Compete and win (engagement, knowledge, results)!

As I was planning this post, I knew I wanted to talk about competition, and the phrase “a little friendly competition” popped into my head. I thought there was a specific saying that included this, but my friends Google and Siri were not able to find it. Instead, I’ll paraphrase the quote I had in my head: “A little friendly competition is a good thing.”

When I started to dive into this exciting world of game-based learning, I understood many of its inherent benefits. The opportunity to effectively employ the spacing effect. The ability to chunk learning into smaller bite-sized pieces. The ability to deploy it via a wide variety of devices. There was one that took me by surprise, though – the role that a little friendly competition plays in driving repeated usage.

competition, gamification, game-based learning

In working with clients to build and deploy game-based solutions, I have seen it time and again. They launch a mission addressing a given topic, with a series of games designed to cover specific aspects of that topic. The first few users get in there and play. They notice that they’re on a leaderboard with their colleagues. Upon discovering that they’re not in one of the top spots on the leaderboard, they play again and again, trying to get in that top 10. Some people have more competitive juices in their blood than others, and they’ll play dozens of times (or more – won’t share the biggest number I’ve seen). Others are not quite as intense, but they’ll play enough times to get a respectable score and call it a day. They view it as more of a friendly competition.

Here’s the “so what” – This competition is driving engagement, that critical element that learning and HR professionals are always trying to achieve. When colleagues are competing against one another, they are actively engaged in the activity. They will practice and try to perform at a higher level. They will play the games (in this case) multiple times. When they’re playing multiple times, they’re being exposed to the content multiple times. Be honest with yourself – when was the last time someone took your eLearning course more than once? The competition and subsequent engagement in game-based learning leads to repeat practice, resulting in real learning and knowledge gains. Even better, because they’re competing, they may not even realize that they’re learning. Those gains in knowledge should then ultimately lead to some sort of measureable results, as all learning should be a means to an end.

Taking this to through the next logical steps, I’ll propose the following progression:

  • Competition generates engagement
  • Engagement promotes learning
  • Learning produces increased knowledge
  • Increased knowledge drives business results

Or, even more simply:

competition, gamification, game-based learning

Like anything else worthwhile, building competition into your learning programs takes some planning and is not as easy as it seems on the surface. The initiative should be well communicated throughout – from launch, through regular progress updates, to the conclusion. Let people know when they can start competing, give them updates on how they’re doing, and warn them when the competition is about to end. Consideration should be given to incentives. Will they be inherently motivated to play (outside of the competition itself), or will some external motivation (prizes) be required?

competition, gamification, game-based learning

One critically important consideration is the size of the audience in the competition. I recently came across a fascinating research study about the “N-effect”. The researchers looked at the motivation of competitors across a variety of situations and populations. In short, the N-effect demonstrates that increasing the number of competitors can actually decrease competitive motivation. When individuals perceive they are competing against 10 people (as opposed to 100), they complete the tasks significantly faster. Finally, the study finds that individuals who know their competitors compete more intensely than those who do not. Check out the full study here.

leaderboard, game-based learning, competition

In practice, this requires some advance planning as you look to deploy your learning program. Don’t just throw it out to a large group and expect most individuals to care about competing against that large group. Your most motivated participants will, but as the N-effect tells us the larger the group is, the less motivation that exists for most. When deploying to a large group, find a way to segment the population. This can be done any number of ways – by department, by office, by city, by manager, etc. Participants are then competing against people they know, which will increase their motivation and engagement. In addition, when those offices/departments/manager teams compete against one another, you’ll reap the benefits of the “us vs. them” effect. Members of Team Chicago will want to perform well so they can defeat Team New York and Team Atlanta in the overall competition and not let their team down.

leaderboard, game-based learning, competition

A recent mLevel client executed this well. The deployed a mandatory compliance-based mission for their recruiting team to more than 1,000 team members spread across more than 30 offices around the country. The competition in each office was fierce, and all managers received regular progress reports on their teams. In those reports managers could see how their teams stacked up against the other offices, which served as motivation to push their team members to complete the mission with the highest possible score. In the post-event feedback, participants cited the competition as a key motivator in completing the mission.

When planning your next learning event, think hard about how include some friendly competition using a game-based approach. Keep the competition as small and as personal as you can, and know that competition is the first step towards true engagement – eventually leading to tangible business results.