Using gamification in learning with Brian Burke

Leader boards and award buttons might remind you of your school days but, increasingly, trainers are using them, and other reward symbols, to motivate and develop employees through a process known as gamification.

Written by Rachel Salaman
Published 14 November 2014
Using gamification in learning with Brian Burke

Leader boards and award buttons might remind you of your school days but, increasingly, trainers are using them, and other reward symbols, to motivate and develop employees through a process known as gamification.

In this interview, we hear what that is and we find out how L&D professionals can introduce and implement it in their organizations.

Brian Burke is research vice president at the technology company Gartner and he’s an expert in enterprise architecture. His new book, “Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things,” shows gamification in action, guiding business professionals through the process and showing them how to avoid pitfalls and adopt best practices.

Listen to the full 35-minute interview, below, to hear Burke’s tips on aligning business objectives with player objectives for maximum benefit, and why it’s not all about competition.

Listen now: Click here to download the podcast

Interview transcript

Rachel Salaman: Welcome to L&D Insights from Mind Tools, I’m Rachel Salaman.

You may have heard of the term “gamification” and you may have an idea that it’s something to do with games. What place does it have in organizations and how is it used specifically in learning and development? My guest today can tell us that. He’s Brian Burke, research vice-president at the technology research company Gartner, and the author of a new book called “Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things.” You can hear our review of this book in the Mind Tools Club, but right now we have the pleasure of speaking to the author himself who joins me on the line from Spain. Hello Brian.

Brian Burke: Hello Rachel.

Rachel Salaman: Thanks so much for joining us today.

Brian Burke: My pleasure.

Rachel Salaman: So what’s a widely accepted definition of the term “gamification”?

Brian Burke: There are many definitions for the term gamification and they vary somewhat in tone, and Gartner has recently published our definition, which to some extent redefines gamification. Our updated definition is this: “Gamification is the use of game mechanics and experienced design to digitally engage and motivate players to achieve their goals,” and there are some key phrases in there that I’d like to point out.

“Game mechanics” – what that means is those are the kinds of things that you see in games, like points, badges and leader boards. So those are present in gamification, although that’s a very broad category. We could use many things, but those are symbols of progression; symbols of achievement. The “experienced design” is really taking players on a journey to help them to achieve their goals, and one of the important features is that we’re digitally engaging as opposed to engaging people in some kind of a manual way. And, ultimately, the one that I think surprises most people is that gamification is really focused on motivating players to achieve their goals, whereas most people naturally think that gamification is about motivating people to achieve organizational goals. But we believe that, unless players are aligned in achieving their goals and those goals are aligned with organizational goals, then gamification is not likely to succeed. So we really focus on motivating players to achieve their own goals.

That’s how Gartner defines gamification. But as I said there is no standard definition for gamification, and there’s many definitions out there so people are welcome to take their pick.

Rachel Salaman: Could I just pick up on one of those points? The point about gamification requiring digital engagement. So when you were coming to this definition you must have decided then that gamification doesn’t work in the real world away from screens. Can you just talk us through that?

Brian Burke: I think that gamification certainly can exist in the real world. The term gamification became popular about four or five years ago and we believe that this is because of applying these techniques using digital engagement mechanisms. By using digital engagement instead of a manual human interface you really break barriers of scale and time and cost and connectedness, and that is why gamified solutions are out there reaching millions of people. So we think that the real game changer for gamification is digital engagement. Certainly the tools and techniques surrounding engaging people and motivating them to progression and using symbols of achievement have been around for a long time – the boy and girl Scouts have been doing it for a hundred years, the military has been doing it for thousands of years – so there’s actually nothing really new there. What’s new about gamification is the digital engagement model.

Rachel Salaman: You say in the book that video games and reward programs on their own are not gamification. So why not?

Brian Burke: They’re pushing different buttons. Video games – their only purpose is to entertain people, so it’s pushing the fun button you might say. So video games certainly use things like points and badges and leader boards, but they’re engaging people through entertainment. So the value proposition is around entertaining the players. With reward programs, these are trying to get people to do something that they wouldn’t likely do unless they were compensated. So the engagement button that they’re using is compensation. So a rewards program like an airline rewards program, where if you take ten flights you get one flight free, people do that and they work. I’m not saying that they don’t work. But people do that because of the rewards. So the primary motivation is that they will be compensated. Gamification, because it’s motivating people to achieve their own goals, it’s pushing a different button. So it’s pushing that motivation button to achieve their goals and so you don’t require a payback as you do in reward programs. And although they’re not necessarily entertaining like video games, they could be.

So gamification is a different class of engagement – it uses a different value proposition for engagement than reward programs or video games.

Rachel Salaman: But it sounds like it is always competitive in one way or another even if you’re only competing against your own achievements. Is this concept as simple as “competition makes people do things” or is there more to gamification than that?

Brian Burke: Competition is one of the things that you can use to engage people, but it’s not necessary and it actually sometimes should be used with caution. Competition… certainly people do like to win, they like to be on top of the leader board and those kinds of things. But gamified solutions that are designed around competition may not achieve the organization’s goals, and so what we see actually a lot more in gamification is more collaborative solutions. Or balancing competition and collaboration where the solution and players are motivated to succeed and achieve their goals, but not necessarily in a competitive sense. And often in a collaborative sense so that you’re seeing that the players are achieving their goals and supporting other players and achieving their goals as well.

So it’s a common misconception that games are competitive. Therefore gamification must be competitive and people like to compete and a little competition never hurt anybody and all of that stuff. But in gamification, that is sometimes true, but it’s not always true and the people who are designing gamified experiences need to carefully consider how they’re balancing competition and collaboration in those gamified solutions.

Rachel Salaman: Now you say in the book that employee focused applications are the fastest growing area for gamification. How is it being used with employees and what can be achieved in that arena?

Brian Burke: It is being used with employees in a number of different areas. The most obvious is employee performance – that is where most managers aspire to use gamification initially. But that’s actually very tricky – motivating people to perform using gamification. It can be done, but it needs to be done carefully.

Learning and training applications are another area where gamification is being used very broadly in employee facing applications getting employees to engage in innovation, whether that’s business process innovation or product innovation. So engaging people through innovation is another area of use.

Employee facing health and wellness programs is another area for gamification, particularly in the United States because of the funding for healthcare that they have there. There is a lot of interest in gamification in employee facing health and wellness applications.

And we’re starting to see gamification in recruiting and other areas as well. So organizations are interacting with employees in many ways. We’re starting to see gamification evolve.

Rachel Salaman: At this point, some people might be thinking, “What does it actually look like,” or even, “How can we use it in our organization?” So could you talk us through an example? Perhaps the one from the book, where the company NTT Data used gamification to help identify and develop leaders.

Brian Burke: Yes, NTT Data is a great story really. They developed something that they called the Ignite Leadership game, and that game has two objectives. The first objective was to train employees in some critical management skills, and also to identify which employees had high levels of aptitude in those areas. So the critical areas that they were focusing on were negotiation skills, communication, time management, change management and problem solving. It was a challenge for a traditional training environment because NTT Data’s employees are dispersed off and at client sites. So they’re spending their days outside of their home office.

So what they did was create a game using an experiential learning approach to really help employees and challenge employees to think through these critical areas like negotiation and communication and so on, and challenge them with a number of multiple choice questions. But they didn’t give them the answer first. They presented them with the question and then basically let the staff figure it out, and that experiential learning approach was particularly useful in the NTT Data case. So what happened was the employees would discuss those questions through social media with other employees and evolve to a conclusion and answer those questions. So it’s a collaborative, experiential learning approach that also helped them to identify leaders in the organization.

Rachel Salaman: You said that the employees use social media to collaborate. Could you tell us how that works?

Brian Burke: Internal to NTT Data they have a social media platform where like Facebook they can interact with other employees. So what they did with the game, the Ignite Leadership game, they integrated that social media platform so that employees could bounce ideas off other employees and get feedback to help them all learn collaboratively around these key topic areas.

Rachel Salaman: And how long would that whole project take from the concept to actually seeing some results from it?

Brian Burke: I’m not sure that I can tell you exactly in the NTT Data case how long that took to develop, but most gamified solutions are developed in the course of a few months, certainly not a few years. They tend to be relatively straightforward solutions, so the challenging part is the design aspects in designing an engaging model so that it’s really going to be able to motivate the players. But technically gamified solutions tend not to be tremendously complex and typically they’re developed over the space of several months.

Rachel Salaman: And then the period of interaction when you’re trying to engage people – in this case employees. Should that be limited or should it just be ongoing?

Brian Burke: That’s always a question. Typically, in training applications, you’re going to want to engage a large number of employees. But each employee for a limited period of time only.

Let’s suggest that you’re trying to train an employee in a particular skill. You would create a solution that would onboard that employee to get them into the solution, help them to understand how it works, take them through the journey of training them and ultimately, when they’ve mastered that skill, then the game is finished. So in that sense, those kinds of gamified solutions most often have a limited journey, so they have an endpoint to that journey once the player, the employee in this case, has developed a particular skill that you’re trying to train the workforce in. But you may send through many employees over a long period of time in developing that skill. So a gamified solution can exist for years, and this is often what happens with employee training solutions – they exist and they do evolve, but they exist for years, with each employee going through a particular program, developing a particular skill, or learning some particular area of knowledge. They will have a limited interaction cycle with that particular application.

Rachel Salaman: In the book you outline a process that can be used to apply gamification to learning, and the first two stages are defining the goal and breaking down the steps. So what should learning and development professionals look out for in this first part of the process?

Brian Burke: First of all you need to have a specific goal that you’ve defined for the players and you need to make sure that the players will adopt that as their own goal. In a training or development application that’s typically going to be some learning goals. They’ve developed a skill, they’ve learned some area of knowledge, but having clarity in terms of what is the objective for the solution for the players is really a critical first step – you need to have a way point that you’re focused on in terms of “this is the objective for this particular solution” in order to be able to design an experience that’s going to take people on the journey to achieve that objective. So when we talk about defining the goal, it’s defining what the endpoint is – what the objective is for a particular solution. And when we talk about breaking down the steps, what that means is, what is the journey that you need to take people on to lead them ultimately to achieving that goal? And so we start with the goal, and say when people are successful they will be at this place, they will have developed this skill, and they will have learned this particular topic. But then we break that down into the journey to say, “Well, these are the steps that they need to go through to achieve that goal.”

Rachel Salaman: You say that the next stage is to check for dependencies. What do you mean by that?

Brian Burke: Really, when we’re talking about checking for dependencies, we’re talking about building the knowledge we need to ensure that we haven’t left any gaps in that knowledge. So if there’s prerequisite learning before learning a new topic, we need to ensure that that prerequisite learning has been achieved, and so thinking through the journey to ensure that those gaps have been filled – that we haven’t leapt over any learning that needs to occur for the employees to be successful and achieving their learning goals – that’s really what we mean by checking for dependencies. And when we’re talking about this process, we’re really not talking about technology at all – this is really talking about how you design that experience to engage and motivate players.

Rachel Salaman: The fourth step in this learning kind of gamification is to create theory practice engagement loops. Could you just explain what those are?

Brian Burke: Let me use an example. The most common approach to gamification in learning is using a conceptual learning approach as opposed to an experiential learning approach. Typically, in a conceptual learning approach – and this is very typical in classrooms as well – you present the student with the theory and then you engage them in practicing and developing that skill. And so if you look at Khan Academy as an example, what Khan Academy does, they present students with a short video, usually five to seven minutes, that explains a theory, let’s say around mathematics. And then they challenge the student to practice with exercises to really internalize that and develop that skill for themselves, so they’re applying the theory. So when you’re going through these theory and practice engagement loops in developing learning applications, that’s taking the concept first, so we present them with the theory and then we allow them to practice, and we of course give them constant feedback in terms of their progress as they’re going through the practice until they ultimately achieve their goal. So that is a cycle where it will provide with theory, will let the student practice, and then we’ll move on to the next topic, next theory, next practice engagement loop.

Rachel Salaman: And for people who don’t know, Khan Academy is an open online learning environment. Is that how you’d describe it?

Brian Burke: That’s correct. They describe themselves as an educational resource.

Rachel Salaman: So next in the process we need to recruit mentors and collaborators. So what role do they play in this context?

Brian Burke: In any learning environment, learning alone is not tremendously engaging. So what we would encourage people to do as they’re designing gamified solutions to engage people in learning activities, is build in that social context. So how do we engage other people and help them collaborate in that learning process for the learners? The mentors are people who are perhaps ahead of an individual learner in terms of their learning. They can provide additional explanations and guidance. Collaborators are people that the learner can bounce ideas off. And so it’s bringing that social aspect into the learning environment, the kind of social aspect that you would see in classroom learning. But doing that using a digital engagement model.

Rachel Salaman: So these mentors and collaborators are doing their mentoring and collaborating in the digital environment?

Brian Burke: Most often that’s true, yes.

Rachel Salaman: So the last stage is “celebrate success” and you’ve mentioned before that gamification requires things like badges and other tokens. Does that kind of symbol of achievement, which is reminiscent of childhood games for a lot of us, work in every environment?

Brian Burke: Generally speaking yes, those badges or trophies or whatever token is used – they’re really symbols of achievement. The actual symbol that’s used is not all that important – it’s the achievement that’s important and that achievement being recognized by the learner in this case, and also often a peer group that’s important to that person. So using those kinds of tokens, can they work in every environment? Absolutely. People are motivated to develop their skills and they can be motivated by those kinds of tokens. Yes, they were used in childhood games, but that doesn’t mean that people grow out of them. If you think about a degree from Harvard or Princeton, it’s just a token, it’s just a badge, it’s something that you hang on the wall with tremendous pride of achievement, but it’s a badge.

Rachel Salaman: So what needs to be considered when you’re deciding on what you call a game economy? What symbols you’re going to choose to show the achievement?

Brian Burke: You want to think through really the prime motivators for gamification and those prime motivators are what we would call self-esteem and social capital. So self-esteem is the achievements that are private or can be private that we provide to people. So a recognition of achievement that we’re providing to an individual, whether that’s a badge or whatever it happens to be. And social capital is where we are amplifying that achievement by enabling a broader audience of peers to join with the learner in celebrating success. So those are really the primary currencies in a game economy that is focused on gamification. You can build in some things that are fun, and you can build in some tangible rewards as well. When we talked about video games and reward programs and fun and rewards, they’re not entirely black and white – there’s some gray there. You can build in some fun things, you can build in some rewards, but the primary focus in gamification is around building self-esteem and social capital. And those are the primary motivators, the primary tools you’ll use from those currencies in a game economy.

Rachel Salaman: So does it actually matter what kind of token represents those things?

Brian Burke: There’s marginal differences in the kinds of tokens and the impact that they have on individuals, but probably less so than people think. Points indicate progression points. I’ll give you some examples. Points are not important in and of themselves, but in most gamified solutions they indicate progression, so people can see that they’re moving along the path with points, badges or trophies or whatever, indicate that somebody has reached an achievement. Levels are similar where we’re moving people through a number of steps, and so these different kinds of game mechanics invoke different kinds of reactions. But most of those game mechanics are either demonstrating progression or demonstrating an achievement – a way point in an achievement to the ultimate goal. They generally fall into those categories.

Rachel Salaman: You mentioned earlier on that gamification can be used to develop innovation in an organization. Could you just tell us a little bit about how that would work?

Brian Burke: Really what gamification is used for is to engage the crowd and make them participate in innovation – it’s recognizing the importance of doing that. Let me contrast to the old suggestion box approach to innovation. It’s been around for about 150 years or more and we’re all familiar with the suggestion box and the joke being of course that at the other side of the suggestion box is the circular bin because those ideas don’t go anywhere. The challenge with the suggestion box is that you get a lot of ideas that are going to be low value, and some ideas that might be nuggets of value. But they haven’t been developed and when we’re applying gamification to innovation activities we’re really tackling those challenges of the suggestion box.

First of all what happens in innovation activities is that we’ll solicit ideas, so that may be ideas for process improvement or product improvements or whatever it happens to be. Sometimes it’s very focused on a specific problem, but it starts with soliciting ideas, and then most of these applications will use the community to vote up the best ideas. So the community will read through the ideas that are submitted and vote for those ideas that they believe are best. And so the community self-selects the best ideas, and so we eliminate one of the problems of the suggestion box, that you get a lot of ideas but only a few good ones, the community identifies which are the better ideas. The community also engages in developing those ideas until the point where they are ready to be launched as a project or a new product or whatever happens to be the focus. So the community gets engaged in developing those ideas to the point where they can be taken by management and acted upon, and so that solves the second problem with the suggestion box.

So gamification is really just used to recognize the participation and engagement of the community in innovation processes. So it really helps to guide their activities to say, “Do this and you’ll get ten points,” “Do that and you’ll get twenty points.” So it really guides their activities, it recognizes their contribution and helps them to build their own self-esteem and recognize their achievements and build their social capital within the innovation community.

So gamification provides the engagement and motivation but the great ideas are being provided by the community and being developed by the community.

Rachel Salaman: So what are some common problems that people encounter when they’re designing gamification, whether that’s for innovation or learning or something else?

Brian Burke: I think that probably the most common problem or pitfall that people fall into today is trying to design a gamified solution to engage employees in achieving the organizational goal, and there’s nothing wrong with achieving organizational goals. Absolutely – that’s critically important. But the organizational goals have to be aligned with the player goals and so you can think of that as two sides of the same coin. What you’re looking for is opportunities where employee goals and organizational goals are overlapping, and they may be stated differently but they’re actually the same thing. And then trying to design a solution that’s going to engage people in achieving their goals, the organizational goals get achieved as a consequence.

So I would say that the most common problem is this view of taking a straight line approach to organizational goals and thinking that gamification will be able to engage people in achieving organizational goals, that will only work if you focus on engaging people in achieving individual goals and those individual goals are aligned with organizational goals. So I would say that is probably the most common mistake.

Other common pitfalls ate that people confuse video games and gamification, so they try to make things look like video games. Gamification by the way typically doesn’t look like a video game, but there’s just so many things, such as inappropriate use of competition which we talked about a little bit earlier, where competition can be dangerous and people will often use leader boards in gamification to show who the leaders are. And what happens with leader boards is you tend to motivate the people at the top of the leader board to compete ultimately to be at the top, but everybody who is further down in the bottom two thirds of the leader board will find that leader board demotivating. And so you need to be very careful around how you are thinking through this problem of gamification and avoid those and many other pitfalls.

Rachel Salaman: How do you stop participants focusing on winning the game rather than playing the game, and what do you lose when their focus shifts like that?

Brian Burke: In gamification you could say that they’re winning the game when they achieve their goals but often what you’re trying to do is get them to focus on their goals and that kind of winning.

Gamification is not so much about the actual game play, although that’s important. It’s really about focusing on people, on helping people to achieve their goals, and I’ll give you an example. So if you look at Nike Plus and Nike Plus Running which I think is emblematic of gamification, what Nike Plus is, there is a series of accessories that Nike provides, things like the Nike Fuel Band, the Nike iPod Sport, Nike Running which runs on an iPhone and those kinds of things, and all of those devices accumulate information about athletic activity on the Nike Plus website. And on the Nike Plus website there’s fuel points which they call Nike Fuel and so you have points, you have trophies and other recognitions of achievement, you can connect with other friends on Nike Plus and so on. So it’s a gamification environment, but built around helping athletes to achieve their goals rather than playing the game. Now playing the game means running or working out or doing a lot of other activities that in and of themselves lots of people find that intrinsically rewarding, lots of people don’t. But it’s more on focusing on achieving that goal rather than the actual activity, rather than playing the game, so we want to focus on the goal rather than the run.

Rachel Salaman: In the book you have some tips for selling the idea of gamification to business leaders, what are some of these?

Brian Burke: First of all I might avoid using the term gamification. A lot of business leaders understandably will relate gamification to playing games and they consider their organizations to be serious and we don’t play games here. So gamification, that unfortunate word, evokes this idea of we’re going to have people playing games which can be a negative for a lot of business managers. So thinking of another term we’re very quickly getting to the idea that gamification is about motivating and engaging an audience, whether that’s employees or customers or whoever. It’s about motivation and engagement; it’s not about playing games.

The other challenges around selling this idea of gamification to business leaders is it’s a different engagement model – we’re engaging people at a different level. Most business leaders are accustomed to the idea of transactional engagement and when I talk about transactional engagement what I’m suggesting is the number of interactions rather than the quality of interactions, and so it’s thinking about how do we engage and motivate people on an emotional level rather than a transactional level. It’s a tough message to get across for people pursuing these initiatives.

Rachel Salaman: Introducing gamification sounds like it could be an expensive proposition. Are there any economical or even free ways of implementing gamification for learning in organizations?

Brian Burke: Let me go back to our original definition about being a digital engagement model. If you’re using a digital engagement model, by its very nature in a digital engagement model we’re going to use some kind of a device. So whether that device is a smartphone or a laptop or some kind of a wearable device or no matter what it is there’s probably already cost to that where we need to ensure that employees have that device. So you probably wouldn’t use a single purpose device for gamification, but it’s leveraging devices that are out there and often building or customizing an application to support that. So yes there is a cost most often. There are some gamified solutions that can be leveraged for free but they may or may not align to your organizational goals. But they are out there. But most often organizations are going to custom develop or purchase some kind of a gamified solution and there are some costs to doing that. But frankly, in relative terms, gamification initiatives tend to be far lower costs than the vast majority of IT projects that organizations undertake.

Rachel Salaman: Brian Burke, thanks very much for joining me today.

Brian Burke: OK, thank you Rachel.

Rachel Salaman: The name of Brian’s book again is “Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things”. Thanks for listening.

About the author

Rachel Salaman

Rachel Salaman

Freelance Podcast Producer
Rachel has been producing Book Insights and Expert Interviews, the latter of which she also hosts, for the past 14 years. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of a media production company, advising on all forms of online audio and video content, and offering full production and post-production services, as well as training and consultation.

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