Sep 12

Gamification—Pitfalls to Avoid

Organizations wish to leverage gamification for marketing, sales, process training, motivating people, bringing behavioural change, promoting innovation, training employees and so on. I’ve seen many people ask questions typically in the form of:

  • We want people to collaborate more with each other. Can we add points for collaboration and reward them for it? 
  • Not enough employees are interested in taking our learning offerings, can we gamify the process of course enrolment?
  • They make too many errors in the data entry process. Can we gamify the process of data entry?

Gamification can certainly resolve some of these issues. However, as the hype subsides, there are many voices that speak against it. 

Game Designers
Gartner had predicted that 80% gamification projects will fail, primarily due to poor design. Gartner claims that it’s lack of game design talent that plagues the industry.

On the other hand, some of the most vociferous detractors of gamification are leaders and theorists who hail from the gaming industry. They accuse gamification of “instrumentalization” of games that are otherwise supposed to be a cultural form of expression and art or entertainment. 

They compare points and badges to the use of food for training rats. The behaviourist approach to manipulating human behaviour is considered inappropriate by many game designers.

Others argue that gamifying everyday work is like conducting tests to make students study. Tests make students coach to ace the test, instead of making them study to quench curiosity. Similarly, people learn to game our gamified systems. 

Despite what many may feel, games and game elements have seeped into our lives through frequent flyer miles, redeemable loyalty points and so on. It’s also true that shorter feedback cycles, smaller goals, comparative scores can change behaviour (at least temporarily). Yet, while designing game based solutions, it’s easy to fall into classical mouse traps that are a result of gamification done wrong.

What are some of the pitfalls of gamification that we should avoid?

Focusing Too Much on Extrinsic Rewards

We should ask ourselves—If I remove the external reward, does my solution still stand ground? Would people participate in the absence of rewards?

Playing a game of chess is its own reward. A game of snakes and ladders doesn’t need badges/gifts/food coupons at the end. A gamified solution should provide a healthy balance between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards. If your gamified solution relies a lot on external rewards, chances are that the solution will fizzle out fast. 

A Positive Example
Microsoft launched Windows 7 in multiple languages. This meant working with testers in many vernacular languages, lots of repetitive work, and high chances of errors. Instead of assigning the work directly, Microsoft opened the task up for employees through a gamified environment. People had to find as many errors as they could and their offices competed with each other.

The initiative saw tremendous success. They had more than 4,500 voluntary reviewers who worked on more than 500,000 screens in their own time. 

What’s interesting is that there were no extrinsic rewards. Microsoft paid not a dime for this work. According to Ross Smith, the Director of Testing at Microsoft, “It touched on the intrinsic motivation that this is a version of Windows that will go back home to family and friends or relatives, so let me make sure it’s of high quality.”

All around us we see examples of people contributing and actively participating for no extrinsic rewards. Wikipedia, Quora and many such forums go to prove that there is an internal drive that leads people to do things. 

How Can We Drive People to Participate Without Extrinsic Motivation?

Daniel Pink in his book, “Drive” shows us how Mastery, Purpose and Autonomy drive people. He also explains how monetary rewards can actually lead to worse performance: 

Through games humans seek pleasure, mastery, competition, learning, collaboration, conflict, meaning, problem solving, and so on. 

The Spirit of Games may mean different things to different people, I think that a game with a soul will include: 

  1. Playfulness/fun
  2. Low stakes/Freedom to fail
  3. Gradual mastery and repetition
  4. Emergence of play, emotion, meaning, interaction and so on
  5. Winning and losing—usually an end to the game 

External motivators too could have a Meaning or Purpose. We can connect: 

  • Game points to a cause. For example, for every point you score, we’ll donate some amount to your favourite social cause. 
  • Gamified solutions to something fun. If you play well, you get to participate in a mega gaming tournament at the end of this campaign. 
  • Game point to something intangible like recognition, extra responsibility, an opportunity to lead, opportunity to solve a real world problem, and so on. (Check as an example)

Keeping the Stakes High

This point is in a way an extension of the previous one. If the stakes are high, the freedom to make mistakes and to lose a game will be gone. 

Monetary Rewards
I’ve seen many people think that other rewards won’t work, but monetary rewards definitely will make gamification work. 
Monetary rewards don’t let games be games. One wouldn’t call gambling a game, or we wouldn’t call our jobs a game—we’re paid to do our job, and the money is not something we “win”.

Relating to Performance Reviews
Another common request is to connect game points to performance reviews. This has the potential to steal the soul of any gamification project. That’s because connecting anything to a performance review or an appraisal takes away the freedom to fail, makes it high stakes, and in turn kills playfulness. Doing this is sure to make the environment highly political and stressful for all involved.

No one wants to live inside a game. It’s a high emotion, high adrenaline environment that is balanced out by only one thing—low stakes. If you up the stakes, a gamified environment will cause havoc with people’s nerves. That’s the opposite of what games are supposed to do.

Gamifying Core Work
Gamifying core work of employees will lead to competition and will again make the stakes high, even if the scores aren’t overtly related to performance; employees will end up comparing scores.

Disney put up a counter with points on it for their clothes washing staff. This was related to monetary rewards and punishment. The staff started getting very stressed. They would not take any breaks to speed up their output, because they could compare their scores on the big screens, with that of their peers. The initiative got dubbed as “the electronic leash”.

How Can We Drive Behavioural Change When the Stakes are Low?

We have to choose our battles carefully. One cannot gamify everything and expect to succeed. According to Ross Smith, the Director of Testing at Microsoft, one should gamify:

  • Good Citizenship Behaviours 
  • Work of the Future

This will keep the stakes low and will involve a purpose to drive people to get involved. This doesn’t mean gamifying for the sake of gamifying. What it means is that we need to evaluate whether a situation lends itself well to being gamified.

Letting the Purpose Take Over the Game

While game designers look at games as art/entertainment/a medium of self-expression and so on, those who are outside the core gaming industry wish to “utilize” game design to meet an end objective. This dichotomy of purpose brings in more issues than the “gamification” camp acknowledges. Here’s what we end up doing when we design games for a purpose:

Presenting Content in a Game
As learning game designers, I’ve seen many times that we’re asked to put in “content” as content in the game. There’s rarely room for presenting bullet points/paragraphs/detailed explanations in a game.

Learning is in the very fabric of games. Learners themselves should be the creators of their own meaning, be motivated to reflect, learn and implement new things rather than “consume content”. Content should either emerge from play or it should be the context of play. It could be constructed by the player and formalized as the game progresses. 

Not Giving Up Control
Many times learning designers are averse to letting people construct their own knowledge. They want to “ensure” that people learn what they’re meant to learn, not a thought different, not a word extra. 

For example this article refers to Tell them what they will learn – Play Game – Tell them what they learned approach to game based learning:  

The problem with such an approach is that it reduces games to an instructional silo with very little room for exploration. I am NOT implying in any way that we should not have objectives for a game. In fact we should have very clearly defined objectives. Only stating them upfront and in the end may mean we’re leaving no room for people to “construct” their own learning. 

I’d change the approach (but not restrict it) to:

  1. State the rules of the game. 
  2. Let players play the game.
  3. Ask reflective questions (that facilitate “meta-cognitive” thinking, reorganizing of thoughts, reconstruction of existing knowledge etc.) as the game play is on/Provide frequent feedback through gameplay which leads to learning.
  4. End by allowing players to state what they think they learned from the game/Extend what they learned to the workplace. 

When I start playing an online game, I don’t even wait to learn to use the interface. I want to learn to use the interface by playing, not by listening to instructions. That’s doable because it’s a low stakes environment.

Games are about “exploration” through interaction with an ever changing environment that responds to our actions. Most of the times, the constant in-game feedback that results from the environment is enough for us to master new things. 

As we gamify, let’s design games with goals and objectives and not games with agendas. Keeping the spirit of games alive, let’s use them as tools for high intensity involvement with what we love doing. Let’s keep gaming!  



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