In recent years, gamification has emerged as a promising method of engaging employees—particularly millennials—while benefiting employers through higher employee retention and increased productivity. Many early attempts to use game mechanics in non-game environments to inspire motivation and behavioral changes fell flat, but the global gamification market is projected to reach $22.9 billion by 2020, according to P&S Market Research. The buttoned-up corporate sector is finally relaxing its resistance to gamification, largely because of the clear benefits when implemented well—particularly in recruiting and training. Because my experience focuses on the latter, this article addresses gamification in organizational education.
For clarity, I’m defining gamification as turning the learning process as a whole into a game, an education-focused variant from the Capterra blog. Game-based learning, on the other hand, uses a game as part of the learning process. The examples that follow come from more than 25 years of helping complex organizations redesign their project and management systems to support their business strategies.
Target Practice: An Experiment in Game-Based Learning
While much of the interest in gamification has been inspired by the proliferation of digital technologies, our own experience dates back 20 years. I started experimenting with gamification as a way to enhance traditional classroom education, which emphasizes visual and auditory learning styles. Games add a kinesthetic element to the learning process, making educational objectives more concrete by allowing participants to experience them.
Twenty years ago, while helping a pharmaceutical manufacturer shift to a more efficient production process, I created games that demonstrated the limitations of the current manufacturing process, as well as the benefits of the new system. One game placed the company’s leaders in the role of manufacturing operators. We used a tabletop catapult device that came with standard operating procedures. Participants had different roles. One person set up the catapults. Someone else shot plastic golf balls at a target. Another person provided quality control, measuring how close the ball landed to the target and reporting those results up through the chain of command.
We played two rounds of the game. First, participants followed rules that recreated the constraints in the actual factory, where the operational department was not speaking directly with the analytical department. Functional managers pursued their respective goals, reporting to a director during staff meetings and returning to their teams with new marching orders. To mimic these conditions, players operating the catapults sat at a table and aimed at a target on the floor, which they couldn’t see from their vantage point. As operators, participants were not allowed to change the settings of their catapults without express instruction from a manager. Players quickly got bored shooting golf balls and not knowing if they were “winning” or not.
The second time around, all the participants worked together. Together, the players redesigned the system, linking the factories and managing production flow with just-in-time manufacturing principles. The contrast between the two modes of game play reinforced the educational objectives. Additionally, the shared experience helped link game concepts to real-world situations, as participants frequently referenced the game in the months that followed.
Focused Factories: Gamification of Manufacturing Processes
This early experiment with game-based learning influenced additional consulting work I did with this client. At the time, the company operated several specialized facilities that performed the same function for multiple products, such as a granulation department that performed granulation for all product lines. The system created functional silos that frequently delayed product delivery to customers. In addition, the client had issues with paperwork errors and with staffing, due to lack of cross-training—a sticking point in union negotiations. The company addressed these challenges by reorganizing its operations to flow horizontally, restructuring as “focused factories” that optimized the entire production process for a single pharmaceutical.
We wanted the operators to understand the larger manufacturing process. Inspired by the success of the catapult game, I created a board game that modeled the new production processes. By managing the entire manufacturing process, operators could gain a concrete understanding of what the process looked like from the management perspective, even though they would only interact with a small part of the process in the real world.
The game was laid out on large foam boards, which created a track for the flow of product. Participants started with a certain amount of cash for buying raw materials. They had to move those materials through the process and get the finished product to a customer at a specific time. Every delay decreased the final payment for the batch. Players were scored based on the amount of profit they generated.
In the beginning, participants created large batches of product, moving each finished batch to the warehouse until the facility was ready for the next step in the process. To illustrate the expenses of warehousing, the game charged a $1,000 penalty for every stored batch, and production capacity decreased as the game progressed. If players didn’t plan their production correctly, they ended up with multiple batches in the warehouse, sitting and waiting—as their potential profits ticked away. Other game mechanics included the following:
- Paperwork cards. These cards checked record-keeping accuracy, another game requirement. Failing a paperwork check would send players to “paperwork jail,” which delayed product delivery.
- Mechanical/Equipment cards. These cards indicated that a piece of equipment required repair or routine maintenance, stopping production for a certain period of time.
- Personnel cards. Game “employees” had certain skill sets. At the beginning of each shift, players turned over a personnel card, which might indicate that someone had called in sick or was out for training. (Incidentally, this aspect of the game convinced all parties of the benefits of cross-training.)
All game dynamics were built around the educational objectives. We didn’t add any elements that weren’t tied to what we wanted participants to learn from the game. As a result, players could see firsthand the consequences of their decisions on the larger manufacturing process. More importantly, the team members recognized the limitations of the current manufacturing process, where each silo optimized their own functional goals and metrics at the expense of the larger organization, which experienced high storage costs, long production cycles, and customer service issues due to product delays. The game helped the client shift its focus from functions to process, creating a manufacturing model that was eventually rolled out to other factories within the larger organization.
Advantages of Gamification, Game-Based Learning
These two experiences showed me the power of using games to teach certain types of principles. Games offer a way to take the essence of a system and simulate real-world conditions so people can understand key, abstract components and apply them to the larger, complex system. Beyond the educational value, games engage people more than classroom lectures or e-learning. Games, when done correctly, offer internal motivation; people have fun playing the game, period. When the client management team—comprised primarily of engineers—walked into the room and saw the catapults and golf balls, they couldn’t wait to start playing. The operators who took part in the focused factories game had a similar response. They were so engrossed by the game that they didn’t want to break for lunch. The client couldn’t believe these were the same people who worked in his factory.
Recently, we’ve extended the use of games at Matrix Management Institute (MMI) to take advantage of additional benefits—namely, scalability and affordability. We work with many clients outside the United States, including a lot of nonprofits. Many more organizations have expressed interest in our services that do not have the budgets to support classroom training. We’ve wrestled with the challenge of meeting this geographically diverse demand without deploying a huge cadre of trainers around the world.
Organizations have typically addressed this challenge through e-learning, which meets the scalability and affordability requirements. However, I’ve never liked e-learning. At worst, students read a screen; at best, they watch a movie and interact by answering questions at specific points. The system is based on simple knowledge transfer: “We’ll quiz you along the way to see if you can regurgitate what we just told you.” That method of learning has never inspired me, and frankly, our material doesn’t lend itself to that format. We teach changes in behavior, collaborative paradigms that people need to learn and practice in a group setting. How could we deliver this type of training virtually?
Once more, we turned to games, which offer not only scalability and affordability, but also add team interaction and a kinesthetic component that e-learning lacks. We created board games that teach collaborative problem-solving. Using the same basic game mechanics, these tools teach players how to walk through a structured process of collaboration for making decisions and solving problems. A gamemaster introduces each round of play, built around a case study. Role-playing cards assign different roles to players. The person who draws the facilitator role turns over a facilitation technique card, which presents a technique for that individual to practice during the round. Then, players draw step cards, which guide them through the process for completing the challenge presented in the case study. After completing the round, participants answer questions and review the outcomes before tallying points and moving to the next round. The learning objectives—such as facilitation skills and team dynamics—are built into the game mechanics.
Based on early client response, these games show great potential for changing the training paradigm. Organizations would have a new, effective alternative to large, in-person classroom sessions and extensive e-learning programs. This new format would allow a gamemaster to assemble a small group—four to six people—who would play the game and teach themselves how to use structured collaboration processes.
A Promising (and Playful) Paradigm Shift
My own experience with gamification came about because I wanted to make the challenge of change management fun—both for my clients and their employees and for myself as the facilitator. Seeing participants embrace the games and internalize the educational objectives convinced me and my colleagues to make our training programs highly experiential, using games whenever appropriate. Already we have seen how gamification and game-based learning can offer a cost-effective way to engage employees and to create organization-wide change. Seeing and practicing educational concepts in context reinforces learning, while collaboration and competition with colleagues builds and strengthens camaraderie.
The technological advances of the past decade have created rich opportunities to extend and enhance game-based learning for users of all ages. Here at MMI we’re already designing the next generation of serious, educational games, and we’re having a great time in the process. We look forward to sharing the results in the near future.