Martial Arts: Breaking the Game Board
You might not immediately think of martial arts when you think of gamification, but like Boy Scouts martial art ranks have a lot in common with levels and gaming experience. My son attends Tae Kwon Do class twice a week, and I’ve learned a lot watching how the instructors have gamified the system for younger kids.

Passing the Grade

Like most martial arts, Tae Kwon has a series of belts to denote mastery. The belts, called grades, easily equate to levels in gamification terms. But it also features a stripe system, applied by adding tape to the belt. These provide intermediate steps to demonstrate progress on the way to the next belt:

In both our Junior Program and our KneeHigh Ninja Program, students earn a number of achievement tapes before advancing in belt rank. This achievement system was developed to help make sure that each child succeeds not just in Tae Kwon Do, but outside as well. The system’s goal is to help develop positive life skills that are “transferable” from the Tae Kwon Do class to home and school. Achievement tapes are a great way to build children’s self-esteem, as well as help them build a positive attitude. They are awarded at the end of class in front of their peers. This is one way Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do uses positive reinforcement in children’s development.

In a fashion similar to the Cub Scouts’ belt loops, belts and stripes readily identify rank when a student walks into a dojo. Everyone knows their relative level to each other by appearance alone. But the most daunting part of martial arts training is the belt test, and everything in class leads up to that moment.

Breaking the Board

In short, each child must perform a certain amount of moves to pass their test.

These can be memorization, recitation, or a physical demonstration – as the child advances, it can be a combination of all three. In my son’s case, the lower belts involve breaking boards.

This is scary stuff, because there’s no fudging it.  You either break a board or you don’t. We made sure my son practiced hard before he went for his green belt test precisely because of the potential public embarrassment of taking the test and failing.

Self-Determination Theory: Competence

Children experience autonomy in that their success or failure is entirely on them. And yet, the dojo is a very encouraging place – students cheer and yell the child’s name whenever he takes on a challenge. It’s a very inclusive, respectful environment that reinforces relatedness. But make no mistake: slacking gets you nowhere.

The biggest need of Self-Determination Theory that tae kwon do fulfills is competence. Higher grades help lower grades. When two kids spar, it becomes clear who trained more. And when they attempt to break boards, the child with the correct technique breaks it.

Businesses could learn something from martial arts and how it values competence. Competence at work is obfuscated, concealed, and sometimes shelved entirely in an attempt to make everybody equal; the consequence is that nobody is really sure who is good at what. This makes people as a resource interchangeable and easily hired or fired, but it doesn’t reflect reality nor does it bring an entire workforce’s skills to bear. 

The "belt" terminology has been adopted by Six Sigma organizations who sort trainees into green belts and black belts. The term loses some of its meaning in application because there is no clear identifier of rank. Six Sigma adopted the belt system without the belts and relatedness suffers as a result. 

If we all walked around wearing belts, it would become clear very quickly. Are the highest ranked leaders in an organization the most competent? And if so, is there a test we can all agree on to prove it?

Join me at the Enterprise Gamification Forum on Wednesday, October 7 to explore this topic further at my session, “From Kids to Kidults: Gamification as We Grow Up (or Don’t)”. Use code “SPK1015” and my name for a 50% discount!

This article was made possible by my amazing patrons. Want more? Join us on Patreon for just $1/month; follow me on FacebookGoogle+LinkedinPinterestTwitter, and the web; buy my books: The Evolution  of Fantasy Role-Playing Games, The Well of Stars, and  Awfully Familiar. Thanks for reading!