Gamification: A Good Idea … Sometimes

The old way of work — grinding out eight hours a day in soulless cubicles — could use some updating, nearly everyone agrees. And what solution is more intuitive than bringing games, one of the most fun aspects of life, to corporate work, generally one of the least fun? Hence the frenzy for the idea of “gamification” over the past few years.

Adding badges, achievement points, and rewarding small accomplishments as in video games has been widely celebrated as a great way to improve work (and customer loyalty). However just because it’s in vogue right now, gamification can’t necessarily be applied to every company with equal impact.

All Gamification Is Not Created Equal

At least that’s the message out of the IEEE International Games Innovation Conference, which took place in Southern California last month. The proceedings were captured on the New School of Information Security blog, including details of a talk by Ross Smith, Microsoft’s Director of Test. In it, Smith outlined the findings of the software giant’s latest forays into gamification:

“Over the last several years, Microsoft has employed dozens of games and game mechanics in its software development process. Forrester, Forbes and others have covered this work…. Focusing on either expanding skills in role or “organizational citizenship behaviors” that require core skills — is the best way to ensure the success of a productivity game. Player motivation is a key component of the success of a productivity game.”

What does that mean for trainers in plain English? Adam Shostack breaks it down in the blog post:

“If you try to produce a game that replicates or intrudes on either core work (say, writing code) or unique skills that someone already has (say, threat modeling) the game is likely to be less successful. But if you make a game to help people expand their skill (say, in threat modeling), it will be more impactful and accepted.”

Or, to summarize even more simply, games that reinforce existing skills work do not work as well as games that introduce new ones. Clearly this is of interest to trainers, who should take heed that adding game elements would appear to work well in training.

Potential Pitfalls

Gamification doesn’t come without it’s perils, however, so don’t take Microsoft’s findings as a reason to jump into using gaming techniques without thinking it through carefully. A post on the Intranet Benchmarking Forum’s blog by Steve Bynghall warns that culture fit is key.

“‘Karma points may not go down well in more conservative environments. Gamification is more likely to work in more relaxed cultures — for example in IT and media companies where traditionally there is a younger workforce — or in sales divisions where there is more formalized competition.”

Meanwhile, other gamification commentators fret that adding extrinsic motivators like points and badges can actually weaken our intrinsic motivation. As Sam Marshall points out on the ClearBox Consulting blog:

“When simple rewards are offered in return for acts that should have intrinsic rewards, people start to forget the real reason they are sharing and optimize their game-based scores instead. For example, instead of giving 1 comprehensive answer, they give 3 partial answers for 3x the points. Or people may withhold answers until they can maximize their points – ceasing to cooperate.”

He also worries that, “differentials in reward can de-motivate the many to the benefit of the few.” But even after all those caveats, Marshall still feels that gamification is of value in the training context. “People devote hours to winning video games for no other reward,” he notes. “If you want employees to develop these skills, it can be far more effective than traditional training.”

Is your organization reaping the benefits of gamification?

Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user Rad Jose.

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for Inc.com, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.