ATD Blog

The Gamification User-Experience: What Does It Feel Like?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Speaking at the Epsilon Forum Plus learning conference in Belgium last month, I was challenged during my session on “The Gamification of Learning” by an audience member who asked, “Do you think it’s really a good thing if people only do things because it’s fun?”

At the time, thinking of my work as a learning and development manager in the corporate world, I thought (and replied) that ultimately it doesn’t matter: My aim with learning is to get the desired business results and provided that happens, who cares what the user experience is!? As it happens, by the use of gamification, learning can also be fun.

After the conference, this question stuck in my head: What is the user-experience of gamification really like? I have been talking about how effective gamification can improve learning result. I’ve been experimenting with gamification at the dinner table at home. In my own training, I’ve seen other people having fun with games and I’m currently developing a gamified approach to a safety awareness conference and campaign for one of the world’s leading chemical companies. But I have never really consciously taken the time to test the user-experience for myself.

I know why learning and development professionals want to gamify and I know the added value for learning facilitators, but what does gamification actually feel like for the participant?

[Quick rewind to October 2009: I’ve just completed my 4th marathon. I love running. I want more. Step forward to November 2012: I don’t run any more. I can’t be bothered. Every day I say I should but I don’t.]

Re-reading Karl M Kapp’s excellent book The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, I read about the “Zombies, Run!” game. Kapp explains that different game-mechanics are used to motivate runners to run more often and better. Thinking this could be the perfect opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and actually test the user-experience of gamification, I spent the 7 Euros on the app, plugged in my earphones. And I ran…


What are the results of my user-experience with the “Zombies, Run!” game ?

  • In the last 2 weeks, I have so-far run 4 times for a total of 1 hour and 53 minutes
  • During those runs, I have applied the important performance principles of interval training without even thinking about a training programme: Sometimes I simply have to run faster because zombies are chasing me!
  • Whilst running, I can honestly say I didn’t think once about what I was actually doing. I just ran.
  • I am having fun!

Sounds good, eh? So how does it work? What are the game-mechanics in play here?

  • My iPhone tells me a story in which things take place in the present tense and I am one of the main characters—this adds an element of identification that is for me so strong that when one of the other characters speaks to me, I find myself replying. Fortunately, I live in the middle of the countryside, so no-one sees this :-)
  • Every now and again, I get some music from playlists that I have created especially for my runs—this element of self-expression makes the running more pleasurable for me.
  • I am regularly surprised by the appearance of zombies during my run as the story develops. They are announced by the sound of heaving breathing and “uuurgh” noises that, accompanied with accidentally stumbling over some mud in the dark, actually gave me a fright the other night :-/
  • Every 5 or 6 minutes, someone tells me how far and how long I have been running—a nice simple feedback element
  • The app a variety of functions to track my run time, distance and (therefore) speed—I can track my performance back at home and set targets to achieve.
  • During the run, I am rewarded by the successful collection of items like underwear, medicine, and ammunition. After the run, I can make choices on how to use these supplies to improve the health of the fictional town in which I live…

“Zombies, Run!” is actually quite a complete game. It’s an iPhone app that clearly took some time to develop. It also costs money and other resources to use it. If I compare this to the massively expensive intranet-based learning games used by corporations like Ford, I might mistakenly assume that gamification means: electronic, development, facilities, investment…but it doesn’t.

Gamification is simply the application of game-mechanics to non-game situations in order to create a given results. In the case of this running game, it has changed my behaviour, but has it actually created learning?

Learning is the acquisition and implementation of knowledge, skills and attitude in order to get effective behaviour that delivers (business) results. Ford is using it to help employees learn skills. My chemical company client is using it to help people acquire knowledge of safety issues and work on their attitude towards safety. And “Zombies, Run!” has helped me to change my behaviour by experiencing running as something different to the serious, meticulously planned, results-based approach of my marathon days: Today, running is fun.

That’s got to be a good thing!

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About the Author

Dan Steer is a freelance learning consultant, trainer and speaker living and working in Belgium. He believes the world would be a better place if everyone was competently doing what they loved, and it is his mission to help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating infinite learning opportunities; @dan_steer.

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