Maybe Don’t Gamify Everything

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GameAnother day, another argument in favor of gamifying your work environment: today, we published an item from our resident news writer, Joshua Bjerke, about “Let the Games Begin,” a white paper from that strongly supports gamification as a way to engage employees.

“The word ‘Game’ is synonymous with fun,” proclaims the white paper’s landing page. I’m not sure that’s always the case: most of us don’t like it when people play mind games with us; The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” is definitely not about fun (though, I guess it is fun to listen to).

And gamification isn’t always fun, either. Sure, sometimes it is — and when it is, it tends to drive great business results. That’s probably why so many people are keen on it, and why an estimated 40 percent of Global 1000 organizations “will use gamification as the primary mechanism to transform business operations” this year, according to Brian Burke of Gartner, Inc. 

But let me reiterate gamification isn’t always fun — and when it isn’t, it tanks. Adam Hollander of Fantasy Sales Team recounts some of his negative experiences with gamification at Fast Company. Upon trying to gamify his sales team through contests and bonuses, he ran into two major problems: the same reps (people who were top performers before gamification cam along) won every time, and the reps who didn’t win stopped caring about the contests. A program implemented to engage the disengaged only served to further engage the sales reps who were already engaged.

Of course, Hollander isn’t totally against gamification (his company, Fantasy Sales Team, is built around a gamification platform). Rather, his piece for Fast Company is meant to demonstrate why some gamification efforts fail. When companyies implement gamification for the sake of gamification, Hollander says, it doesn’t work. Rather, what companies need to do is identify a specific business problem and align their gamification efforts accordingly, resulting in a “direct and measurable impact against that problem.”

Other commentators offer a variety of reasons as to why gamification fails, including bad design and unrealistic expectations. And as it turns out, the vast majority of gamification efforts do fail: in 2o12, Gartner predicted that 80 percent “of gamified applications [would] fail to meet business objectives” by 2014. (It remains to be seen whether things played out this way, but Gartner has a great accuracy track record, so I’ll believe it until I see it proven otherwise.)

Gartner, like most other commentators, believes that gamification usually fails because of improper implementation (namely, poor design). But let me say it a third time: sometimes, gamification just isn’t fun. I can’t be the only person who feels this way, and I’d wager that quite a few gamification attempts fail because a gamification attempt, no matter how well designed or strategically implemented, just doesn’t jive with that particular workforce.

Take, for example, a neat little classroom management app I used during my days as a teacher: ClassDojo. The app assigns cute, Ugly Doll-style avatars to each student in a class. These avatars can gain or lose points according to the corresponding students’ classroom behaviors. The idea is to invest students in their customizable avatars so that they work hard to earn points (and rewards that teachers give out for earning points).

Most of my students fell in love with the app; some classes even cheered when they saw their characters earn points. But a few of my classes just couldn’t seem to care less about their dojo monsters, no matter what sorts of rewards I tied to their achievements, or how I used the app during class time, or what sorts of freedoms I gave them with their avatars. Gamification just wasn’t their bag, and I quickly phased the app out of these classes.

Of course, middle-school students aren’t the same as adult workers, but the point of gamification is to tap into employees’ desires for fun and games — desires we often associate with our carefree childhood days. But if you don’t follow (or buy) the connection between disinterested students and the average office worker, let me offer a more directly applicable example of gamification that just doesn’t work.

I used to freelance for a marketing company that decided gamification would be the best way to get its writers more involved in and passionate about the content creation process. The platform they implemented was, all things considered, pretty cool, with a well-designed interface and an innovative way of assigning points to writers based on certain tasks they performed. The only problem was that no one — and I do mean no one — wanted to use it. Talking with other writers working with the company, I realized we all had the same feelings about this gamification attempt: it was really awesome, but it just wasn’t something we wanted to use. We would rather just write and get feedback in the traditional way.

(I stopped freelancing with that marketing company shortly thereafter, so I’m not sure if it is still trying to gamify the writing process or if they found new writers who would be down with that.)

My point in all of this is simple: people are weird and fickle. The best laid schemes — the most well-implemented gamification attempts — often go awry for no reason other than the somewhat unpredictable quirks of humanity. I’ll admit: there’s a chance that both my ClassDojo and the marketing company’s gamified writing platform failed because of implementation errors that I have not been able to identify. But there’s also a chance that there is something to my hunch that some workforces just don’t like gamification.

So my advice to any company considering gamification — or wondering why their efforts aren’t working out — is this: take a step back and look at your employees. Conduct a survey. Solicit feedback. Try to answer one question before deciding on any gamification effort: Do these people even like gamification in the first place?

By Matthew Kosinski