Gamification Grows Up

Despite lack of hard research, advocates tout successes

By Steve Bates Mar 1, 2016
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gameguy7.jpgPerhaps your LinkedIn profile is 95 percent complete.

Wouldn’t it be great if you finished it and saw that 100 percent score pop onto your screen? Maybe you find an interesting book that seems a little pricey, but Amazon tells you that there are only three copies left. You think: “If I don’t buy it now, it will be gone.” Or you buy a fitness app and get that independent validation that your all-day bike ride was worth it. 

You are caught up in the world of gamification, a sometimes visible, often below-the-radar environment where basic human nature is leveraged to affect people’s behavior. Once widely derided as a time-wasting fad, gamification has become integrated into many of the processes of our work and private lives.

“It is subtle,” said Mario Herger, founder and CEO of Enterprise Gamification Consultancy in the San Francisco area. “You don’t show the bells and whistles.”

Games—a wide range of activities encompassing both tame pastimes such as crossword puzzles and more-frenetic challenges like Grand Theft Auto 5—usually do not translate directly into the workplace. Gamification, then, applies game elements to the business world.

How well it works is difficult to prove. Gamification vendors and consultants tout the successes they see in companies. Academics raise caution flags, noting that rigorous investigation into the effectiveness of gamification is lacking. 

Researchers are starting to tackle the topic in depth, but significant results are years away.

Still, anecdotal evidence indicates that something important is happening in the field and that it warrants the attention of employers around the globe.

“To ignore it is to be in peril. Your competitors are doing it,” said Karl M. Kapp, a consultant and a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa.

That’s a major shift. “Fifteen years ago, if you mentioned ‘play,’ no one would ever go for it,” noted Richard Landers, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

Gamification Matures

Roni Floman, vice president of GamEffective, a gamification vendor with offices in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Charlotte, N.C., said that “The industry is going through a maturation.”

Training and other learning activities—such as onboarding and safety awareness—are obvious fits for gamification. You must maintain participants’ interest for them to complete and comprehend the lessons. “We were doing gamification for years before we knew it was a thing,” said Monica Cornetti, a gamification speaker and consultant based in Austin, Texas.

In recent years, gamification has been extended to the call center and service industries. Some organizations use gamification for team-building and other functions that boost employee collaboration and engagement. 

“We’re even seeing leadership programs leveraging gamification,” said Kapp.

“Gamification is based on basic human drives,” he added. We are wired to like to play. But beyond that, we enjoy stories, adventures, achievement and—to some extent—competition. Gal Rimon, founder and CEO of GamEffective, said that the beauty of gamification is that “It applies to almost any aspect of life.”

Herger said that gamification can be used to measure people—from job candidates’ fit with the company to longtime employees’ performance. Leaderboards showing individuals’ sales figures or measurable achievements are common. Badges can provide visual enforcement of accomplishment. Something as simple as Lego bricks can be deployed in team situations: Instructing employees to build a house together forces them to talk to one another and share information—practices that carry over to traditional work duties.

Play with Care

Like any tool, gamification must be used carefully, experts agree.

“Gamification can work and be effective,” said Kapp. “But it’s not a panacea.”

“You can definitely poison an organization with games that have gone horribly wrong,” said Landers.

There have been notable successes using gamification. For example:

  • The London Underground (the subway, not a subversive group) introduced a card game that breaks down key safety lessons into small pieces to boost employee understanding of these issues and increase their engagement. 
  • California Water Crisis is a serious interactive game that helps people understand the complex tradeoffs of various policy choices for providing adequate water throughout the state.

    However, there have been some epic fails:

  • Two California hotels used leaderboards comparing the speed and effectiveness of housekeeping staff by name. A pregnant employee had trouble keeping up, and many other workers were so demoralized by the system that they labeled it “the electronic whip.” 
  • The owner of a chain of stores in Iowa offered a $10 prize to the employee who could predict the next cashier to be fired. His letter to workers said secret shoppers would be looking for clerks slacking off. “But no fair picking Mike … He was fired at around 11:30 a.m. today for wearing a hat and talking on his cellphone.”

Selecting a gamification tool and then looking for ways to use it usually fails, say experts. “You can’t start with the technology. You have to start with the strategy,” said Cornetti.

“Start with what you’re trying to change,” said Landers. Identify measurable goals, then find the mechanisms that motivate behavioral changes that can accomplish the objective. Said Floman: “You have to find the combination of triggers that will work best for each company.”

“It has to be purposeful,” stated Landers. However, he warned: “Don’t be seduced by what appears to be the simplicity of games. There are usually many layers of complexity.”

“Don’t focus only on the points, badges and leaderboards. Add other elements, like stories and goals,” advised Kapp.

The lack of rigorous research on gamification is understandable, said Cornetti. “It’s such a new field. We’re still working on getting the data.” However, she said the principles are sound. “The possibilities are endless,” she said. “They are only limited by our creativity, time and budget.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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