I remember being in 1st grade and seeing a large poster board display in my classroom, full of shiny, sticky stars – red, gold, blue, green, silver – and these stars indicated something important! They indicated to everyone who dared to look at it who had read the most books in the class. Little six and seven year-olds staring at the row of stars next to their names, wondering how they would be able to squeeze in about 11 more books in one week to catch up with Susie Smartypants (well, at least I did…not so sure the rest of my 1st grade comrades were quite as honed in on the competition!) Little did I know it was my first exposure to the infamous Leaderboard!
For those of you who have never been in a sales position or, you know, ANY type of competition, a Leaderboard is essentially a score board that everyone can see. If you’re at the top of the board, you’re winning…everyone else is essentially losing. Pretty motivating right? Nope. Not so much.
In 5th grade, my teacher had the class play a card game that was designed to teach all of us genius 10 and 11 year-olds how the feudal system worked. The game was designed to separate the class into three groups – the nobility (rich people), the knights (working class) and the peasants. It was such an unfair game! Once you hit nobility status, all of the rules were in your favor, making it easier and easier to stay in the high class. You even got to make up all of the rules after a while! Contrarily, once you wound up in the peasant class, it was almost impossible to get out! I watched my classmates in the lower class start to look deflated; they were frowning, sitting at their desks defeated, and I think at least one person cried. This “game” was incredibly motivating to those of at the top (until we started to feel bad for our friends) and downright destructive to those at the bottom. I don’t know a whole lot about feudal societies, but I do recall the amazing lesson in empathy and psychological warfare.
Stars, feudal systems and leaderboards. Keeping score. Winners and losers. This is ok if you are in the World Series, Super Bowl, or Wimbledon. Other than that, it can be demotivating in the classroom. And it’s doing the same thing in our workplaces.
So what is all this buzz about “gamification.” What is it, exactly? Pinball? Pac Man? Mario Brothers? Minecraft?? Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. It taps into the basic desires and needs of the users impulses which revolve around the idea of Status and Achievement. Rewards such as Badges and Points are used to elevate Status by showcasing the talents, expertise, and accomplishments.
A good “gamified” training or learning module needs to understand people’s motivations to be effective. For the competitive over-achiever, public displays of progress, sales, points, etc., can be excellent drivers for increased performance! However, for those with different motivational styles, this approach can backfire and create the exact opposite effect. Programs that use rewards, badges, buttons and points are probably best used where they are awarded to the individual once he/she completes or masters a task, but not shared with the whole group in a competitive manner. In my book, anything that makes learning fun and keeps the learners engaged gets a thumbs up from me!