From Gamification to Simulation: Enhancing the Transfer of Learning

Each year brings to the business world a new swarm of buzzwords. Many are last year’s buzzwords, humming the same tune at a different pitch, fighting to find new life in the buzzword-eat-buzzword business world. Others are new arrivals from beyond the information horizon. I caught one of the new ones in my net earlier this year: “Gamification,”

The most succinct definition of gamification comes from research lead by Deterding et. al.1

“Gamification” is the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.

Sounds pretty straightforward, simple even. So why is gamification buzzing in everyone’s business ear?

To begin with, it’s the result of the millenials growing up with games and extending their early experiences into the adult world. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, “Fully 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games.”2 With this level of participation achieved by 2008, it isn’t a stretch to consider the participation in games by the same age group for the prior 5 or more years to be a similarly high occurrence. The “gamification” experience, then, would include many, if not most, the rising young professionals in a wide variety of industries. Indeed, as Deloitte reports, “The average game player today is 37 years old, and 42% of game players are women.”3

That this would be the case isn’t unusual. It happens with every generation. I remember commenting to a friend in the early ’00 about how all the ugly, boxy, chunky car styles prevalent on the car dealer lots were the consequence of a generation raised on Transformer cartoons ascending to automotive engineering positions.

Secondly, the technology has evolved such that designing and introducing game elements into business environments is a much more straightforward process. Toolkits, development libraries, API’s, and design practices have become more robust and standardized. Gamification design principles are being applied to a variety of contexts in part because it is much easier to do so now than it was 10 or even 5 years ago.

However, the ascendent application of gamification in business should not presuppose an intrinsic value. There is plenty of room to question its value. In fact, several professional game designers, such as Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Shufflebrain, foresee the word “gamification” eventually disappearing from the lexicon of business. Rather, gamification “will become part of the toolkit of many different types of design. In a similar way ‘AI’ went away. We don’t think of Amazon as an AI system, though it does have what used to be called artificial intelligence in it with its collaborative filtering mechanism.”4 In other words, the word will pass, the buzz will die. What will be left is a trail of design techniques that will have folded into a larger set of existing techniques for enhancing user experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, in the context of business and professional development, there is little evidence to support the idea that gamification achieves anything deeper than entertainment and basic operant conditioning of simple behavioral changes. While the strategic application of gamification design principles can engage a learner and engender motivation, thereby enhancing an individual’s learning experience, their ability to drive deep learning by themselves is probably not possible. It’s a case of short-term factors producing short-term benefits. When the task is to acquire a deeper and broader understanding of a particular subject, a more immersive approach, such as it possible with simulations, is more effective.

Therein lies the challenge for those of us interested in preparing the rising generation of professionals with the skills needed to become the next generation of business leaders. To this end, even the most robust application of gamification principles will fail. The thinking skills needed to create competent leaders can’t be learned on the level of gaming. Amassing the greatest number of leadership points, the largest collection of “leadership” badges, and the longest run on a leader board have about as much in common with quality leadership as collecting cookbooks has with becoming a master chef.

It is highly probable the skillful application of game elements can enhance the effects of a simulation. If they are over or misapplied, however, they risk becoming the latest manifestation of the “dancing bologna” so prevalent in the early days of the world wide web. To this end, the insights from Werbach and Hunter offer guidance:

To figure out where gamification might fit your needs, consider the following four core questions: Motivation: Where would you derive value from encouraging behavior? Meaningful Choices: Are your target activities sufficiently interesting? Structure: Can the desired behaviors be modeled through a set of algorithms? Potential Conflicts: Can the game avoid conflicts with existing motivational structures?5



1 Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification’, MindTrek’11, September 28-30, 2011, Tampere, Finland.

2“Teens, Video Games and Civics”, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Pew Research Center Publication, September 16, 2008, Retrieved from

3“Tech Trends 2012”, Deloitte, Retrieved from

4Lecture 8.5 – Amy Joe Kim interview with Kevin Werbach, Gamification course offered by The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania through

5Werbach, K; Hunter, D. (2012). For the win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business (Kindle Locations 556-563). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.