Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
09:36 AM

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.

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!

(Image credit: Ton Zijlstra on flickr)
(Image credit: Ton Zijlstra on flickr)

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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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, ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Ninja
8/19/2014 | 7:24:22 AM
Re: Good analysis, but a little simplistic
I think components of gamification can work but I don't think every task needs to become a points based challenge.  I see the usefulness of smartly displayed data, ways to measure progress and making tasks more enjoyable but in the end it is work and it will never be the most fun thing ever.  
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
8/18/2014 | 7:33:56 PM
Re: Good analysis, but a little simplistic
I believe gamificiation can be used effectively. But I suspect many of its failures can be traced back to non-gamers implementing game-like systems. If you're hiring an enterprise IT group to gamify some business process, make sure you have people play games and have actually developed games on the team. 
Joel Confino
Joel Confino,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2014 | 6:37:09 PM
Re: Good analysis, but a little simplistic
Great questions.  Can you rely on people to be honest in their assessments? Basically can you game the gamification?

The way you ensure that people are rating answers accurately is through transparency.  Your name is attached to everything you do, and everyone in your organization can see it.  If you give a thumbs up to a blatantly incorrect answer, you own that.  This is in contrast to the anonymous public internet where such ratings systems can be more easily manipulated.

In practice I think it is more common for an incorrect answer to not receive thumbs up vs get a thumbs down, but thumbs downs do occur (I've given them myself :-)  To ensure someone doesn't just thumbs down everything for absolutely no reason, in Haydle's reputation system you actually sacrifice a small amount of your own reputuation in order to thumbs down someone else's answer.  In other words, the answer has to be so clearly wrong that you are willing to "take one for the team" and point it out.

It is also worth noting that merit-based reputation systems like the one Haydle uses (your peers rate your content) are much more reliable than task-based reptuation systems (you get points for each task you accomplish such as each post or comment).

I can say from the experience of our customers over the past year and a half that they trust the ratings and reputations of people in Haydle so much so that some groups actually include it as part of their employee review process.  We also have customers who feed the Haydle reputations into other enterprise social networks or display them on the person's intranet profile.

User Rank: Author
8/18/2014 | 6:06:51 PM
Re: Good analysis, but a little simplistic
Joel, how do you keep that kind of feedback honest in a work environment? Are you really going to trash a colleague's half-baked answer in a company Q&A system? On the other extreme, what's to keep employees from giving everyone an A+?

Appreciate the comment, glad you jumped into the discussion, and that you shared where you're coming at it from. 

Joel Confino
Joel Confino,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2014 | 5:20:11 PM
Good analysis, but a little simplistic
Disclaimer: I'm the CEO of an enteprise Q&A company called Haydle, so I'm not a neutral observer.

I think the article is correct that a lot of vendors have slapped a poor implementation of badging into their products and assumed that most people would actually care if they get a collection of badges with funny names like "Grand Master of Adding Content to the Intranet".  It can seem too much like a fantasy role playing game instead of work.

But that's one subset of gamification.  I've seen badging done well, and in fact my product uses a very minimalistic approach to badging: you are an "expert" or you aren't.  Knowing who in your company is considering a "expert" has business value.

And there is much more to gamification.  Again, an example I'm familiar with: having someone give a thumbs up to your answer to a question.  If I ask a question using an enterprise Q&A system, and 5 people -- not just random people on the Internet but my co-workers -- give my answer a thumbs up, that is motivating.  It is about getting immediate positive feedback for good work which is sorely missing in most tasks you perform.

How much recognition do you get at work for a job well done?  Adding a document to SharePoint?  Sending a good email?  For most people, you get a semi-annual or annual review.  How about getting a mini-peer review every day or a couple times a week as people rate your answers positively in an enterprise Q&A system?  It is motivating.

Done correctly, gamification is about a positive feedback loop and giving recognition, and it works.  Done poorly, and it is an obvious mismatch for business and comes across as cheesy.
User Rank: Ninja
8/18/2014 | 4:57:43 PM
Re: Gamification's Failure
Gamification is a topic that I see oft-discussed, but rarely implemented. Maybe that's just anecdotal (someone must be using it for there to be so much talk), but nevertheless I'm glad to see someone be open and honest about the overall lack of returns on this trend. People assume that a lot of the flack 'gamification' gets is from older folks talking bad about 'these confounded younguns', and maybe that is true, but the opposite is also true. Like commenter David, I'm a pretty entrenched gamer myself, and I've been skeptical of this idea from the beginning. There are the obvious problems (work =/= game no matter what you attach to it), and the more subtle ones - and I'm glad to see you tackle both.

As for getting it right... well, like I said, I'm a little skeptical of it being a good idea to begin with. For those that are absolutely determined to make it work, though, there are a few tips that come to mind. Chiefly, make it unobtrusive - if it takes me too long to go and log a task or claim my 'reward', then I'm not going to bother. I'd rather get ten tasks done and not log them then get six done and log them. Other than that, your tip about variety hits home. There are lots of different kinds of games, and social games like farmville are actually LEAST popular among hardcore gamers - it requires a little more thought.
User Rank: Author
8/18/2014 | 3:26:32 PM
Re: Its about time...
Writing about healthcare and talking frequently with healh IT professionals about how they are working to help their organizations achieve goals like patient engagement, I agree with you 100% that there are some bad ideas out there. As Kelly said, these concepts often include a seemingly added-on gameification aspect that's like an extra step created solely to fit the gameification concept. In healthcare, it seems obvious people would enjoy the results of better health if they adhere to certain treatments or behaviors (exercise regularly, eat fruit and vegetables, cut back or stop drinking, don't smoke...), but it's never that simple is it? 

But it takes more than that to change behavior, despite the great goal of better health and a happier life. Just as we are moving toward personalized health, we have to personalize gameification because all people don't act in the same way or by the same motivators.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2014 | 2:06:00 PM
Its about time...
I really love seeing thoughtful articles like this that look past the "cool" factor and start to ask the tough questions about the real utility of trends and marketing concepts. 

Gamification fascinates me...I really feel this concept is the key to unlocking true patient behavior change in healthcare...but there are a ton of really bad ideas being implemented out there.  Its time for those of us that run real-world development teams to get some "points on the board" and prove these concepts out.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2014 | 12:56:09 PM
Getting to intrinsic motivation
I agree as far as you go. I struggle with the next step, which is figuring out how to trun extrinsic motivation (that external motivation goten from badges and leaderboards) to intrinsic motivation. Is intrinsic motivation able to be designed in in a simple way that resonates across an organization? Possibly, take Southwest Air as an example. Employees are hired from the start with an eye toward the type of employee that will fit in the corporate culture. In this case intrinsic gamificaiton can be designed (I believe it has at Southwest) to motivate employees.

I am not sure intrinsic gamificaiton alone can ever overcome the variations of a diverse workforce in most organizations.
David A.C304
David A.C304,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/18/2014 | 12:46:17 PM
Comments on Gaming
I am an avid gamer and have been since the days of Doom and Myst on my PC. I do believe that the mind needs a break or as a friend of mine called it "chewing bubble gum" for your brain.

What is to me more key than anything else, and something I have not seen mentioned it what I believe is the number one quality gaming requires: PERSISTANCE!

Any decent gamer knows that in order to master the next level is an endless parade of hour after hour of getting slaughtered, crushed, and all the other ways of "loosing" that come with the game you are playing.

If we could transfer that obsessive "rebooting until I pass" mentality in our daily endevours we would be able to master our tasks and feel pretty darn good of our accomplishments.

Unfortunately as I see more and more, recently we only focus on the result and not really on how we get them.

Lather, rinse and repeat.
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