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Gamification – winners on all sides

Gamification leads to success in a fun way. For customer retention, employee satisfaction or e-learning: combine fascination with games and your company goals.

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Table of Contents
Why do we all like games so much? And what does that mean for companies? In order to understand why gamification is being used so successfully worldwide, we have to understand people.

Games have always been played

Around two millennia ago, the Chinese invented the number game keno, the idea and rules of which are similar to the modern game bingo. From nine men’s morris, mikado, chess and skat to halma and dots: people have continually invented new games over the course of history, many of which we still enjoy today.

The digitisation of games began in arcades in the 1980s with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong – two video games that fascinated players both young and old. Nowadays, no smartphone is released without game apps. Playing games brings enjoyment and relaxation. Sometimes alone, often with company, and technical progress and digitisation are adding new games all the time. But why do people like playing so much?

We are born with the instinct to play

Michael Kolb, sports educator at the University of Vienna, sums it up: ‘We play for the sake of playing’, he says, adding that we are born with the instinct to play and this is most prominent in childhood. We play because we enjoy it. For Rolf Oerter, psychologist and professor emeritus for development psychology, play also always takes place voluntarily and outside everyday life. Oerter describes play as behaviour without a purpose, but not without meaning.

Michael Kolb, sports educator at the University of Vienna, sums it up: ‘We play for the sake of playing’, he says, adding that we are born with the instinct to play and this is most prominent in childhood. We play because we enjoy it. For Rolf Oerter, psychologist and professor emeritus for development psychology, play also always takes place voluntarily and outside everyday life. Oerter describes play as behaviour without a purpose, but not without meaning.

We are born with the instinct to play

Why children need to play

Children develop their motor skills through play. They reach for things and, in doing so, learn how they move and function. Thanks to the principle of trial and error, they play their way to important findings. They continually come up against new challenges that they resolve in a playful way, thus increasing their self-confidence and their faith in their own abilities.

The significance for adults

Adults who play have a lot to gain: relaxation, for example, as well as mental mobility and an element of balance in their work-heavy daily life. Part of the principle of play is trying out new things. It stimulates creativity and imagination: abilities that are also important in adult life. However, playing is not only good for the mind, but also the body. Games that train hand–eye coordination help us with everyday tasks and athletic challenges – and can even slow down the ageing process.

If you are wondering whether computer games also enhance abilities, Simone Kühn, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, has some reassuring news. She has proven that video games develop parts of the brain that coordinate our locomotor system.

Adults who want to give free rein to the natural instinct to play are not restricted to toys or board games. Anything that the player considers to be different to their everyday activities can be considered a game. And since that could also include tasks at the workplace, we are back to gamification: the use of game-like elements in a non-playful environment.

Life is a game

What all games have in common is that they need rules and use various game elements such as rankings, points or prizes. Using these elements in a non-game-related environment is called gamification.

Gamification is suitable for motivating people, teaching them and improving their response in certain situations. This is achieved through transferring the entertaining parts of games to less appealing situations. The pleasant feeling created by playing can be put to use in many areas and subjects, from employee motivation to further education, customer retention and marketing.

Gamification addresses needs, wishes and instincts and thus motivates the players:

  • Rewards: We love to receive gifts when we achieve an aim. Even as children, we are happy to be rewarded for doing our homework or getting good grades. Gamification works by building on this learned behaviour, because rewards motivate us to even complete tasks we don’t feel like doing.
  • Progress: We want to progress and get better over the course of our lives. We need the feeling that our behaviour is bringing us forward each day. Gamification makes use of this need for progress to motivate and engross players.
  • Competition: Everyone likes to win. As children, we want to be the fastest in the race. In our studies or at work, we want to be the best. If we know the competition, this desire to win is even greater.
  • Recognition: Gamification appeals to the need for recognition. Games make it possible to share performances within the game with others. Being proud of our performance is also a reason for the success of social networks. They include an element of showmanship – we show what we can do well or how unique our last holiday was. Likes keep our attention and tie us to apps and platforms.
  • Sympathy: Life together in a family or a job is easier for everyone if we hurry to help others, support them or take work off their hands. But we also help because it makes us feel better. Gamification is aware of this mindset and that is why many games set us challenges like: find the treasure, save the world, or prevent a disaster. They know we can’t help but try.
  • Entertainment: Pleasure is a basic human need. We love to relax and enjoy. The game-like elements of gamification fulfil this desire for entertainment.

Five successful examples of the use of gamification

Microsoft Language Quality Game

One subject accompanies every software development at Microsoft: the company needs countless translations for its products. Ensuring that every language adjustment was correct and sensible was too big a challenge for the team of developers alone.

For that reason, the employees took part in a competition across all locations. In a simple app, they checked and corrected translations in their native language in a game-like environment. In the process, 5,000 employees viewed 500,000 pages.

Each page contained several suggested translations. One suggestion among each group was a deliberately wrong and bad translation. In this way, Microsoft ensured that all participants were really paying attention and taking the task seriously. The Japanese branch, whose employees had been given an extra day off to participate, won the game.

Starbucks Rewards

Starbucks has shown how successful gamification in marketing can be. The company strengthens customer retention via an app: as a member of the ‘Starbucks Rewards’ programme, you enjoy benefits that are not offered to other customers. For example, there are free refills for certain drinks and frequent special offers. The customer is rewarded with stars for every purchase, which can be redeemed for free drinks or tasty treats. The more stars a member has collected, the higher their level in the programme and the better the benefits. Every now and again there are also limited-time offers, the purchase of which is rewarded with more stars than usual. Due to the large number of members and the turnover generated through the programme, it is often referred to as the most successful customer retention programme in the world. After its implementation, Starbucks registered a record financial quarter. Today, the app generates around six million sales a month in the USA. That figure is equivalent to around 22% of the company’s total sales.

Nike +

Users of the Nike+ app run against themselves and the huge global Nike community, because the app records everything: speed, distance covered and calories burned. Runners compare their results with those of others and people who take part receive various badges as rewards. There are rewards for certain route lengths, personal speed records and runs on specific holidays. Nike also frequently presents exclusive offers on selected sports items in the app.

SCN (SAP Community Network)

At the software company SAP, customer enquiries sent by email often did not reach the responsible staff members, so the management integrated a small online golf game into the company software. In the game, customer enquiries that were sent to the wrong employees were ‘putted’ on to the responsible colleagues.

The network now has more than two million members around the world. Those who contribute receive bonus points, and once a certain number of points has been reached, badges are given out as rewards and the next level can be accessed. But what is particularly attractive about SCN is that participation can also help employees to achieve promotions or to be given a new job.

Coca-Cola Zero

The main train station in Antwerp, a Coca-Cola vending machine and the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’: examples of gamification are not only found in the digital sector. Coca-Cola has demonstrated that gamification also works offline, and can then be continued online. Customers at the vending machines were addressed with the motto ‘Coca-Cola Zero unlocks the 007 in you’. Those who managed to complete their personal 007 mission in the train station within 70 seconds won tickets to the film premiere. The video of this unusual challenge went viral.

Historic Development of gamification

Infographic Gamification

Making the game out of training

One number is enough to show how much enthusiasm people have for online and video games: 370,000 people attended the 2018 edition of Gamescom, the world’s biggest trade fair for the games industry, in Cologne.

The huge enthusiasm for games and gaming worlds crosses the boundaries of all age groups and grows year after year. The emotions that games bring out – such as curiosity, envy, pride, frustration, ambition and loss – motivate us to keep playing.

It takes many attempts to reach a new level or finish a game. And with each new attempt, the players learn something new. In that way, a supposed failure leads to a new finding. This concept can be seamlessly transferred to e-learning materials for employees.

E-learning has no losers

Anyone who plays games online, on their smartphone or on consoles knows it: it might take numerous attempts to reach your goal, but you learn something new each time you try. This turns what could be considered a failure into a learning experience. This concept can be directly transferred to educational materials.

If complex learning targets are broken down into small units, the work required for each individual unit is reduced. In contrast to a failed exam, these units can be repeated without consequences. Successes that are confirmed immediately and comparisons with other learners increase motivation.


Ten gamification techniques you should need:
  1. Tell a story and design the storyline. In some schools in the USA, a zombie apocalypse is used to teach geography, for example. Sacramento has fallen to the undead? But where is Sacramento again?
  2. Use levels and make reference to them at the start of the game. Seeing what tasks lie ahead motivates players to reach the target of the game.
  3. Set a deadline or use a countdown. Time pressure provides motivation to quickly complete the task that has been set.
  4. Awarding medals, prizes and badges is an effective way to display recognition. Anyone who collects miles as a frequent flyer knows how the principle works.
  5. Heighten the sense of competition by presenting the state of play between participants in rankings. That motivates them to keep going and improve.
  6. Appeal to the material instincts of the players so they keep at it. You can use (virtual) money, bonus points and extra lives to do this.
  7. Many games only provide players with a few tools to begin with. More weapons, abilities and powers follow after each level and help them become even more successful.
  8. For many people, a progress bar showing 83% is enough motivation to reach 100%.
  9. Form teams to support competitive thinking in a playful way. People like to belong to a community or team that can be better than others.
  10. A thumbs up, red heart or similar symbols – on social networks, recognition becomes a motivational element. Fellow players provide rewards and are rewarded for providing their status.

Why gamification helps companies progress

All gamification applications have in common that they do not involve any condescending finger wagging. Nothing comes down from the top. Content is conveyed in a playful way. That is much more appealing to employees who have grown up in an interactive world than traditional forms of communication, which quickly become boring.

Gamification has now reached almost all areas of companies. Processes everywhere can be gamified, and any topic can be fun if it is presented in the right way.

But it is not only within companies that gamification opens up new paths for motivation and conveying knowledge: marketing also has opportunities to acquire and retain customers in a playful way. Once you understand that gamification in not a short-term trend, you can not only achieve your aims – you can have an awful lot of fun doing so.


Four tools for employee training through gamification


A learning management system (LMS) suited to the requirements of small and medium-sized companies. Android and iOS apps configured with topics, tasks and the company logo help in employee training.


A tool used by many well-known companies worldwide to create customised e-learning applications for their employees.



From offline to online: teaching material for interactive courses can be created in Microsoft PowerPoint with Articulate Storyline.



Existing courses that are purely desktop-based can be transformed into completely responsive e-learning content with just a few clicks.

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