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Elephants Don’t Forget on Gamification: Child’s Play or Serious Stuff?

Gamification in the workplace is the use of game mechanics and experiences to digitally motivate employees to achieve learning goals, often through reward, is regularly touted as a sure-fire way to rapidly increase employee engagement, in-role capability, and overall business productivity.

However, modelling and deploying well-designed gamification that resonates with all employees is a lot more complex and methodical than you might think.

In this article, artificial intelligence providers Elephants Don’t Forget analyse the use of gamification in the workplace, and whether its a win-win situation for every employee.

If gamification works on the premise of tracking and measuring professional activities and rewarding them, this seems like a win-win situation for both employees and businesses – but does every employee win?

A scientific study conducted by Adrian Harvey, CEO of Elephants Don’t Forget, and Alan Lee, Doctoral Researcher at Aston Business School, looked at ways to objectively quantify the most effective and ineffective techniques to encourage human learning behaviour.

The study, which examined ten techniques from elaborative interrogation to interleaved practice, found that distributed learning and self-testing were scientifically proven to be the most effective workplace techniques to deploy to sustain competent learning behaviours.

Adrian Harvey, CEO of Elephants Don’t Forget, said: “When we started Elephants Don’t Forget, we were entirely focused on gamification, looking at how we could use it to improve human performance in terms of in-role competency.

“After a year, we stopped, because we were conscious that it was important to deploy learning platforms to support the science behind human learning within organisations, including our own. Boredom, time poverty, anxiety, and ‘real work’ distractions were cited as the common reasons as to why training often failed to stick.

“What the study taught us was that component parts of gamified experiences work better to meet the challenges of deploying successful training mechanisms for all employees.”

Ask a group of people to define gamification and it is probable that their responses will include: “levels, leader boards, rewards, points, competition”, but describing gamification in these simple terms only scratches the surface of what gamification truly means within the workplace and the associated behavioural impacts it can have.

Gamification taps into human personality traits

The deeper you delve into its world, the more you realise that it involves tapping into complex human psychological states and personality traits, and it is these elements that form the foundation of its overall effectiveness or ineffectiveness, especially when it comes to employee learning and competency.

Well-structured gamification models look at how business and personal development goals can be achieved by identifying the behavioural mechanics of human motivation. This means that employee motivation plays a significant role in the success or failure of adopted gamified experiences.

In this respect, gamification uses gaming mechanics to expose what motivates and triggers behaviour change. However, just like a one-size-fits-all approach to e-learning, every employee is different; they respond to delivery methods differently; their baseline knowledge levels are different (both in terms of new recruits and tenured employees); they learn, retain, and apply the information at different rates; and, ultimately, they are all motivated by different rewards and win-states.

 In general, gamification works on the premise of tracking and measuring professional activities and rewarding them. On paper then, this sounds like a win-win situation for both employees and businesses, but does every employee win?

This is a frequently asked question by businesses looking for validation of its effectiveness. Gamification has a duty to ensure that the average worker has a fair shot at winning their reward or progressing to the next level. In organisations with thousands of employees, leader boards and internal social networks often display the top ten performing employees, yet the chances of the average worker appearing in the top ten is slim to none, which can often lead to employee demotivation and resentment.

Does gamification drive resentful work culture?

Then comes the issue of reward and the associated tradeoffs that come from seeing the best-performing colleagues constantly reaping them. In this sense, gamification can be the catalyst to forming a culture of fear, resentment, and counter-productivity. When every action that an employee takes is accompanied by a sensation of winning or losing, it poses the question of whether this translates to fundamentally making them a better, more competent employee or if it creates a workplace environment where employees are consistently crushed by competitive metrics.

Generally, it is fair to say that sales teams are motivated by success, financial incentives and social proof, the customer service team by structure and satisfaction, technical teams by problem-solving, thus illustrating that a well-designed gamification model must be hyper-relevant for individualised learning to gain adoption, traction, continued viability, and (the overall goal of) Return on Investment (ROI) from an organisational perspective.

The workaround to this is that firms need to continuously deploy changes – sometimes on a weekly basis – to games and set different targets and goals to increase the opportunity for more people to win; most improved this week, most product demonstrations booked, most tickets or queries solved etc. This illustrates the need to create balanced, gamified experiences that champion everyone on an individual level, it also raises questions that there is more thought being given to how employees can win rather than how it tangibly benefits their own in-role learning to better perform their jobs.

Harvey added: “I’m certainly not anti-gamification as we deploy elements of it in our own AI – Clever Nelly – but the primary issues I have with gamifying across the workplace is that employees are pitched against each other. Individualised development that translates to better in-role competency should be the number one objective. If you take the competition element and individualise it so that an employee is only ever competing against oneself, then the “same people winning all the time” issue disappears.”

Harvey also poses the question of whether gamification is suitable in industries that are regulated or have operational risks, concluding: “Gamification has a tenable place in a lot of verticals, but when you are dealing with regulated sectors or organisations that require a hyper-focused adherence to meeting operational metrics in terms of consumer markets, we often found that using games, points, prizes, and financial incentives to reward employees to do important tasks had the unintended consequence of trivialising the objective.

“In turn, this can create a toxic culture, where employees will not engage unless there is a reward on offer.  A good example might be: “Treating a customer fairly”; it is ingrained in legislation, so “rewarding” an employee for doing this action could be deemed as inappropriate, as it infers the employee has an element of choice in the matter when legislation says they do not.

“There are a whole host of additional pros and cons to think about before you consider implementing gamification: who is the end-user, and will they appreciate the interruption or perceived infantilisation of gamification deployment? Is the model deployed hard enough, easy enough, and sustainable enough to keep all employees engaged?”

In conclusion, gamification techniques, when used appropriately, can undoubtedly fuel sustained employee performance improvement, but crucially these techniques must relate to the improvement of the individual. If the objective of gamification is to make employees more competent and compliant in their roles, is the addition of reward and competition simply fuelling anxiety, shame, and counter-productivity in the workplace? A contentious question and one that Harvey asserts should be answered by examining the science behind it.


  • Polly is a journalist, content creator and general opinion holder from North Wales. She has written for a number of publications, usually hovering around the topics of fintech, tech, lifestyle and body positivity.

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