Gamification: What does the research say?
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Gamification: What does the research say?

“Gamification,” or the use of familiar game-play techniques to promote learning, is a growing trend in workplace learning and has been for several years now. In fact, leading tech research firm Gartner estimates that over 70% of large companies use gamification in at least one business application.

As with any learning trend, an important question inevitably must be asked: Does it actually work? That’s what Penn’s Wharton School recently investigated during a gamification conference that gathered some of the field’s top researchers. The answer: The jury is still out.

The research

The appeal of gamification is clear – it can engage learners, make learning fun (or at least less dull) and inspire healthy competition. A few recent studies provide evidence that gamification can get results, meaning that it actually improves learning and, subsequently, job performance. But looking at the full body of research, the effects are less clear.

Jonna Koivisto, a top researcher at the University of Tampere Game Research Lab in Finland, presented her findings at the Wharton conference. She looked at over 800 papers on gamification and found a serious lack of empirical research. While a few studies provided evidence of gamification’s benefits, she concluded that “we can’t very confidently say much of anything about what works and what doesn’t.”

Richard Landers, a professor at Old Dominion University, went further, saying: “What are the research gaps that remain? I would say, basically all of them.”

Just because the research is playing catch up doesn’t mean gamification doesn’t have benefits. But it could give organizations pause before deciding to jump on the trend and invest serious time and resources in a new training strategy.



So what advice did the researchers provide for organizations that want to incorporate gamification or already a program in place? Below are two key points highlighted at the conference, and they apply to any workplace learning program, whether you utilize games or not.

Employee buy in. It’s important to frame workplace learning correctly to accentuate the benefits for learners, and also to establish the ground rules. Researchers noted that employee attitudes toward the training program – what the research calls “consent” – have a serious impact on training and on job performance. For example, studies have found that employees who view training as fair and who understand what is expected of them have a far more positive attitude toward workplace learning and their employer. On the other hand, employees who didn’t “buy in” had a more negative view of training and of their employer, which adversely affected their job performance.

Reward the right things. In researching the use of a leaderboards and other tools for employee recognition, research found that it was important to reward effort over performance, and allow learners to assign their own value to rewards. For example, one study successfully used a leaderboard by measuring how much time employees were devoting to training instead of using it to rate employee performance during training activities. By measuring employee effort, learners were motivated to put more time into training without the unintended demotivation that can occur with tools like leaderboards.

Another effective technique was allowing learners to earn “badges” after passing certain learning milestones. This individual, private recognition allowed employees to assign their own value to the badges, and inspired self-competition, which motivated learners to continue.

Source: Knowledge@Wharton (2016, February 03). People love games — but does gamification work? Retrieved from

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