The value of gamifying CPE learning

Hosted by Neil Amato

Kelly Richmond Pope, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., is an accountant and a professor. She’s also a storyteller and TEDx speaker. Keeping people engaged is a better way to educate, said Pope, an associate professor at DePaul University’s School of Accountancy and MIS in Chicago. In this JofA podcast episode, Pope discusses another way to keep learners engaged: gamification. Turning learning into a game helps with the recall and understanding of new concepts, whether in a college classroom or continuing professional education for accountants.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Examples of gamification that are already part of our daily lives.
  • How learning to drive a stick-shift car applies to gamification.
  • Why gamification is not just for younger generations.
  • How COVID-19 has disrupted traditional CPE and how virtual meetings could be better for learning in some cases.
  • How a speaker’s style can help maximize learning through PowerPoint slide presentations.
  • The ways organizations can gamify CPE-worthy content such as podcasts or TED Talks.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at


Editor’s note: The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this podcast episode. Kelly Richmond Pope and Neil Amato initially recorded an episode on this topic in February, before COVID-19. They had a follow-up Zoom call in October to help listeners understand the latest on this topic. This is a merged version of those conversations.

Amato: Joining me as a repeat guest on the Journal Accountancy podcast, Kelly Richmond Pope. Kelly, thank you for being here.

Pope: Thank you for having me again, Neil.

Amato: We’re talking today about gamification, maybe specifically gamification of CPE, but first, how would you define gamification?

Pope: Well, gamification means that we are applying game mechanics to nongame activities. So in other words, we’re just making learning fun, and we all like a good game. Like, tell me what your favorite game is? Hide-and-go-seek?

Amato: Oh man, that’s tough — five-card draw poker. I don’t know; I’m just making stuff up. How about blackjack?

Pope: OK, blackjack. Tell me what you like about blackjack. How does it make you feel?

Amato: Well, it’s fun, but it’s also challenging, it challenges my mind.

Pope: See, and that’s what gamification of anything should be. And so that’s why it works so well for CPE learning because it challenges us, it’s fun, it’s competitive, and that’s why we should do more of it.

Amato: I’m horrible at answers by the way, especially when I don’t know I’m getting questioned right off the bat! Wow. Is gamification just for younger generations that grew up with video games and mobile devices? I think people have that sense of it.

Pope: I don’t think so. I don’t think gamification is for the young. I think gamification is for everyone. Everyone loves a great game: crossword puzzles, playing solitaire. Those are games, and it’s universal. So why shouldn’t we incorporate it into our learning paths?

Amato: So how, what is it about games that you think makes it more suitable for learning?

Pope: Well, there’s a couple things I think that make games suitable. One, it increases retention and it increases retention because oftentimes the moves are repetitive. I think it changes behaviors, and it creates a culture. It creates a healthy culture I think of competition, of communicating, and something to really look forward to. So what I love about games is games encourage interaction. They often introduce humor, seriousness. I mean it’s just a combination of all the right ways we need to feel when we’re learning something.

Amato: Why should CPE — continuing professional education — be gamified?

Pope: I think that CPE should be gamified because when we think about the overall objective of why we are requiring professionals to get CPE, it’s because we want them to learn new skills, to retain new skills, to take them to their job. Gamification allows or increases engagement. You increase engagement, you increase retention. You increase retention, then you’re to take those new skills and put them to use on the job day one. So if gamification allows us to do it better, to retain better, why wouldn’t we do it?

Just think about how frequently you remember something when you just hear a person talking at you versus when you’re actively engaged in doing something how you remember it better. So you know we could use a really basic example. If somebody told you how to drive stick-shift car versus you trying to drive a stick-shift car, which way are you going to remember better? You’re going to remember when you’re behind the wheel trying and messing up the gears and trying to do it versus someone saying, “Well all you have to do is switch the gears when your foot feels this way.” It doesn’t work as well; it doesn’t work as effectively. So gamification is the example of us actually driving a car, because you’re playing and you’re actively involved in doing something.

Amato: That is a really good example of why it’s important to have that more hands-on approach, as opposed to just talking. You know, in our old model, maybe a person in front of a ballroom, and our newer model or current model I guess, the webinar where it’s just one person, so yeah.

Pope: If I said to you, “Neil, we’re going to do a 50-minute lecture on revenue recognition” and you’d say, “OK, here I come, I’m going to learn about revenue recognition, great.” Versus if I say, “OK, Neil, there is this organization that’s experiencing some financial loss, and we’re going to investigate and try to figure out why their corporate leaders may be trying to recognize revenue too soon or too quickly and we’re going to try to solve this case. We are going to go through all this data in trying to solve this case. We’re going to meet all these various suspects and you’re going to read these suspect cards and try to figure out this issue.”

Now I didn’t tell you what the issue is, but I created a story around the issue. Now you’re intrigued. You’re like, “OK, game on” versus, “OK, I’m going to learn about revenue recognition.”

So I think that it’s the way our minds are developed to just get intrigued when you hear a story. When someone says, “Let me tell you this story that happened to me,” you’re automatically interested.

Amato: You are automatically interested when it’s a story, and that is a really good example.

Regarding teamwork as it relates to gamification, it seems like there is value beyond simply that everyone gets trained. Like, if your team has to go to the webinar on revenue recognition, it might not be as effective and also in this new virtual environment where many of us are separated, I guess, how, how can gamification help kind of build teamwork skills?

Pope: I think that working together is always beneficial. One, you are able to approach and attack a problem more efficiently and quicker, and then you’re able to build relationships with people that you would not otherwise have built.

I think our virtual space — it’s not new, we’re just using it more. I think that we have to start embracing what was already around us; we just didn’t use it as much. So what I think that what we’re doing now is we’re figuring out more efficient ways to gather, to meet, to network, and save a little bit of money, too, at the same time. So I think that the team environment or the team aspect of gaming just is really icing on the cake, because you are interacting with people that you might not have ever interacted with.

What if you were in a virtual investigation with people all over the country or all over the world at the same time? You could never achieve that in a face-to-face workshop. So there are some huge benefits of using this virtual space in a team environment, using a game. You’re trying to solve something. Granted, you may have some time-difference issues, but if everybody’s willing, you could have a team of five trying to investigate a case, someone could be in Canada, someone could be in Australia, someone could be in China, someone could be where? You name it, they could be it, but they could all be in that virtual space together. Now tell me how you can create that face-to-face. You can’t. So I think we are seeing how we can be more effective in the virtual space that was always around us anyway.

Amato: For listeners, a little background: Kelly and I originally recorded this topic right before COVID-19, and so we’ve gone back and adapted it because we are in a new environment, and some of the examples — we hate to say, they just weren’t as relevant. So these are good examples of how people can think about the digital environment.

Karl Kapp, an author and professor said of gamification, I say way back in 2014, really when you think about it, it was a long time ago that people were talking about gamification as it relates to CPE, even. He said, “You want to create training that is not too easy and not too hard. The problem is that sometimes we spoon-feed our learners.” What do you think about that as it relates to continuing professional education or as our colleagues in other parts of the world sometimes say, CPD, continuing professional development?

Pope: Well, I think that spoon-feeding information, you know, it’s like, “Oh, just give me the PowerPoint slides and I’ll read them later.” It’s the fact that the delivery is so inefficient that it’s easier just to spoon-feed it, “Just give it to me.” So I think if you can create energy, excitement, intrigue — you don’t have that feeling.

I think that when I think about the way I manage my class, I offer a lot of answers, but I do it in such a unique delivery that it doesn’t feel spoon-fed, because ultimately what’s the goal? The goal is to learn something new. So if I tell you what I want you to learn, that’s fine if I just give it to you, but if I take you through a journey, through an experience of how you get it, then that’s what you remember.

So I think the spoon-fed comment comes from the fact that the delivery was so terrible and so dull that you’re just like, “Just give it to me so it can be over with.” We don’t want that. We want to change that.

Amato: What are some examples of how gamification can work in practice?

Pope: Well, I’m going to give an example outside of accounting. Have you ever checked into a restaurant to get points? That’s a game, because you are doing to get a reward at the end. So it creates loyalty. It creates a pattern. Then when you get that gift, that reward at the end, you’re so excited. So why not put it in accounting? Why not put it into accounting learning? Why not put it into accounting education? I mean, why not?

I think oftentimes we have this feeling that if we’re having too much fun, we can’t be learning and I think that’s so far from the truth. Actually if we are having fun, you probably are learning, because you’re at ease and you’re retaining what you did and it creates these wonderful memories and then you want to do it again. That’s the beauty of gamification, because it enhances engagement.

Amato: Let’s talk specifically about an area of expertise for you, fraud. I think you have an example of how gamification can help organizations better fight fraud, but tell me some about your thoughts on that.

Pope: Well, so my game that I created is called Red Flag Mania. It has a fraud exercise, but it’s not necessarily a fraud game. It’s really a game that encourages engagement, critical thinking. But the whole idea is, how do you identify red flags? How can you spot red flags?

So red flags are everywhere, you know, and it doesn’t always mean that there’s fraud, but teaching people how to spot red flags is really important, so that’s the purpose of the game.

So again, the game is Red Flag Mania, and it’s an immersive, investigative experience where you have a couple things that you’re trying to do. You’re either trying to figure out who’s done something in an organization, so it’s a who-done-it piece, who’s stealing the money? The second piece is called, it’s an audit challenge, where you’re looking and assessing the role that the external auditor played in this organization. Then the third is the money hunt, where you’re trying to look at the fraud schemes that a person was using.

But the cool thing about this is it incorporates a lot of different elements that are in line with game dynamics. For example, you’re viewing photos, you’re searching for information, you are filling, you’re registering, you’re writing comments, you’re participating in discussions, you’re visiting websites, you’re reviewing a film. All this is rolled up into this one experience, which makes it a super cool game. You want to play it now, don’t you?

Amato: I do, I do. I’ve heard a good bit about it but haven’t actually dug into it.

One other aspect of gamification I wanted to touch on today, Karl Kapp, the author and professor I mentioned earlier, said, “People remember facts more accurately if they’re in a story form instead of just in a list.”

Pope: I think that our brains are wired for story. When someone tells you a good story, you remember it. When someone gives you a list of facts, you might remember one of them. So I think that what makes games powerful. You think about video games, they’re story driven, they’re story based, they’re character driven.

So my game is story driven. You know, you meet five different characters, and you go into their lives, and you create emotions around the characters. And so I think you remember the experience better because it taps into emotional connectedness that you don’t have from just looking at a PowerPoint slide, because that’s not what the point is.

Now it’s not that I’m against PowerPoint slides. If you have a good storyteller, good speaker, then you can have a PowerPoint slide. The problem is most of us rely heavily on the text on the slide, and so then it creates this strange and odd disconnect. But when that person said, “Let me tell you a story,” you just perk up. Like if I said, “Neil, let me tell you a story,” you’re like, “Oh God, what is she going to tell me about?” You just perk up in a different way. So I totally agree with the professor. Effective storytelling is more powerful than just listing facts, because it appeals to our emotional side.

Amato: I think we’ve educated the listeners on gamification today. In closing, how can organizations who maybe have not done this but have heard about it, how can they get started on gamification?

Pope: Well, I think that the takeaway is anything can be gamified. You can gamify a podcast by adding some questions to it and giving them points or saying, “If you listen to this podcast and you go search three websites for additional information, the first person that does that gets a prize.” And it could be a Starbucks card. But I think you can gamify lots of content that you don’t realize that you can. You can gamify TED Talks. You can gamify TED-Ed Lessons. You can gamify a documentary. I’ll do a plug: You can gamify All the Queen’s Horses. You can gamify white papers. Because the main thing that you’re trying to do by gamification is encouraging more engagement and that’s what a game does, it encourages engagement. So whatever that is for you, if it’s responding to an e-mail, if it’s filling out a poll, if it’s taking a test at the end, you’re engaging. That’s the main key point is how can we increase engagement, and I think gamification does that the best way.

Amato: Kelly, thank you very much.

Pope: Well, thanks for having me back. You know I think, I think that we are just we’re in — we’re here to stay. This virtual moment is not going to go away. I mean there will be times I think when we will gather again, but I think what we have realized and learned is how to be more efficient with our resources as a result of COVID. And there have definitely been some, some losses that we’ve, we’ve experienced as a country, but there’s going to be some serious gains, too.