Gamification's Failure: A Lack Of Real Life Wins

Gamification will finally meet its promise when we can deliver a dose of the blissful productivity gamers feel, rather than just a badge.

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons, Co-founder, HarQen

August 18, 2014

5 Min Read
<b>(Image credit: Ton Zijlstra on flickr)</b>

Gamers know what it feels like to have daily wins, and lots and lots of them. As Jane McGonigal, a well-known game researcher and advocate, explains in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, these individuals know what it feels like to experience "blissful productivity" -- total immersion in pursuit of a goal.

They know the joy of small victories as well as the rare but amazing epic win, achieving success against long odds. Due to their experiences, gamers view the older generations’ willingness to wait for a book to be published or a promotion to be granted before feeling the state of intense gratification as ludicrous. And hey, shouldn't it seem pretty ludicrous to us too?

I'm not a gamer, but I want daily wins. I want to feel blissfully productive. McGonigal says there are more than a half billion people who spend at least an hour a day in online game environments. It is clear that there is some deep human need here that those games tap into.

So herein lies the grand, unmet promise of gamification.

Today, gamification is about setting up systems that make routine work more game-like. The hidden sin here is that these programs approach gamification ‎ as if one game type fits all players. We add some points and a reward system to some crappy task-oriented job (e.g., submitting receipts, updating Salesforce, finding the sock bin in a large warehouse) and consider ourselves done. That badge should make those young whippersnappers happy!

From my vantage point, the deep value of gamification has gotten lost in the quick implementation of slap-on "how" tactics. What gamification is ultimately about is making reality suck a whole lot less. Modern immersive games provide an emotional pay-off that life today just doesn't offer often. Gamification promises us the ability to attain a particular feeling state -- blissful productivity -- in the context of work.

[Here is some more advice. Read 4 Ways Gamification Can Help Your Business.]

Whether we admit it or not, it is the promise of the potential emotional pay-off that lures us into working ridiculous hours already. But unlike gaming environments where we are totally immersed, our modern work environments seem contorted -- almost criminally -- to keep us from feeling blissfully productive. And once we give up hope that epic wins are possible, our careers turn into drudgery.

Gamification‎ is not about level-ups and badges. For me, those types of reward systems fall flat, if not downright goofy, in some work contexts. That said, I do value encouragement and welcome public acknowledgement. I just want it in different forms.

Just as a World of Warcraft badass is unlikely to find the joys of Farmville compelling, we can't expect stock Gamification approaches to benefit, well, anyone. Instead, we need to start with the end in mind. What is it that we want this program to produce?

For most scenarios, what we want is increased productivity. So, if we seek increased productivity from our workforce, I invite you to explore ways in which you can create a context for daily, if not the occasional epic, wins.

Now here is the part where you roll your eyes and say, "Easier said than done." And yes, I agree. Figuring this stuff out is hard. So put on your big boy pants and stop bellyaching already.

Besides, I can offer you a hack.

Daily wins are the natural end state when we feel blissfully productive. When our day falls into place and suddenly we can knock hard things out regularly, we call it getting into our "zone." We have all felt it. It's just that we feel it too rarely these days.

You can start by working with your team to understand how they get into their zone. What are the conditions that allow them to feel most productive?

For many of us (self included), we need protected, quiet time. Thinking time. So lets say, for example, your gamification program starts with your team figuring out novel ways to increase their protected time. Maybe points come from a team member blocking a low-priority meeting request or reinventing the format or -- let's just go wild here -- eliminating a dreaded meeting.  

Gamification acknowledges the very human, emotional drivers behind our long hours and invites us to rethink how we want to spend our lives at work. The highest bar we can set for gamification -- and we should aim for nothing less -- is that we help employees get more periods of "blissful productivity" in return for the time they spend on the job. We cannot get those years of drudgery back, after all. Even for those of us who have snared the corner office, can we honestly say that all those years of painful, postponed gratification were worth it?

Well, I can't.

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About the Author(s)

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons

Co-founder, HarQen

E. Kelly Fitzsimmons is a well-known serial entrepreneur who has founded, led, and sold several technology startups. Currently, she is the co-founder and director of HarQen, named one of Gartner’s 2013 Cool Vendors in Unified Communications and Network Systems and Services, and co-founder of the Hypervoice Consortium. In 2011, she was awarded the Silvertip PwC Entrepreneurship Award honoring the fastest-growing company within the Angel Capital Association portfolio. In 2013, Speech Technology magazine honored her with the Luminary Award. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester and holds a master’s degree from Harvard University. 

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