Sorry, Games and Gamification are Not Magic

It seems that if I am not confronted with a person who is convinced that learning games and gamification are evil re-incarnated and will corrupt the minds of all learners and destroy Western Civilization as we know it, I am thus besieged by a person who believes that learning games and gamification are a magic elixir that will wonderfully transform any and all boring, meaningless training into an “edge-of-your-seat-unforgettable learning experience.”

I secretly believe the latter is more dangerous than the former.

There is no magical learning formula, no red pill that makes learning as easy as downloading knowledge into your brain painlessly and effortlessly.

No, games and gamification are tools for learning, they are not magic. And they are tools that should be used sparingly and not as a panacea for all learning and development activities. Learning games or serious games work well when they are built from the ground up focused on teaching underlying concepts models or ideas, helping a player learn the trade-offs required to make important business or sales decisions. Games create learning when they are play tested, examined and carefully created. They are effective when the learner realizes the underlying rules parallel the rules he or she must deal with on a daily basis. Games build awareness of issues, conflicts and ideas. They help the learner think the “unthinkable” like the BP board game from the 70’s that predicted the gulf oil spill of the 2000’s.

Adding points randomly to a learning management system will not magically drive learners to the LMS to spend untold hours exploring the ins and outs of the thousands of courses you have loaded onto the system. It will not propel a learner through tedious, meaningless content that some manager somewhere believed everyone must know without verifying a real need. Gamification can’t and won’t transform your organization into a learning organization alone. Gamification is unable to increase sales with just a few badges or a companywide leaderboard. Gamification doesn’t suddenly make everyone an avid learner.

The truth is that games and gamification are as simple and common place as a lecture or an online module. They are merely tools in a toolkit. Sometimes a game will be exactly what is needed, other times, a lecture is more effective. You may at times use gamification to drive a safety message or change behaviors, other times, a simple job aid will do the trick.

Learning professionals cannot blindly jump on the bandwagon and enthusiastically chase every rainbow of learning solutions; instead, they need to carefully consider which tool matches which need. I guarantee that at times, a learning game is exactly the right solution and will propel sales or increase safety or develop the critical thinking as no other solution. I also guarantee that, at times, gamification can transform casual or disengaged learners into voracious learners who can’t get enough of the content.

I also guarantee that many times both solutions will fail and fail miserably.

It is not the solutions that is good or bad, it’s our application of it. The first step in applying a solution properly is to realize they are not magic; some people will hate games and gamification just as they hate lectures and social learning. Agree with them, these solutions are not magic, they are merely tools.

What we need to do is help them use those tools appropriately.

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  1. Andrzej Marczewski August 5, 2013

    Could not agree more, well said. They are tools. To get the best out of tools you need to learn a understand how to use them. Most people can use a hammer, just like most can stick points and badges on things. Not many can create cabinets from plain wood, or sculptures from trees. In the same way, not many can create great games.