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You think older generations don’t respond to gamification? The data says differently.

Conventional wisdom suggests gamification—the practice of applying game-like elements in the workplace—is great for motivating young workers but won’t work with serious-minded, older reps. Indeed, in our recent study, “The Motivation Gap,” older reps ranked gamification less favorably than their younger co-workers.

But the same older respondents ranked specific elements of gamification —competitions, leaderboards, badges, and rewards— as highly effective. For example, Boomers love a leaderboard: 57% percent ranked them as highly effective, just as highly as GenZ ranked gamification platforms. Taken together, the results suggest that gamification simply has a PR problem.

“Many older generations associate the word ‘game’ as being frivolous and not being associated with ‘real work,’” said Maxwell Foxman, a professor of media and game studies at the University of Oregon. In our study, only 42% of Boomers, 33% of Gen Xers, and 45% of Millennials ranked “gamification” as an effective motivator. By contrast, 57% of Gen Z respondents said they find it to be a helpful incentive.

So how can managers effectively use gamification to motivate reps and boost productivity? Foxman said it’s all in the delivery.

Gamification by any other name is just as effective

To successfully deploy gamification in intergenerational workplaces, managers may need to reframe the concept for oldsters by presenting it as less of a game and more as a friendly competition.

“Using leaderboards, or light competition, can obviously be associated with things other than the word ‘game,” Foxman said.’ “If you call that ‘competition,’ someone from an older generation may have a more positive association with that.”

Foxman hypothesized that one reason Boomers, for example, may have a negative connotation to gaming is the transformation of the video game industry in the 1980s when the collapse of Atari in 1983 paved the way for Nintendo and ushered in a new era of gaming marketed toward children.

“Boomers grew up with the advent of digital games, but they were also around when video games made a major move from essentially being a piece of entertainment that was intended for wealthier adults to children,” Foxman said.

When the word “game” is removed from the equation, older generations seem to share affinities with their younger counterparts. Despite their apparent hesitancy toward gamification in the SalesScreen survey, older workers shared many sensibilities with younger workers when you look more closely at specific gaming elements.

Experimenting with different types of gamification

According to the SalesScreen survey, Boomers and Gen Z are both motivated by leaderboards, with 57% and 64% of respondents, respectively, saying they were effective. Both generations also reacted favorably to physical prizes, with 63% of Boomers saying they are effective and 64% of Gen Z respondents saying it's a strong motivator.

Leaderboards often work especially well with older generations because they were exposed to them at a young age and regularly interact with them in the context of sports, Foxman said.

“Sports have always had leaderboard systems, and they’re easy to articulate, easy to understand, and statistically, Baby Boomers watch more sports than Millennials and Gen Z.”

Meanwhile, younger generations seem to gravitate more toward social gaming elements than older workers, Foxman said. While Gen Z is motivated by “streaks” — such as Snapchat streaks, which involve sharing content with friends on consecutive days — Millennials have long been drawn to badges that show off status or skills on apps like Foursquare, Duolingo, and Instagram.

Foxman said while a badge may work for a Millennial, it may fall flat with a Gen Z worker, and so intergenerational workplaces can learn from experimenting with different types of gamification to see what might resonate across their particular workforce.

“When you’re designing these features, one of the best things that can be done is to include different potential ways of gamifying and giving people different routes so they can do what they find most fun,” he said.

Using gamification to build social ties

Foxman said while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to adding gamification to your workplace, it can play a significant role in helping sales teams grow.

“Using games in workplace environments can really benefit in building trust, social cohesion, and camaraderie — those soft skills that are really necessary, particularly as people are returning in person to workplaces. I think it’s really a place where gamification can shine.”

Building social bonds is perhaps one of the largest advantages of employing workplace gamification, according to Foxman. In today’s remote and hybrid era of working, integrating digital games harkens back to the days of setting up pool tables in offices to create “water cooler moments that create social cohesion and allow people to feel more at home.”

“Adding a bit of play in the workplace can really add a way to let people enjoy themselves and get to know their coworkers,” he said.

Ultimately, Foxman said employers should keep an open mind and be amenable to testing different forms of gamification.

“If employers take some time discussing with their teams what they find fun, what they find interesting, and then try to use features they find complementary, that will be a real boon for companies,” he said.

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