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gaming is the future of learning


Why gaming is the future of business learning

Published 28 June 2023 in Technology • 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 environment – especially when it includes a learning and development experience – is rarely so clear-cut. Many decisions lead to an indeterminate result that may offer some benefits but fails to realize any particular objective in its own right. Learning experiences that fail to acknowledge this “grey zone” feel too arbitrary and simplistic, reducing their value. 

Safety in role-play 

For these reasons, workplace learning and development programs that have attempted to harness gamification have sometimes faltered, with the desire to adhere to “pure” gaming principles undermining the efficacy of the training.  

This is not to suggest that all the joy has to be sucked out of the experience for it to be effective. But the gamified elements of learning need to be directed towards a clear purpose. 

Where those elements are not connected specifically to the learning outcome, there’s scope to be playful – a set of badges that reward those taking part in something fun and inconsequential, for instance, could add a harmless frisson of fun to the program. However, where the learning is focused on a particular objective, the gamified elements need to be more realistic. For example, does the game experience respond appropriately to learner performance? Is the leaderboard ranking calculated using an algorithm that appropriately captures how well players are applying their understanding of key concepts into the game? 

“Managers are often better off learning leadership skills via an analogical context, a mission to Mars, say, than in a direct simulation of their own business.”

Moreover, it’s important to remember that not all games have to involve winning or losing. Think back to our childhoods – a common, inclusive favorite was role-playing. We learned new social skills by putting ourselves in unfamiliar scenarios and even other worlds. Competition wasn’t necessary; imagination was the focus. 

This type of interactive play can work very well in a business-learning environment. For example, non-player characters can guide the learner through the experience and provide feedback on player behaviors in real time. They can pick out areas where the learner is responding well to the training and highlight those where more work is needed.  

Repetition and practice are, after all, how human beings learn most effectively. 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. 

One size will not fit all, particularly as organizations think about how to satisfy the curiosity of each individual learner.

The good news is that business education and training are evolving to incorporate these crucial concepts. As recently as five years ago, learning and development teams would have had to design these experiences in house; now, it is possible to buy off-the-shelf solutions that harness both the latest thinking in pedagogy, and cutting-edge technologies such as immersive video and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide a rich role-playing experience. 

One pitfall to avoid here is the possibility of too much fidelity. Ironically, just as unrealistic workplace scenarios can fail to resonate with users, when learners are given gaming experiences that reflect their day-to-day experience too faithfully, they tend to start picking them apart – the bits that aren’t quite right stand out all the more. Managers are often better off learning leadership skills via an analogical context, a mission to Mars, say, than in a direct simulation of their own business. 

This is why effective training tends to shift learners out of their familiar lanes – obliging them to learn and practice new skills, rather than simply running through those they know they have in the locker. The experience is artificial, in the sense that the activity essentially takes place within the heads of the participants, but it is convincing and relevant. The possibility of constructing new, explorable worlds brought by the metaverse will only add further dimensions to the experience. 

Start by looking at the end 

The key to success will be to focus on the outcome. While the technology is exciting, learning and development teams looking to experiment with gamification for the first time need to keep basic principles top of mind. Which learning objectives are they striving for? Then, the debate is about whether delivering learning via these new technologies could secure better results. 

One size will not fit all, particularly as organizations think about how to satisfy the curiosity of each individual learner. It may be that a particular experience – a program designed to help mid-level executives get to grips with sustainability objectives, say – works well as a large-group activity. Nevertheless, individual learners will inevitably see challenges through different lenses and have distinct learning objectives, so allowing them to explore different paths will be important. 

Indeed, learning developers should be prepared to explore too. It’s easy to fall in love with a new technology and assume your colleagues will feel the same. In practice, however, experimenting with different techniques and features will enable learning and development teams to piece together the most effective bespoke experiences. 

That said, the principles of safety and consent are non-negotiable. Learners must feel comfortable that the environment has been designed to help them acquire new skills, rather than to test and potentially punish them. They must engage through volition, rather than coercion; and if engagement does not happen, it may be time to revert to the more traditional route. 

We would still emphasize that even a slight pivot towards gamification can produce remarkable results. For example, when IBM introduced into its training the opportunity to acquire digital badges, it saw a 226% increase in course completions and its pass rate rose even more markedly. A bit of fun, it seems, can go a long way. 


Sarah Toms

Sarah E. Toms

Chief Learning Innovation Officer

Sarah Toms is Chief Learning Innovation Officer at IMD where she leads the Learning Innovation and AI strategy. Sarah previously co-founded Wharton Interactive, an initiative at the Wharton School that has scaled globally. A demonstrated thought leader in the educational technology field, she is fueled by a passion to find and develop innovative ways to make every learning environment active, engaging, more meaningful, and learner-centric. Sarah is an AWS Education Champion, and has been on the Executive Committee of Reimagine Education for 8 years. She has spent more than 25 years working at the bleeding edge of technology, and was an entrepreneur for over a decade, founding companies that built global CRM, product development, productivity management, and financial systems. In addition, Sarah is coauthor of The Customer Centricity Playbook, the Digital Book Awards 2019 Best Business Book.


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