Will Gamification Lead to Performance Improvement? It Depends…

“Gamification”, the application of game design to non-game applications in an attempt to make them more engaging and entertaining, seems to be one of the hottest trends in business.

You can look it up.
(Casey Stengel)

For several years, organizations have been studying human behavior with the zeal of sociologists and psychologists (they even employ behavioral scientists). They know, from years of study, that we are predisposed toward activities that seem less like work and more like entertainment. That’s why they’ve employed game mechanisms — to give customers a sense of fun and excitement as they work towards specific goals.

One of the earliest examples of commercial gamification is the “frequent flier program”, wherein a patron accumulates enough miles with one airline and is rewarded by that airline with a free trip. For centuries, teachers have incorporated games into lesson plans to heighten children’s interest and coax them towards higher achievement.

Now, companies like IBM and Deloitte Touche are being encouraged to employ games to get their workers through rote, mundane, or tedious tasks and/or improve their performance through competition. Gartner, a technology research company, estimates that 70% of large companies will gamify at least one of their business processes to improve personnel performance within the next three years.

No doubt – gamification is hot. But, so what? What’s your motivation for implementing gamification besides “everyone else is doing it.” In other words, do you have a gamification plan and is it compatible with the overall business plan of your organization?

The man, the legend - Mario ((c) Nintendo)

When people say, “We’re going to gamify…”, I get just a little queasy. When they throw in “…we’re going to leverage our greatest assets…”, I get more than a little nauseous. Why is that? Oh, any number of reasons, including…

  • The plug can be suddenly pulled on the game at any time and the players left with no way to cash in their rewards. How many times has this been threatened or done by various airlines? What would prevent an employer from doing the same thing if they don’t think they’re getting what they want? Or, if the company’s cash flow dries up?
  • You have to keep improving on the games. You can’t stay in one spot forever. People are conditioned to this — they expect more and/or different rewards, new plot twists, new characters they can identify with. It’s not just about engagement – it’s also about status. It’s not like an addiction, though. Let the games get stale and your employees will lose interest quickly.
  • What does gamification mean to your overhead? Well, you can outsource game development but you’ll still pay quite a bit to keep employees locked in over the long run. Will it be worth your outlay?
  • People react with initial enthusiasm to games but rarely does that level of excitement stay high for an indefinite period.
  • Generally, men enjoy different games in different ways from women. Of course, there are exceptions but aren’t they typically a small percentage of the population? (Men, how many of you are into Farmville-style games? Women, how about Battlefield 3 or Assassin’s Creed?) And what about cultural differences (not uncommon, even in the smallest companies)?
  • People who do well at game playing aren’t necessarily the best managers or leaders.

  • The rewards offered may not be appropriate or desirable. (Foursquare badges? I don’t need no stinkin’ badges.) If they’re not, you’ll lose your audience quickly (that is, if you ever had them).
  • Rewarding people for work they’ve already agreed to do (for example, giving a salesperson a bonus for filling out their order forms completely) is problematic.
  • Gamification may be helpful when it’s used to train people who don’t respond well to traditional teaching methods but it’s much less likely to work with people who are self-motivated to a high degree. Games may have the opposite of the desired effect, in their case.
  • Be careful of asking people for more than they’re willing to give to get your rewards. If given the choice, some people would prefer not to play such games. If not given the choice, they will probably resist or leave at the first opportunity. In any case, the people who are asked to participate in games — especially gaming in the workplace — should have a voice in the matter.
  • Some learn how to “game the system” — look at the money people spend on “cheat codes”. They’re even encouraged to spend extra time or money to get 2x, 3x, and more points. The wrong type of behavior is being rewarded.
  • As long as we’re talking about cheating, what makes you think it wouldn’t happen with one of your gamified processes? People still embezzle, don’t they? And where does most harm to the company’s information systems and infrastructure originate? (That’s right — from within.)
  • Gamification for the purpose of prodding performance (hence, winners and…not winners) isn’t what drives the most popular games in use now. People want to share…socialize…interact, so you have to think about how to involve everyone and make everyone a winner.

There are other issues involved with gamification that are common to any kind of business system or process, such as:

  • Are the correct measures being used to assess performance and quality?
  • Is gamification preferable to automation?

To avoid potential problems stemming from gamification, make sure you’re clear on its purpose. Why do you want to gamify certain processes? What are the goals you want to achieve through gamification? And, are those goals compatible with the goals of your organization?

So, will gamification lead to improved employee performance and better outcomes? The best answer is “maybe, but it depends…”.



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