Tom Jepson Creative

The Gamification of Online Meetings - First Steps to Greater Engagement


  • Online meetings are a great asset for virtual work but we’re in a place where we’re at risk of ‘meeting apathy’.
  • Gamification is more valuable to our meetings than a ‘traditional’ model of input-reward-repeat: building confidence, inspiring change, promoting collaboration, and introducing healthy competition.
  • Leveraging game concepts to boost and maintain focus and energy in an online meeting was really important to the workshop attendees.
  • We need to introduce ‘good games’ that work for everyone; remember peoples’ own context and comfortability is important for engagement.
  • When you’re choosing your game mechanics, don’t devalue the purpose of a meeting with random activities that bear little relevance to everyone’s goals.

Online meetings can fast become a time-sink and productivity-killer if they’re overused, dry, and one-directional. At this point in 2020, I’d be satisfied to say that we’re all pretty ‘zoomed out’ and are suffering some significant ‘online meeting apathy’. I don’t blame you for feeling this way; I’m right there with you.

I ran a free, collaborative workshop to explore the idea of ‘gamifying’ our online meetings; looking at how game concepts - rewards, structure, collaboration, and co-operation - could play into creating more engaging, effective meetings.

The direction for the session was deliberately broad since it was important that the groups’ thinking was not guided by obvious bias or pre-determined ideas. The only drivers were reducing the ‘negative aspects’ of online meetings and using concepts of gamification to get us there. The subject itself also afforded a perfect opportunity to utilise ‘game mechanics’ within a ‘Design Thinking’ workshop; the session followed, loosely, an ‘LDJ’ (lightning decision jam) format. The beauty of this activity is that it’s flexible and very quick to kickstart to get ideas rolling.

Why gamification? Why now?

Gamification as many people understand it focuses on a model of input-reward-repeat; a common approach for engaging and incentivising an audience to complete a task, rewarding them for successful outcomes. While it can be an effective mechanism to complete a short-term goal and fulfills a lot of what people need from an instant-gratification perspective, it doesn’t necessarily achieve what could be possible from carefully-employed game concepts.

Rewards for short-term gains are trumped by longer-term change and, for us to make really effective changes, we must begin with intent. Whatever we do to achieve a ‘successful outcome’ for a challenge, we can be assured that for the effects to persist beginning with intent-to-change is required.

Since we are heading towards a global, remote-first way of working the effects - both positive and negative - of online meetings are reaching professionals everywhere. Exploring how some businesses are refocusing their structures and on-site requirements - Google, Twitter, Dropbox to name but a few - there is no better time to approach our online meetings as a design challenge with real, tangible outcomes and long-term benefits.

“We’re living and working in a world where virtual collaboration and online communication is the ‘new normal’ and let’s face it; it can be a little draining. It can be tough to engage with any kind of online meeting, let alone one which isn’t fun. We can all get a little bit ‘zoomed out’ from time to time… We want to change that.”

At the beginning of the workshop it was clear that the group had differing perspectives on what gamification is and how it can be used; outside of the standard ‘input/reward’ models, it is important to note that gamification and aspects of play can be used for much more. To build confidence in a team or individual; as a means to inspire change; as a way to learn; as a way to add meaning to rewards; as a way to promote collaboration; and, as a means to add healthy competition amidst a group of potentially unfamiliar people.

For people to benefit from any of these possible outcomes, engagement, and willingness to participate are key. Healthy scepticism of games and ‘play at work’ is fine but a desire to ‘join in and play’ can make the difference between a successful outcome and yet-another-failed-meeting-hack. Something which Jane McGonigal mentions in her exceptional title ‘Reality is Broken’ is that to build true engagement, people often need to feel like they are contributing to something bigger than themselves; a ‘greater good’ or commons.

Have you ever asked ‘What are we really looking to achieve from this meeting?’ before you begin?

It’s with these thoughts that the collaborative session was framed. A group of people focusing on a goal bigger than their own immediate network, a set of constraints, and a story to follow.

Heroes, villains, and power-ups - Gamifying your online meetings

“Taking a journey; telling a story.”

The session was broken into four main parts: The Hero, The Villain, Power-Ups, and an Epic Boss Battle. Framing the workshop in this way gave attendees the opportunity to ‘take a journey’ and feel a sense of achievement when they came out the other side; something especially important when you are asking people to engage freely and share in group participation tasks.

‘The Hero’ tasked our team with thinking up the positive traits of the online meeting; the parts which we’d like to maintain or grow.

‘The Villain’ needed to be identified and called out! The team pooled their resources to list all of the negative, disengaging aspects of online meetings. They voted together to pull out the top 3 worst offenders.

The critical villains from this session were ‘A lack of instant feedback’, ‘Screen fatigue’, and ‘Ease of distraction’.

‘Power-Ups’ were the ideas we could use to battle our villains. Addressing each of the villains in the context of reducing their effect on our online meetings, the team create a list of ideas. The ideas were, again, voted on to find the most fit-for-purpose from the list.

The top power-ups from this session were ‘Use positive icons to show positive agreement without voice’, ‘Do 15 min walking meetings with voice only (as part of online meetings)’, ‘On-screen Reminders to take a quick stand up break!’.

The ‘Epic Boss Battle’ challenged the attendees to level-up their power-ups with a brainwriting session, adding new thoughts and iterations to the initial ideas. It’s in this refinement where true collaboration and deeper ideation can really begin.

Key outcomes

Out of the myriad excellent pain points raised and ideas created by the attendees, the top-level theme was clear: using gamification as a way to improve energy and focus as much as to generate explicit rewards for the people in attendance.

Each of the ideas spoke to a need for changing structures and not treating our online meetings as we might an in-person roundtable. The non-traditional setting for a lot of people - a coffee shop; their bed; a sofa - requires a non-traditional approach to engagement. Self-care, too, in prompting people to pause a session and take a break was seen as important.

The brainwriting Boss Battle expanded on these ideas and really dove into how ‘a game’ could be brought about. Utilising the environment (eg. taking and sharing pictures during breaks) and bringing in other known mechanics (eg. step counters) were suggested to add common elements with which people could engage. We might see these as ‘ice breakers’ rather than explicit games to be played, however, in an effort to boost energy and maintain the potential for engagement I believe the team was on a great track.

A thought relating to this ‘ice-breaking’ theme was that there is a need for ‘good games’. Too many times do people default to the tropes of mockery and gentle fun-poking to ‘break the ice’ in a group. Context is everything when you’re working with a new group of people and, like with all things, what works for one person may not (or will not) work for another. How could this default be avoided in the future? How could we ease into a new group setting without making anyone seriously uncomfortable?

Within our intentions to add new, engaging mechanics and tools to our meeting arsenal, it is vital that we are seeking to maintain the value of our meetings by being selective about the activities we opt to use. Context is everything and just because you can does not mean you should! Don’t devalue the purpose of your meeting with abstract or arbitrary games.

Next steps and actions

Ideas are nothing without action. The attendees from the session each had a recording and the ideas pool we created together; I hope that they are able to refer back to it and explore the potential of some of the gems which came to light.

Having gone through this problem statement once, I feel that it would be worthwhile running it again with a different set of people. The outcome of ‘energy and focus’ was not an intention but definitely a happy place to end up. I wonder what conclusions and priority challenges a different group might reach?

Think about this next time you are working on something ‘fun’ for your team: a great game should be relevant to your goals and doesn’t need to be complex to be effective.

Here’s to engaging meetings and a happy, gamified digital future.