Game-based and gamified assessments: An introduction

Nowadays it’s impossible to go to an IO conference or seminar without hearing something being said about gamified or game-based assessments. In this article, we’ll go back to basics and ask the simple question: What is it all about?

Games and game-playing

The idea of using games or the principles of game-playing for purposes other than fun is not new. In ancient times, games such as the forerunners of chess were used by Mesopotamian and Mediterranean cultures to train would-be military leaders.

More physically involved games such as ancient forms of polo were used by the Mongols and other nomadic tribes as selection instruments for warriors and leaders.

Modern equivalents include games such as flight simulators: they serve dual roles as pastimes and training tools for aspirant pilots.

So, what is new? Without doubt, it is the expansion of our views regarding what games are capable of and how they might alter the current assessment landscape.

Before expanding on that, it is important to distinguish between two basic concepts: games and gamification.

What is gamification?

Let’s start with gamification. By gamifying something, we apply game principles to a task or series of activities which were not originally intended to be games. In addition, the goal of gamification is often to change some form of behavior in the player. A few examples:

  • Fitness apps use the game principles of scoring points and earning achievements to encourage people to do more exercise (exercise’s main purpose is not game-related).
  • Loyalty cards use game principles such as “leveling up” and scoring points to encourage people to purchase goods at a particular retailer (buying goods is not intended to be a game).
  • Some CRMs have applied game principles such as earning badges, “leveling up” and winning prizes to encourage employees to interact with the system and keep it updated (CRMs are business software packages, not games).

Put another way, gamification, according to influential game-theorist and designer, Jeremy Johnson, is the goal of “making boring stuff fun.”

But gamification is not a unitary concept. According to Johnson, there are several degrees of gamifying something:

  • Cosmetic: this is where gaming principles have been applied to tasks on a surface level only. Cosmetic gamification generally has little influence on people’s behavior.
  • Accessory: adding game-based principles into a pre-existing activity. Examples would be earning badges or points by swiping a loyalty card when making purchases.
  • Integrated: a deeper level of interaction between activity and gaming principle, such as designing tasks from the start to be aligned with point-scoring or achievement tracking. Examples include apps that track sleep patterns and exercise activity.

In the talent selection and assessment space, gamification is a comparatively new kid on the block. Some assessment providers have made forays into the cosmetic and accessory levels of gamification, but few have really designed assessments that use gaming principles in a truly integrated way.

What is game-based?

The final degree of gamification is to merge the activity with the game, what we would refer to as a game-based task or tool. Here, no distinction is made between game and non-game activities. They are one in the same.

Flight simulators are good examples of such applications. On one level, the simulator is an enjoyable game with many gaming principles such as point scoring, “leveling up” and so on. But on an entirely different level, flight simulators can be used to observe, train, and assess pilot competencies.

In the IO world, game-based assessments are either pre-existing games adapted to measure a set of competencies, or purpose-built tests that are games with a measurement layer integrated into their design.

Why game-based?

The most popular promise of game-based and gamified assessments is that using this format of delivery might increase the test-taker’s motivation and enjoyment in completing assessments. This may seem especially true for Millennial candidates, who are highly accustomed to (and therefore expect) more dynamic and digitally-integrated forms of interaction.

In addition, proponents of game-based assessment argue that games are complex, and thus capable of measuring several behaviours and/or abilities at once, saving clients time and money.

Despite the claims, research studies substantiating these benefits are still difficult to find. In part, it is due to the relative rarity and novelty of game-based assessments in the market as well as methodologies of measurement that have yet to be fully described or understood.

Challenges and obstacles

While game-based assessment may seem like a panacea for the IO Practitioner, we need to be aware of possible risks and challenges:

  • The advantages of game-based assessments are also potentially their greatest limitation.
    To unravel all the behaviors, judgements, and skills measured by even a relatively simple game can be very difficult indeed. It is for instance not clear how construct validity or discriminant validity would be established in such measures.
  • In an effort to make assessment processes as gamified and Millennial-friendly as possible, measurement rigor cannot be allowed to suffer. The relative paucity of research on gamified and game-based assessments warrants a cautious approach for IO Practitioners who are interested in using such tools in their talent decision processes.

Final thoughts and next steps

Integrating exciting new technologies into the domain of IO Psychology and assessments is, as we’ve argued in previous articles, not only potentially favorable for the profession but also inevitable. Staying the same and clinging to the status quo in an ever-changing world is a sure-fire pathway to obsolescence and irrelevance.

At TTS, we are cautiously optimistic about the integration (on whatever level) of games and assessments. Certainly, we as IO Practitioners need to take the candidate experience seriously, something that has often been ignored in more traditional forms of assessment.

In addition, we will come under increasing pressure from clients to deliver more relevant, more advanced, and more dynamic assessment solutions. But we will also need to ensure that the rigor and scientific credibility that our profession is based on remain intact.

If you would like to continue the conversation on gamified and game-based assessments, or if you’re interested in how TTS can help you make better talent decisions, why not drop us a line at