Game over: Has gamification failed?

Gamification was a trendy idea that largely failed to offer the purported benefits. Here’s how it often goes wrong in the work environment and how to use game mechanics successfully.

Image: VectorMine/Adobe Stock

Gamification is one of those ideas that seems elegant in its simplicity. At its core, gamification applies “game mechanics” to everyday activities. Consider a simple game like Tic-Tac-Toe. There are well-defined rules, a clear path to victory, and a defined period in which the game occurs. Even these simple mechanics could be applied in the workforce, for example, by adding game-like elements to a process like checking out customers in a grocery store. Each successful checkout could be considered a “victory,” with scores presented at the end of a shift alongside a daily “winner.”

Just as there are games that are significantly more complex than Tic-Tac-Toe, so too are there more complex game mechanics that can be applied in a work context. If you’ve enrolled for an online service, you might have seen a “progress bar” encouraging you to complete additional steps to “level up.” Similarly, you might have received a virtual badge or award for providing your email address or adding a picture to your profile.

SEE: Home video setup: What you need to look and sound professional (TechRepublic Premium)

In the workplace, the thinking was that adding game elements would bring some excitement to the everyday and drive productivity along the way. Perhaps you’ve even been through a presentation where some consultant explained how “Millennials love virtual badges and awards” or pointed to popular apps like Candy Crush as an example of the attractiveness of games with no physical or monetary award.

It all seems rather logical: People generally like games, so if you could turn work into a game, you’d likely increase employee satisfaction. With an element of competition added to anything from completing timesheets to reviewing receivables, productivity would soar while employees battled it out for a “Level 6 Payroll Wizard” virtual badge.

Bad games are still bad in the workplace

The critical flaw in this thinking is twofold: The assumption that all games are created equal and the failure to recognize that the attractiveness of games is that they provide an escape from reality. One of the most successful digital games of all time, Candy Crush, has no basis in reality. According to the School of Game Design, players instead continue returning because of its perfect combination of ease in learning the game, the difficulty of mastery and the uncertainty in what a future level might hold.

Creating positive uncertainty in tasks like issuing invoices or completing government filings is difficult. These workplace tasks are also the antithesis of an escape from reality. While scoreboards and virtual badges might create a brief spike in interest in otherwise routine jobs, those elements quickly become part of the routine. Imagine a game of blackjack where the same cards are dealt each time and the chips are both virtual and completely worthless. It might be interesting for a few hands, but the game will quickly become tiresome.

Are there any game elements that make sense for work?

Like many items on Gartner’s infamous Hype Cycle chart, gamification has become more hype than benefit, but that doesn’t mean it’s a trend with no value whatsoever. Perhaps the best part is that the valuable elements don’t require expensive technologies or complex consulting engagements.

Start by asking whether you’ve set clear “rules” and “victory conditions” for critical processes. It might sound odd, but ask questions like:

  • How does someone in this role “win” at their job?
  • Are the “rules” of the “game” clear?
  • How do we keep “score” and compare performance to other “players?”
  • Is the “prize” worth the required effort?
  • How are winners recognized?

You’ve probably done some variation of this, but simplifying these questions by looking at them through the lens of a game can provide clarity and highlight means for improvement that you may have previously missed.

Employees of all demographics will likely appreciate a clearly defined role, appropriate rewards and recognition, and known success criteria. That’s far more valuable than a worthless digital badge or automated email.

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