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What You Need to Know Before You Gamify Your Next Training

Gamify your training with Marci Morford

In what seems like a lifetime ago, I had a director who read an article about gamification and decided our team needed to include gamification in our next program. After months of trying, our team put together a leader board. It went over like a lead balloon. Our team didn’t understand enough about gamification to make a successful program or how to fit it properly within our objective. I know for a fact my experience with gamification is not unique. I have failed more than once to make games work in training. The lessons learned from those failures have lent themselves to some much better training development, but that is another blog post.

This week on the Train Like You Listen podcast, Marci Morford, manager of onboarding, culture, and innovation programs at Salesforce stops by to talk about how to properly apply gamification to training. Marci and Brian worked together to build an on-boarding game that took new-hires through a days-long game to acclimate to their new roles. She takes some time to cover a few examples of games that work in training, how to find inspiration to gamify your next training, and discusses why the dynamics, mechanics, and components of a game all play a huge role in game play success.

Listen using the player below. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section or on twitter @train_champion.

Conversation with Marci Morford

Brian Washburn: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Train Like You Listen– a weekly podcast of all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. We are joined once again this week by Marci Morford, manager of Onboarding Culture and Innovation Programs at SalesForce. And today we’re going to be talking about gamification.

Marci and I had a chance to be colleagues at one point. And we were able to gamifiy an entire employee onboarding program. And so I thought Marci would be a great guest again this week to talk a little bit about gamification. [Editor’s Note: Check out How To Design An Effective Onboarding Program, with Marci Morford]

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: And before we get started, Marci, you know the drill.

We get to introduce ourselves in six words. And for this week, when we talk about applying principles of gamification in the L&D initiatives, my memoir is “when I play, life is super-fun”. How are you? Can you introduce yourself in exactly six words?

Marci Morford: So you did a hyphen on super-fun, which technically made it seven words. So I’m doing seven words too. “Give me games or give me death.”

Brian Washburn: Oooh, that one is– it is really aligned with our social atmosphere these days and the revolution when it comes to learning and development. So let’s jump into the questions here a little bit. And my first question, when we’re trying to design training, how is playing a game like Jeopardy different than using the whole process or concept of gamification? Basically, what I’m asking here is, what’s the difference between just putting a game into a training program and actually using this process or this verb “gamification”?

What is the Difference Between Playing Games During Training and “Gamification”?

Marci Morford: I guess I see them as being in the same family, but only vaguely related. It’s like the difference between teaching somebody to apply a band aid and making them a medic first responder. As far as how far you’re going down the road of gamification, I think it’s really, really great to insert a game like Jeopardy! or a game like Kahoot! or some other small game for a moment into your training program. I think that’s good, and you should.

But it’s not gamification. It’s this little Band-Aid moment of injecting games or fun, points, badges, all these things. Like, there’s this moment where you did it, and then everything else falls to the wayside. It’s like a spot clean.

And when you talk about gamifying a program, you’re talking about turning the training program into a game. And it’s just a different animal. It’s a different size project.

Brian Washburn: I think that’s a great distinction – the difference between playing a game and turning the entire thing into a game with game elements. I really appreciate how you boil that down right there. Now when we think of the work that you’ve done, can you give an example or maybe two of a time when you were able to solve a training problem, right, because that’s really what we’re here to do. We’re here to solve training problems.

The way in which we do it is at least as important as how we do it. And so can you give an example or two of a time when you were able to actually solve a training problem by applying principles of gamification?

Solving a Training Problem By Applying the Principles of Gamification

Marci Morford: The example that I’m going to talk about is one Brian was there for. Brian and I worked together with a couple of other colleagues to build an onboarding game for SightLife. And the game was really cool because our new hires spent multiple days playing the same game in small-and-large teams.

And the reason I thought it was so successful as a gamification experiment was that I really felt like the game elements of it were what solved our training problems themselves. So when you look at, in this case, it was an onboarding program. Our learning objectives were to build new relationships, new connections amongst new hires and make them feel welcome and comfortable. We also wanted to build empathy and understanding across different teams.

If you’re starting in one side of the supply chain of our company, there was a lack of empathy for what your actions did to the other side of the supply chain. And I think that the game really tied those pieces together.

And so I think that the reason that that game was so successful was because from our learning objective perspective, a game solves those empathy and connection objectives better than any other learning format could have. The game itself was– you’ve got to work with these small teams. You got to jump into the shoes of the people that work in all of the different teams in the companies. We tied together using game elements with– they were basically points to show if you’re good at your job, you get more resources. It would help our company grow in the larger scale. It really just tied together all of the things that we needed people to deeply understand about the way that our business worked without having to just tell them why it was important. They got to experience it in this really authentic way.

And that’s why I think that games can be so successful is that they add that get-your-feet-wet, jump-in-and-do-it kind of learning. And I think games uniquely help build connections and collaboration.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and I love that example, “A”, because I was there for it. So I got to see it. And “B”, because it’s exactly what you’re saying.

You can talk all you want. You can bring in representatives from departments and talk all you want about what different departments do. But this gave people an opportunity to simulate and play games that put people in the shoes of their coworkers. And you’re absolutely right.

I can’t think of a different way to do it that would have given us the same or better impact on people. When it comes to– and this was actually a really interesting example. But beyond this example, what are some of the sources of inspiration for you when it comes to gamification ideas that you can bring into the training space?

Inspiration from Game Design

Marci Morford: Yeah, I think that the biggest one is actually board games because I think board games, card games, things like that are these perfect little bite-sized examples of the different ways that you can tie game elements together in unique ways and make them work. When we were at SightLife on this project, we were reading For The Win by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter. And that book is really, really helpful if you want to get started in gamification or game design because it really clearly breaks down all the different things that you know and have experienced every time you’ve played a board game or a card game, but you’ve never known how to formulate the words around what it is that that game is doing.

So those are called dynamics, mechanics, and components. And when you– once you’ve read this book, at least for me, you can go back to any board game and see how the dynamics, mechanics, the components of that game tie together to move the game forward. And it allows you to then pull apart your favorite dynamics, mechanics, and components to move your training forward in a way that’s super authentic and meaningful from a game perspective. It enables you to stop doing– I’m going to insert Jeopardy!– and all of a sudden take any activity in the world and actually turn it into a real game. So for me, it’s that book and also just playing any board game in the world.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, I’m right there with you. Because a lot of times when you think of games and board games, we think rolling dice and moving a pawn around the board. But there’s so much more to game mechanics than just that that we don’t even realize when we’re playing the board game.

Cooperative Games in Training

Brian Washburn: So I love what you said. It’s a combination of playing games and doing a little bit more research into what game mechanics are and what makes a game work. So when we think of board games– and the other thing that I really got out of starting to play more board games is just seeing what else is out there. I mean, I was– I grew up with Trivial Pursuit. I grew up with Monopoly. I have kids and we played Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, things like that. So that was my world when it came to being inspired to do a game. And all of my games were designed after those experiences.

But then when we had our experience at SightLife. And we started to create something. We were looking at Settlers of Catan, which I had never heard of and some other cooperative games that I didn’t even know there’s a whole genre of cooperative games. But when you think of what makes training successful and what makes teams with an organization successful, it is that cooperation. So how do we apply the mechanics of cooperative games to training as well? So I love the idea that you just proposed in terms of get out there and play more games and also do some research on what the mechanics are.

Now, when it comes to gamification, there’s a ton of reasons not to do it. So it’s risky. It’s a lot of work to put together a game.

People will say “oh, I’m here for training. I’m not here to play games”. So there’s a lot of risk involved with putting together or trying to incorporate a game or gamification into a training program. Marci, in your opinion, what are some of the risks of not bringing gamification into a learning and development program?

What Are Some Risks of Not Bringing Gamification Into an L&D Program?

Marci Morford: Yeah, I think you, having me me, know that I think that the risks of not doing it are much higher than the risks of doing it. But before you do it, that can be really hard to see. For me, every time I’ve added gamification or game design into my programs, the outcomes have been tenfold what they could have been if we hadn’t done it.

Really when you think about building a training program, there’s certain things you really want your learners to be able to do and to want to do after they walk away. And I think that many other instructional design techniques, while they might be much easier to execute, much less time consuming, much less risky from a perspective– like I think a lot of times people don’t add games to their training because they perceive in their head that they’re going to be frivolous or seen as childish or that their adult learners won’t want to play games because that’s for babies, that the executives won’t take it seriously. There’s all of these things in your head about perceiving games that make you think you shouldn’t do it.

Every time I’ve ever done it, the look on faces from age 22 to 70 is of joy and glee. And the outcomes, because they’ve really engaged with the material while they’re playing the game, is so much better than if you just tell them something. So I think the risk of not doing it is that you don’t get the same outcomes and also people are usually bored.

Get to Know Marci Morford

Brian Washburn: (CHUCKLING) I’ll buy that. Well, we’ve come to the end of another podcast. But before we finish this, I have a few new speed-round questions. Are you willing to play with me?

Marci Morford: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: Excellent. So my first question here is, what is your favorite game?

Marci Morford: OK, so I’m going to tell you the answer. But please know that the answer sort of changed in March 2020. It’s Pandemic Legacy.

Brian Washburn: We have Pandemic Secure, which has been a game that’s been a favorite around our house. So but again, going back to this idea of cooperative board games. And I think that there’s a whole different element to that. How about your favorite game to play when you were a kid?

Marci Morford: Kick the Can. It’s so strategic. And I think that my favorite thing about it is that it’s both collaborative and competitive. And it rules out the cowards. You have to take risks and kick the can.

Brian Washburn: What I appreciate about that is it’s not a board game. So when you talk about inspiration, games can come from anywhere. Is there a book that people should be reading or a person people should be following when it comes to gamification?

Marci Morford: Yeah, so I already mentioned For The Win, which is the Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter book. The person I think people should be following is Jane McGonigal.

Brian Washburn: Jane McGonigal is one of my favorites as well and does a ton of stuff around gamification and what games can do for the future, not just of learning and development, but of the world. So I love ending on that note.

Marci, thank you once again for joining us and giving us some time. And thank you everyone for listening to the Train Like You Listen podcast, which can be downloaded on Spotify, on iTunes, iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you once again for listening. And until next time, happy training.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo at

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