When to use ‘gamification’ in learning

My career started in a small (but mighty) life insurance brokerage – Freedom to Insure. My first job after leaving university, was to stop existing policyholders cancelling their policies. My time on the phone was monitored, as was my call frequency, break times and success rate ‘rebroking’  customer insurance.

It was monotonous work. My day consisted of dialing numbers from a list on the database, and taking the occasional call from a customer passed through by the sales team. My training consisted, as to you might expect, of simulated conversations and my line manager reviewing botched calls. All the while, the topic was the statistical probability of death!

I have fond memories of Freedom to Insure because I worked with many of my friends, some of whom have continued down the insurance road. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about what I was doing. I didn’t feel like I could reach my full potential, or that I was doing something worthwhile in the ‘grand scheme of things’. I left the company a year and a half later to pursue a passion for understanding human behaviour.

My former position at Freedom to Insure is a perfect candidate for gamification. Adding extrinsic rewards such points, badges, levels, financial incentives and time off for good work, will result in improved performance. But this approach only makes sense where there is an absence of intrinsic motivation: a lack of purpose, pride or opportunities for personal development. Gamification is a bad idea when jobs are varied and complex, and/or are perceived as fulfilling unto themselves.


The best illustration of the science behind this assertion is Lepper et al., 1973). Psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene, found that when children expected a reward for play, their overall motivation to play was reduced once the reward was removed. So gamification can have an initial accelerating impact on activity, but over time will undermine intrinsic motivation. Where – as in this experiment – an activity has intrinsic motivation, it doesn’t make sense to use gamification.

time_spent_drawing2There are of course, people that will find intrinsic motivation in brokering life insurance. Just as there are those who enjoy data entry or cleaning student accommodation. That’s good, but chances are, the majority of your workforce are doing fairly boring jobs, and lack intrinsic motivation. But is the answer ever gamification? Is introducing game mechanics to break up the monotony, anything other than a patch over a deeper problem?

The fact of life is that not ever aspect of work can be fun, interesting or fulfilling. Some jobs just suck, and gamification can be a useful tool in the employer’s arsenal. More often however, I believe it’s a lazy and short-sighted way to solve deeper motivation and engagement problems, typically symptomatic of poor/outdated leadership behaviours.

So in conclusion, use gamification, but use it sparingly, and for short term activity which nobody cares about.

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