The Gamification of Organizational Learning

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Carol Morrison

From Chutes and Ladders to profit and loss...who saw that coming? The surge of interest in the application of games and gamification in the business world is taking organizational and business function leaders down paths of possibility that were unimaginable in the days of Operation, Battleship, or even the now-venerable Pac-Man.

However, research is giving leaders a Clue that games have a lot more to offer the business world than fleeting entertainment during coffee breaks and lunch hours. “As cutting-edge methods of delivering and enhancing learning, gamification and serious games are finding their way into organizations across industries, geographies, and cultures,” explains Playing to Win: Gamification and Serious Games in Organizational Learning, a collaborative study published today by i4cp and ASTD.

The study confirmed that use of gamification and serious games in workplace learning isn't widespread, but it's growing. Twenty-five percent of 551 surveyed business and learning leaders said their organizations are using gamification in learning, and one in five is using serious games. Although roughly the same percentages said they weren’t even considering game use, nearly double those numbers of respondents affirmed plans to pursue gamification and serious games in the year ahead.

Coming to terms with gamification and serious games
Just sorting out the terminology is daunting enough to hold back progress in adopting either tactic. Working with subject matter experts, i4cp and ASTD defined gamification in the study as “the integration of game characteristics and mechanics into a real-world training program or task to promote change in behavior,” adding that it is “most often used to motivate and engage people.”

Serious games were defined as “simulations that have added elements of games, such as story, goals, feedback, and play. Serious games allow students to have experiences, reinforce skills, supplement instruction, access opportunities to practice, or increase their contact with content within a learning program.”

What stood out clearly—and impressively—when survey results were examined is that learning professionals who are using gamification and/or serious games are genuinely enthused about effectiveness. Thirty-seven percent of those using gamification and 51% of serious games users rated the methods highly effective.

Real-world adopters of gamification and serious games who talked with i4cp about their organizations’ experiences with the approaches were just as enthusiastic, and included professionals from such respected (and diverse) firms as Sprint, Schlumberger, EMC, University of Colorado Health, and BB&T.

What top companies learned about game design
Interviews with the pros offered some great practical observations and advice for learning functions where gamification and serious game use are still aspirations. A few insights from the report:

Practice patience: Sprint University project manager Kyle Hofer urged caution for companies considering DIY internal design—an approach used by his organization to create Shift, a game focused on helping employees learn about Sprint. “In developing a serious game, you really, really, really have to stick to a hard-core process and path to construct a solid gaming-type platform before you even start to draw a graphic. I know that's hard for people who want to jump right in and see what the game will look like. It was hard for us because we wanted to do the same thing. But you have to do the up-front work and closely manage the details. If you're going to tackle serious gaming, that's one of the biggest challenges you'll have.”

Know your audience: Angela Webster, Sprint University learning strategist, observed that knowledge of the learning audience is a vital ingredient in game design: “Not only will a certain type of audience participate more than another, but it's crucial to acknowledge that this style of learning isn't necessarily appropriate for everybody. It's not the best way for some people to learn.”

Call on the expertise you need—both internal and external: When BB&T Bank Chairman and CEO Kelly King asked his learning group for an innovative way to help high school and college students learn about leadership, SVP of curriculum design and development Debi Wayne and curriculum designer Brittany Brown responded. The result—LEGACY: A BB&T Leadership Challenge—is a multi-platform mobile gaming app available free to the public.

Wayne and Brown marshaled teams that included an external vendor and many internal colleagues. Said Wayne, “When gamification or games are done internally, the project is assigned to a certain learning group. In this case, we were doing an app that was outside our expertise—we're a bank, we don't build games. So the question was, do we have the right people? We brought in our marketing group, our online channel group, our IT folks, our social media folks, and on and on” to support and add to the work of external design firm Chaotic Moon.

Measure your success: At Schlumberger, the world's largest oilfield services company, sales training support professional J.P. Amlin was an early adopter of game use in sales training. As he refined his methods over the past decade, an extensive ROI study by his company tracked training participants' performance. Amlin describes the outcome: “At the time, we were spending $1.2 to $1.3 million for the training program—trainers' salaries, travel, and internally developed content [including games]. When we did the six-month study in 2003, we documented the fact that people who had taken the training generated an additional $108 million for that $1.2 million investment.”

Clearly it takes careful planning and Concentration to avoid Risk when learning professionals decide it's time to add gamification or serious games to their training efforts. But the potential for engaging employees in compelling learning content makes gamification and serious games intriguing options in the quest to help drive better business performance.

Read more about the ASTD/i4cp study, Playing to Win: Gamification and Serious Games in Organizational Learning, at
Learn more about training and workforce development at these AMA seminars:
Instructional Design for Trainers

Advanced Training Strategies and Techniques 

About the Author(s)

Carol Morrison, Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) Carol Morrison is with the Institute for Corporate Productivity. For more information, visit