the rankings. 

Another problem is the difficulty in accurately replicating the realities of the workplace experience. Users have criticized many of the gamified environments trialed in business education as testing skills and capabilities in mediums that struggle to replicate their actual workplaces. Naturally, such misgivings have a negative effect on engagement and commitment. 

Another natural outcome of gamification is the imposition of binary outcomes: those taking place either win or lose. The workplace…

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