What is it?

Gamification is often defined as “using game-like mechanics such as points, scoring, and competitions in a non-game setting”. This is a pretty dry description for a word that contains “game” within it. I take a slightly more nuanced perspective in that the game mechanics are merely a means of triggering the underlying intrinsic motivators that explain why people enjoy games. These intrinsic motivators include mastery (people like to be good at something), progress (people want to see that they are developing), contribution (people want to matter to a team) and several others.

The key to gamification is in providing real-time visibility to current performance data to maximize these natural intrinsic motivators. In short, gamification isn’t about making work more fun, it’s about making it more motivating.

Where it works/where it doesn’t

Gamification works well in settings where the desired outcomes, and the tasks to reach those outcomes, are clearly defined. Sales (units sold), manufacturing (accuracy of shipments), call centers (net promoter score) are all examples where gamification can be very effective. Gamification is not effective in settings in which the desired outcome is subjective, or in which the tasks to reach the desired outcome are nebulous. For instance, using gamification for the “best” article by a writer would be counterproductive for two reasons:

  • How does one define “best”? By awards won? The prestige of the awards won?
  • Writers love writing for its own sake. A competition for the “best” article robs them of their natural intrinsic love of writing.

Gamification in this setting would probably have a detrimental impact upon the writer’s motivation.
The question of whether gamification is effective is largely connected with the task at hand rather than an industry or specific job. For instance, while it may not be effective to gamify writing articles, it would be perfectly appropriate to use gamification to drive the business-building activities of a writer like points for each publication contacted to publish their work.

Limitations of Gamification

  • Gamification won’t compensate for a terrible corporate culture. If your employees are miserable, adding gamification will do little to assuage their misery.
  • Competitions run for the same competitors on the same metrics will render the same results.
  • Repeated back-to-back competitions will lose impact over time.

Gamification Best Practices

  • Be very clear about your objectives and identify potential unintended consequences. Will a competition to reduce call time result in poor first call resolution?
  • Make it social: Utilize team-based frameworks whenever possible. These prevent toxic hyper-competitive behaviors while improving communication and teamwork.
  • Make it personal: Provide visibility into personal progress over time, it doesn’t always need to be a comparison with peers.

Future of Gamification

Many CEOs are initially attracted to gamification because of its promise to drive engagement and results through fun. Here’s the reality, fun often has nothing to do with it. Gamification requires data. In many instances a gamification initiative presents the first opportunity for employees to see, and respond to, actual data about their own performance. This performance data plays a major role in driving their behavior. Many companies fail to provide real-time commission data to their sales teams, meaning their reps have no idea how much they are going to make until it shows up in their bank account. These same companies then seek gamification solutions to drive results while ignoring one of the most obvious ways to influence behavior. While I would be the first to say that money is not a motivational panacea, to ignore it is simply crazy.

The future of gamification lies in recognizing that the greatest performance is obtained when employees are rewarded both extrinsically (through money and recognition), and intrinsically through accountability, mastery, progress, contribution, and purpose. Gamification’s advancement won’t be found through more immersive game constructs, but rather through a more refined use of data to maximize both extrinsic and extrinsic rewards to make an employee’s job that much more rewarding.

Seth Preus
Seth Preus

Seth Preus is an advisor to Mivation, and the creator of both Racing Snail and Leaderboard Legends.  As a thought leader, he uses his 25 years of experience in sales, software development and business ownership to change the equation from “How can I get my team to perform?” to “How can I get my team to WANT to perform.”

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