Is it game over for gamification?
By Nicola Heath
Not long ago, gamification was touted as the only way to reach millennials, with proponents arguing that it could be applied to every aspect of work. Since then, cracks have appeared and lessons have been learnt.
You may not realise it, but gamification is everywhere. Retail loyalty programs allocate us points for purchases. Smartphone apps track our progress towards a goal on leaderboards. We earn virtual badges for completing online training courses at work.
The concept of gamification, a phrase coined by computer programmer Nick Pelling in 2002, emerged as a trend in the early 2000s. In 2005, Rajat Paharia founded Bunchball, one of the first digital engagement platforms to integrate game mechanics into enterprise systems.
Buzz quickly followed. Early proponents of gamification – the application of game design to solve real-world problems – saw it as a universal tool to motivate, engage and change behaviour.
Despite its ubiquity, nearly two decades later many believe that gamification was a fad. But has gamification failed to deliver on its promise? Or is it still on track to change the world?
Kerstin Oberprieler, cofounder and lead gamification designer at PentaQuest, is one of gamification’s true believers.
“Games hack your brain,” she told the audience in a 2017 TEDx Talk. “They activate your limbic system and release feel-good hormones. That’s what makes games so popular, so engaging and so powerful.”
Gamification is applied to a variety of areas in the workplace, including learning and development, logistics and production, performance management, and recruitment and engagement.
The science of gamification is grounded in psychology and behavioural economics.
“Gamification taps into deep psychological motivations and needs, and harnesses these to increase engagement, learning, and behavioural changes,” Oberprieler told HRM.
Gamification brings an element of playfulness into the workplace, she says. “Rather than treating people like numbers, gamification can increase engagement and social interaction. It’s also been shown to increase performance, productivity, clarity on team goals, cultural alignment and more.”
Oberprieler points to devices such as FitBit and Apple Watch that use game mechanics to encourage people to be more active. “Just as these mechanics can incentivise people to be better with their health, gamification in the workplace can encourage people to develop professionally, participate more in organisational initiatives, and say ‘thank you’ to one another.”
Critics of mainstream gamification point out that it tends to rely solely on extrinsic rewards delivered by simple game mechanics such as points, badges and leaderboards, known in the industry by the acronym PBL. However, it is intrinsic rewards – the recognition, personal achievement, responsibility, fun and mastery that tend to be a feature of job design – that most often lead to long-term motivation.
“Gamification is often presented as a bit of a quick fix,” says Dr Jason Fox, author of The Game Changer, a book about the relationship between game design and motivation science. On the surface, gamification gives the sense that we can control and influence human behaviour using incentives, rewards and feedback mechanisms
“That’s quite appealing when you are an HR leader who is looking after a lot of different people. You want to influence them to shape behaviours within a culture,” says Fox.
“Where gamification falls short, and most HR leaders would know this, is that organisations and human interactions are complex. There are a lot of nuances that we just can’t account for, and there are no one-size-fits-all systems that are going to work effectively across changing landscapes or complex domains.”
Although sceptical of the claims made about gamification’s potential to benefit organisations, Fox believes it has a place in the workplace in the right context, such as onboarding employees or training staff in a new system.
“If you have a large piece of routine work that needs to get done and it’s difficult to get people excited about it, you can apply the philosophies of gamification to make that temporary work a little bit more challenging and fun,” he says. “It’s not ongoing work, it’s not complex. It’s short-term, it’s fairly simple, there are easily measurable results, and it’s the type of work that in and of itself isn’t necessarily motivating.”
What gamification won’t do is change culture in a sustainable and meaningful way, he says.
That doesn’t mean gamification is only useful in the short term. Good game design means exploring what motivates the person whose behaviour we want to change, whether it’s a customer or an employee.
“A good game is a goal-driven, challenge-intense and feedback-rich experience geared towards progress,” says Fox. “There’s always a goal, there are rules at play about things that you can do and can’t do, and there are feedback loops.”
Kevin Werbach, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says that “in a good game, the points and the leaderboards aren’t what really matter. The true reward is the journey,” he says. “Gamification systems that emphasise progression, provide well-designed informational feedback, and look for ways to surprise and delight their players can remain engaging for the long haul.”
Steve Dale outlines parameters for gamification’s success in the article ‘Gamification: Making work fun, or making fun of work?’
“Good gamification design should be user-centric and not mechanism-centric,” he writes.
An organisation must tie gamification to its business objectives and identify the behaviours it wants to change. It also needs to define how success will be measured before it is implemented. Many designers fall into the trap of focusing on the technology first and the needs of the user second.
Fox suggests asking a series of questions when analysing the success of a gamified experience. Does gamification contribute to a sense of progress? Does it make it easier for people to perform meaningful work? Or does it create more ‘noise’ that gets in the way of the work that matters?
Gamification that seeks to change behaviour for the better can have the opposite effect. An organisation that wants to create a safer working environment, for example, might install a sign that tracks the number of days since a lost-time injury. This type of gamification incorporates an objective goal, visibility of progress and clear feedback loops.
“What the sign is supposed to say is, ‘Look how safe we are,’” says Fox. Initially, it works. It unites employees in the goal to achieve the desired behaviour. However, if workplace safety is incentivised – through, say, bonuses or rewards for achieving a certain number of days injury-free – then a subculture may develop where what might be a legitimate lost-time injury isn’t reported in order to meet the target.
Introducing goals into a complex environment like this can result in unintended – and undesired – consequences. In other words, the use of game mechanics can be too effective.
“If these goals or targets are incentivised, there’s also the increased likelihood of unethical behaviour.”
In other settings, gamification that deploys one-on-one competition can have a demotivating effect on some individuals, reducing performance and engagement.
In 2008, management at the Disneyland Resort Hotel in California introduced an electronic tracking system to measure the productivity of its laundry workers. A scoreboard tracked each employee’s progress in real-time. Instead of a boost to productivity, the new system harmed workplace culture.
Morale suffered as workers competed against each other to meet ever-increasing targets, skipping bathroom breaks and ultimately suffering more injuries.
It’s a warning that simple game mechanics such as incentivised goals should be treated as prescription-strength medicine and not something doled out over the counter, says Fox.
The ideal game
Gamification advocates believe gamified experiences have the potential to drive large-scale social change.
Jaime Garcia, a lecturer in games development and co-director at UTS Games Studio, has developed several projects that use gamification to improve health outcomes. One is Project ELAINE, an asynchronous exergame (where the gameplay and the desired activity occur at different times) designed to promote physical activity among seniors.
Another, StepKinnection, uses an interactive video game as both a clinical assessment tool and a training program to help prevent falls among the elderly. Encouraging patients to engage in regular self-directed healthy behaviours is difficult without the right motivation.
“Motivation is one of the biggest issues in the health-related context,” says Garcia, but he believes gamification can help solve the problem.
Oberprieler says gamification can address today’s critical problems because it focuses on behaviour change. “As technology develops, the gamified experiences will also become more sophisticated and utilise technologies such as AR, AI and virtual reality,” she says.
Oberprieler has developed a framework to discuss the different tiers of gamification, which she outlined in her TEDx Talk. The first two are the most common: playful design, where there are no rules and users engage for a moment, and transactional gamification, where individuals motivated by simple mechanics complete a task.
Less common, and more aspirational, are the third and fourth tiers: social gamification, which targets long-term organisation objectives and complex social behaviours such as collaboration and innovation; and systemic gamification, or gamifying at scale.
Gamification at the playful design level won’t change the world, says Oberprieler. More impactful behavioural and social change relies on third and fourth tiers of gamification. “There’s more to gamification than badges and competition. It has the potential to help us achieve great things together.”
That gamification survived beyond its faddish moment seems proof that it will continue to be a workplace tool. Whether it realises the loftier goals of its advocates seems much less certain.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of HRM magazine.