As we welcome in the new decade, we search for new opportunities to engage, motivate and satisfy employees.

Find out how the ‘suspension of disbelief’ and immersive technology can transform corporate training.

From the very first game design book I read as a child (extra nerdy, I know!), I haven’t stopped telling people about the incredible power of games, and years later nothing has changed. Games have proven that they can challenge society’s preconceptions, change lives, and even revolutionise the world.

But when people would ask me, “Why games?”, I light up and respond with, “Because of the magic circle, of course!”. It’s a response usually met with curiosity, however any opportunity to delve into the magic circle always brings me joy — it gives an amazing glimpse into why games are and will always be so important in our society.

A concept widely used in video games, the magic circle describes a place we visit in our psyches that has its own rules — it is also known as the ‘suspension of disbelief’. The magic circle outlines the fundamental boundaries of play, it defines the rules, mechanics, setting, objectives and player roles in any game, digital or real-world. Although the magic circle is an artificial construct: when a player enters and then leaves the magic circle they return to the real-world with newfound skills, knowledge, and motivations.

Gamification Today
Now as the co-founder and executive director of a Sydney game development studio, I’ve made it my mission to help leaders and executives solve their business problems with Applied Games (games applied to purposes outside entertainment e.g. education, training or marketing). In recent years more employers have been eager to implement gamification into their overall business strategy, a 2019 study by TalentLMS reveals that:

  • 😃 Employees say gamification makes them feel more productive (89%) and happier (88%) at work.
  • 😎 83% of those who receive gamified training feel motivated, while 61% of those who receive non-gamified training feel bored and unproductive.
  • 🤑 78% of respondents say that gamification in the recruiting process would make a company more desirable.

The rise and popularity of gamification have paved the way for some of the most innovative business solutions out there today, however, despite its widespread success and growing market, we’re seeing gamification be misused in the workplace by lazy businesses and uninspired employees and customers.

Google News Badges is an example of gamification completely backfiring as the badges and achievements had no perceived value to the reader, leading to the campaign open to ridicule by existing users.

Google News Badges for the recently deceased Google+

The reality is, gamification is no longer a trendy buzzword, certain practitioners are arguing that it’s already reached its peak in usefulness and effectiveness in business contexts. Gamification today is often trivialized and too focussed on implementing pointless badges and repetitive achievements as seemingly quick and easy tricks that ultimately fail in achieving long term retention, engagement, and satisfaction.

So as we welcome in a new decade, how can we reinvigorate and reimagine gamification for future applications?

Evolution of Video Games

Let’s take a quick look at video games, they have continuously evolved since the first-ever video game Spacewar! in 1962.

👾 1970s — 1980s: Release of arcade classics like Space Invaders and Pac Man

🎮 1990s: Launch of console games like Super Mario World and Mortal Kombat

📱 2000s: Advent of mobile gaming like Angry Birds and Plants VS Zombies

2010s: Rise of AR & VR gaming like Pokemon Go and Beat Saber

There’s no denying games have evolved in graphic integrity, sophistication, and technological design.

Gamification in the Future

As passionate game designers and developers, we believe there is so much more to gamification than leaderboards, achievements, and badges. Video game leader boards can be traced back to 1978 where players were able to immortalize their high score on the Space Invaders, Activision sent iron-on patches as achievements for players with the highest scores in 1982, both game design tactics used to motivate players for decades. However, present-day companies are still implementing these repetitive and tiresome gamification tactics — we believe to truly innovate in this field we must explore past, current, and future video game design frameworks and techniques and discover new and exciting trends for gamification for training.

The magic circle is just one game design concept among the myriad that has the power to, dare I say, bring the magic back to gamification in the workplace. Applied games fuelled by the magic circle can increase engagement, enhance productivity and improve communication through an immersive platform. Modern game design and advanced technology is the key to amplifying and refining the effectiveness of gamification for training purposes.

Join me as we explore the wealth of knowledge that contemporary game design has to offer, I’ll delve into why the magic circle matters today and how it can be used to breathe life into your business in 2020 and beyond.

Defining the Magic Circle

The Magic Circle is a fundamental concept in entertainment and media, it is the space in which the normal rules and reality of the world are suspended and replaced by the artificial reality of a game world.

The origin of the phrase ‘Magic Circle’ can be attributed to Dutch writer Johan Huizinga, he wrote in Homo Ludens, A Study of the Play-Element in Culture:

“The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

Huizinga was one of the first pioneers to define the ‘play’ framework, however, the term ‘Magic Circle’ was officially coined by Eric Zimmerman and Frank Lantz in 1999 and popularized by Zimmerman and Katie Salen in 2003.

The magic circle is applied to games in all forms, not just video games. The best example of the magic circle is explained by Chariot Rider:

“Imagine two people in the same room with a chess set. If they aren’t playing a game of chess, it doesn’t really matter how the board and its pieces are arranged, because outside of the game the pieces have no meaning or value. However, once the game begins then everything changes. Suddenly, it matters where pieces are positioned on the board and who has the ability to move a piece, pieces are no longer wooden figurines, they are now, knights, kings and queens. The relationship between the players also changes, while before they were friends now they are enemies locked in battle. What transpired in this scenario? Well, the player’s just entered the magic circle.”

Chariot Rider also goes on to highlight that, the magic circle illustrates that all games in some way are artificial constructs, even games that take place entirely in the real world, they always follow a special set of rules that define how the game works.

At its core, the magic circle is a simple trick of the mind, what you call a quirk of human psychology, yet fundamental to how we used to learn in ancient times, how our children learn today, and how everyone will learn in the future.

Why Does the Magic Circle Matter?

This is a fantastic question because fundamentally, the Magic Circle is knowingly artificial, it’s a ‘psychological bubble’ and no matter how moving the narrative or how believable the world, at the end of the day we return to our actual lives. James from Extra Credit poses an interesting question about the magic circle:

“How is it that we as human beings can do this incredible thing where we can temporarily transport ourselves to a place where can believe in things we know are fictitious — where we can find important things that don’t have any real impact on our lives, that doesn’t put bread on the table, or find us shelter or advance our careers?”

It’s important to realize that the magic circle is not a concept exclusive to entertainment, it can be utilized in gamification techniques to help solve real-world problems affecting real people. The magic circle allows us to simulate our reality, through game design and technology we can construct a space where we control the narrative, rules, roles and establish the outcomes and objectives, it is then the magic circle then becomes a powerful and effective tool in educating, training, engaging and motivating all kinds of people.

It’s a Motivation and Engagement Engine

Games create intense motivation and authentic engagement for participants, for the simple reason that it’s more fun to engage in structured play than to deal with our lives in the real world. The mandatory rules, boundaries, and objectives set within the magic circle are what drives players to engage, investigate, compete, learn and ultimately accomplish their goals in any game.

It can Tackle Complex Problems

The magic circle is a safe space where players are encouraged to fail and try again, it’s an extended realm for the participant to engage in creative thinking and complex problem-solving. Defined by the rules and curated content, the magic circle can be utilized as a method of learning, training, and development.

Technology is Revolutionising Applied Games

In entertainment, the suspension of disbelief can help immerse you in a fantastical, new world, but what if it can also inspire and motivate you in the workplace? In applied games, people step into the magic circle to explore alternate solutions, build empathy, and engage in creative problem solving through structured play.

As technology evolves, we can construct more advanced virtual, multi-sensory experiences that better immerse users in the magic circle. According to a range of studies from 2016–2019 on AR, VR and mobile technology:

  • 👩🏻‍⚕️ 83% of health executives agree that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will create a new foundation for interaction, communication, and information (2018).
  • 💊 At an insurance company, VR-trained users demonstrated a 90% improvement in job skills accuracy and an 89% improvement in business process execution accuracy compared with the users who were not trained with VR (2019).
  • 📱 70% of the respondents reported improved motivation to learn when they were able to use their mobile devices to navigate the courses (2016).

Here are 2 examples of how the magic circle can be used effectively applied games:

Healthcare and Well-being

  • Bravemind is a clinical, interactive, virtual reality (VR) based exposure therapy tool being used to assess and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The magic circle in Bravemind is a multisensory and immersive environment that allows interactivity that can be tailored to a patient’s needs but also allows clinicians to control, document and measure stimuli and patient responses offering assessment, treatment and research options not available via traditional methods.
Bravemind is revolutionising clinical research and therapy with VR


  • In Their Shoes (an applied game I worked on) is an app that uses mixed reality to simulate some of the pains, emotions, and struggles faced by Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) patients, and helps to build empathy with sufferers. Digital role play scenarios and interactions with actors playing managers, nurses, and healthcare professionals, employees gained unparalleled insight into the impact IBD can have across all aspects of someone’s life, including professional and personal relationships.
In Their Shoes educates and builds empathy through a disruptive and immersive mobile experience

How to Gamify Training with 6 Modern Design Techniques

Now it’s time to deconstruct the elements of the magic circle and explore how we can use it to create gamified training in the workplace. Applied Games have risen in popularity in the last decade because of two trends in modern culture: digitalisation which is the increased access to digital and mobile technologies, and gamification, tactics that include playfulness into our lifestyles.

We need to learn from modern video games on how we can better leverage game design techniques. Proper gamified training procedures must captivate your audience and achieve buy-in.

Although the magic circle has been around for years, it’s not a concept used in gamification today. The magic circle opens up opportunities for today’s workplace training techniques. Modern game design and immersive technology is the key to creating a viable and robust training tool.

Imagine the Sage is the Employer and the Adventurer is the Employee

Here are 6 gamification trends to implement in workplace training 2020 and beyond:

1. Gamified Tutorials Can Improve Ability to Learn

In the context of video games, a tutorial is a level that teaches players the rules and controls of the game. Tutorials present the boundaries of a games’ rules, character roles, and narrative.

In-game tutorials supply quick and easy-to-understand instructions to assist the player in learning the mechanics of a game. So why can’t we apply the basics of game tutorials to how we learn in the workplace?

The average attention span of a human in 2000 was 12 seconds and in 2015 it was 8.25 seconds! This decrease means that people are more disengaged with today’s content, hence the increased demand to innovate in the learning and development space.

Game Tutorials can Offer Contextual Learning and Help Retain Knowledge in the Workplace.

Streamline time-consuming workplace processes like staff onboarding through responsive and personalized game tutorials.

Advanced user experience (UX) design and deep learning algorithms can create responsive tutorials. Tutorials are ideal for personalized learning and can adapt as the employee progresses in knowledge and skills. This is perfect as 99% of employees prefer to learn at their point of need and 58% prefer to learn at their own pace.

How a Personalised, Responsive LMS has Helped Train On-Demand Nurses

Villa St Vincent use iSpring Learn to train their Nursing Assistants. An easy to use Learning Management Software (LMS) with the ability to gamify and offer rewards for their learners. Users have control over the content, can gauge progress and feel success on their learning path. Offering a library of knowledge in many formats, iSpring Learn streamlines information to employees when they need it.

iSpring Learn: Easy and intelligent software that streamlines staff learning and training

2. Progressive Interfaces can Improve Long Term Retention

A progressive interface describes the gradual; visual process of development towards a more advanced, intricate state. In video games, diegetic and non-diegetic describes the in-game user interface. The diegetic interface is included in the game world and can be seen, heard and touched by the game characters. The non-diegetic interface is rendered outside the game world, only visible, audible and interactive to the players in the real world.

In mobile games, as the user completes missions and makes progress towards their goals, the in-game screen visually evolves to reflect their growth and advancement.

Progressive Interfaces can Boost Long Term Retention and Drive Aspiration

A progressive interface can be leveraged in gamification as it reinforces good behaviour. It rewards progress by making users’ achievements instantly recognisable, thus satisfying.

Advancing one’s skills in the workplace can be daunting and time-consuming. Training in leadership and management development requires high-levels of effort, time and resources. Progressive interfaces can help visualise goals through an interactive and engaging format. It encourages long-term retention because users are driven to progress to achieve their goals.

3. Roleplay Can Improve Communication

Roleplaying is the changing of one’s behavior to assume a role. In roleplay, we explore a given situation in action and try out a variety of responses to it.

Roleplay proves to be essential for the mental and social development of children. But what about the continued development of adults? Folks are happy to dedicate a few hours on the weekend to an action-packed session of Dungeons & Dragons and level up their Dragonborn Paladin. But are they willing to engage in role-play at work in level up their skills?

Workplace Role Play can help Build Confidence, Empathy, and Teamwork through Communication

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) programs are ideal for compliance and safety training. They imitate real-world scenarios and problems in the workplace through computer simulation. VR and AR apps are now more accessible, affordable, collaborative and widespread. Today, Immersive technology is a powerful tool for professional training.

Roleplay powered by technology can improve employee confidence as it removes inhibitions and fear of failure. VR-trained staff learns skills that directly translate into solutions for real-world problems.

Oculus Rift Sensors can pick up and translate body language and other types of non-verbal communication. So a customer service trainee can use immersive role-play to read greetings, body language, appropriate tone of voice to train themselves on the best way to deal with customer complaints.

How Technology-Driven Role Play has Improved Confidence in Stressful Situations

Walmart and STRIVR designed a VR training program for highly stressful and overwhelming events like Black Friday and emergencies like active shooter situations. Employees can practice their communication and problem-solving skills in VR as often as they’d like, without the risks.

Walmart VR training in action: Helping staff improve communication and problem solving

4. Interactive Storytelling Can Improve Creative Thinking

Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, and images. Video game storytelling is the art of interweaving narrative, design, and mechanics in a way that immerses the player in the experience.

Brands use storytelling in their marketing campaigns to captivate customers. Stories are 22 times more memorable than facts & figures alone. Our neural activity increases 5X when listening to a story as the sensory cortex in the brain that lights up, allows the listener to feel, hear, taste, and even smell the story.

Immersive Storytelling can Break Down Complex Issues and Drive Creative Problem-Solving

In this digital age, interactive storytelling has the power to transcend the user’s experience. Whilst storytelling in print and film is linear and static — VR and AR visualisation offers viewers the choice and freedom to explore and learn in their own way.

Companies use organizational storytelling as a powerful way to communicate their core values to their staff, build trust, drive change and keep everyone invested in outcomes. The ultimate goal is to inspire and motivate employees on all levels. Engaging in storytelling also improves vocabulary, communication, comprehension, sequencing, memory, and listening skills.

Futurist and AR expert, Cathy Hackl says, “Storytelling is expanding. It’s expanding beyond the 2D flat surfaces to telling stories with 3D and Augmented Reality.” Storytelling has evolved alongside technology and is the best way to capture hearts and minds.

How Immersive, Digital Storytelling has Helped Train Overwhelmed Cruise Ship Staff

Seabourn offers intimate, ultra-luxury cruises that sail to worldwide destinations. Their patrons expect world-class service and sophisticated hospitality. To meet these demands, Seabourn and Pixvana created TableVision a VR training solution for new employee onboarding. It is the most effective way to train staff but is also impactful in instilling company values and inspiring new employees.

VR training program, TableVision helps tell the Seabourn brand narrative in a memorable way

5. Endowed Progress Can Improve Productivity

The endowed progress effect is the idea that if you provide some type of artificial advancement toward a goal, a person will be more motivated to complete the goal.

We’ve all had a coffee card stamped at our local cafe but have you ever noticed that these loyalty programs usually provide you with a head start? Studies have shown that customers who receive free stamps or points will be more engaged with loyalty programs. They complete their cards faster than if they’re provided with a blank loyalty card.

Endowed Progress can Increase Persistence and Encourage Experimentation

Quests are good for creating short, medium, long term goals. Depending on the complexity of the quest, it can be a guide for the player through relevant content.

Mobile games today use daily rewards and achievements to help nudge players in the right direction. This encourages experimentation and can incentivise players to break out of their habits. Humans learn through play and games are hijacking our learning and rewards experience. Quests and daily rewards can be a great way to incentivise the experimentation and discovery of new behaviour.

How a Robust, Intuitive PMS can Help Set Sales Staff on the Right Track

LevelEleven is a Performance Management System (PMS) that offers the entire sales ecosystem a gamified management solution. LevelEleven reinforces the fundamental behaviours that increase productivity and improve results through gamification. Employers can track progress, set attainable goals and motivate their sales staff.

LevelEleven helps sales teams meet their goals through an engaging, intuitive platform

6. Player Assessment Can Establish Motivation

Bartle’s Taxonomy (aka Bartle Player Types) is based on character theory and player behaviour. The classification establishes player personality types based on behavioural patterns, their goals and motivations for playing a game.

The Four Player Types are:

  • 🏆 Achievers, who seek maximum points, new achievements or rewards in games with an ambitious mindset and a wish to be better than others. Achievers are usually self-competing and driven by levels, trophies and personal bests.
  • 🌏 Explorers, who like to explore all aspects of the virtual world. They also enjoy discovering all possibilities of gameplay, they are typically very curious. Explorer’s love to search and take their time, they’re driven by niche unlocks and discovery of the unknown.
  • 😍 Socializers, who see games as just another way of connecting to people and making friends. Socialisers crave communication and are driven by community and friends lists.
  • 😈 Killers, display aggressive and competitive behavior. They aim to eliminate other players in the virtual world. Killers focus solely on winning and are driven by leaderboards and ranks.

Player Assessment can Reveal Motivations and Behaviour and Help Improve Employee Engagement

Bartle’s Taxonomy is perfect for an inclusive gamification design. It’s an effective tool that helps build engagement and understand employee behaviour and motivations.

Enterprise corporations need to continually engage and motivate employees. A variety of incentives are needed to appeal to different types of employees; achievements and rewards may satisfy your achievers however could disengage and de-motivate your socialisers. For example, a stock brokerage will potentially have killers and achievers due to the competitive nature of the business, whilst a not-for-profit charity might have more socialisers and explorers who value community and connections. It’s imperative to consider your business ecosystem when designing gamification solutions.

Using the Bartle player-type model as a filter for any gamification initiatives is a great way to find out what motivates your employees. Inspired by behavioural and motivational psychology, games are challenge, anticipation and reward engines.

In conclusion

Gamification will always be relevant and effective. As long as we draw from the wealth of experience and knowledge in today’s interactive era. Workplace play helps employees improve their productivity, cognitive skills, communication, and creative thinking.

Key Takeaways

  • 🎮 Games rely on the suspension of disbelief to captivate the player and maintain their attention. This is lacking in most gamification initiatives today.
  • 👍🏻 Companies are seeing real, positive results from pushing the boundaries of technology and gamification.
  • 🚀 We should continue to study contemporary game design and emerging technology. It’s the only way to improve gamification for 2020 and beyond.

Augmented reality, virtual reality, and mobile experiences are opening the doors to dynamic and sustainable gamification. Immersive learning and training offer unprecedented enrichment in work life and culture.

In today’s workplace, gamification still has a significant impact on employee engagement, motivation, and psychology:

  • 💪🏻 89% believe they’d be more productive if their work was more gamified.
  • 🙌🏻 78% of the respondents say that gamification in the recruiting process would make a company more desirable.

Article first published on Medium on December 2019.