As a child, my mother drove my sister and me 20 minutes to school each day (we attended school outside of our district). That’s a long, boring drive for a high-energy kid, so I invented a game to kill the time. Sitting in the front seat, I focused on a spot on the windshield and moved my head back and forth to prevent the spot from overlapping with trees, buildings, or power lines as my mother sped down the road. I gamified the drive to school.
In college, I worked at the Atlanta airport as a bag-thrower. We packed luggage into large bins that were then placed inside the cargo area of airplanes. Each piece of luggage was scanned into the airline’s tracking system before it was packed, so we had a running tally of the number of bags in each bin. As you might imagine, we became extremely competitive about who could pack the most bags into a bin. My personal best was 85. We gamified a boring summer job.
There is a subtle difference between these experiences that might help clarify the distinction between effective and ineffective gamification. Although the gamification layer added to my daily drive to school reduced my boredom, it didn’t improve any performance or skills. I didn’t become a better passenger as a result of the game. It did temporarily improve my attitude, but once the gamification layer was removed (i.e., we washed our windshield) my attitude worsened. Such is the case with many gamification efforts in the field of learning — they consist of pure operant conditioning and intrinsic motivation actually decreases as a result.
The gamification layer that I added to my boring summer job is a different matter. The tracking system-turned-leaderboard instilled a sense of competition among the 3-4 employees working each flight. As a result, we each became experts at stuffing bins tightly. Without the gamification layer, I doubt I would have become the luggage-packing guru I am today.
So, the takeaway is this: a well-designed gamification system encourages knowledge acquisition and skill development that the learner retains after the gamification layer is removed. A poorly designed gamification system might provide some short-term motivation and/or performance improvement, but that’s about it.