CATEGORY

GAMIFICATION

 

Gamification actually doesn’t have to be fun.

For many the word “Gamification” conjures images of video game-like experiences, where people maybe race cars, or collect trophies, or compete in timed challenges against colleagues, and having fun instead of working. Others who know more about gamification, may visualise a veneer of “forced” fun being layered over important – albeit dull – tasks. Either of these situations has negative connotations and misconceptions that can put people off wanting to get involved.

However, what if I was to tell you that gamification doesn’t have to look game-like or be designed for fun at all?

There are many definitions of gamification, one that we use is “The use of game design, game elements and play for non-entertainment purposes.” Whatever definition you use, the essence of the concept is to use game design and game elements in non-game contexts, or applying lessons learned from games to improve non-game experiences.
Gamification is utlimately about understanding people and what motivates them and using that to create better experiences for them, with the help of game elements.

Gamification: The User at the Heart

In a business context, gamification is normally part of an overall solution designed for a specific objective. That might be to improve learning and development, it could be to increase efficiency, it could be to make on-boarding more effective. Whatever gamification is being used to help solve, it is infrequent or unlikely that the business objective is “make it fun”.

Fun is subjective: we each experience it in different ways, as a result of different stimuli. Ask someone what they consider fun and they could tell you anything from scary movies, rollercoasters and rock climbing, to reading in a quiet park or cooking a new recipe. If you look at research into fun, you will see many varying explanations of what fun actually is and how it is experienced differently by different people.  This makes it very hard to use fun as a design objective when you are not building a true game – as in the case of gamification.

The elements of games that we may associate with fun – themes, narratives, challenges – may not figure at all into a gamified design, if the client has no desire to see them. But this doesn’t mean that the solution can’t include gamification. Feedback, progress, reinforcement, signposting, virtual currencies and more are all game elements that are not directly associated with fun experiences but are often core to gamified solutions and still fit the definition of gamification.

By using simple gamification elements, and user centric design, users can be encouraged to keep returning to an experience, to complete a process, and actually connect with and absorb the content. Starting a solution with a tutorial, using a progress bar to show the user how they’re getting on, energising the journey with a surprise Easter egg, all help to nudge us along while doing something in the same way we’re happy to spend hours playing games. In this way, there may be fun moments, but they are the result of good design rather than trying to shoehorn fun into a solution to fit a need to make gamification fun!

Fun experiences are almost always preferable as people engage with them far deeper and in far more meaningful ways. But if an incredibly fun experience might distract users away from a key message or process, it is still possible to peel back on the elements most commonly considered ‘game-like’ without steering clear of all gamification completely. Simply remember it as a tool to engage audiences with, rather than how to turn dreaded cyber security training into Mario Kart.

Gamification, the use of game design, game elements and play for non-entertainment purposes, is a divisive word. It conjures pictures of employees and customers playing video games, where in reality it very rarely looks like that.

Gamification, in its purest form, borrows from games to increase engagement with an activity. It could simply be that the addition of clear goals and feedback in the form of progress maps and scores can achieve this. On the other hand, a strong narrative and game-like look and feel might be the best way achieve the specified business outcomes.

The point is that gamification needs to be applied in a way that fits a well-defined brief, achieves the business outcomes and balances the client’s wants with the client’s needs (which are often at odds).

However, far too often we see “Gimmick Gamification”, that looks pretty but achieves very little. It relies on the novelty factor but has no eye to longevity. It is easy to understand why though. The addition of a simple game to a website looks like a good idea. “Games are fun, people like games, a game will stick in people’s memories, and make us look innovative and exciting”.

The trouble is, the game has to achieve something for both the client and the player. For example, if the client is looking for repeated visits, then often the game will focus on short bursts of play with the promise of a reward for repeat visits. The game is usually very simple and becomes boring quickly. In this instance the rewards have to be very special to maintain at least mid-term engagement. More often than not all that will happen is short bursts of activity as new users discover the game, but very few returning players.

 

 

On the flip side, if the game is amazing, but the rewards and messaging are poor, all that you get is players engaging with the game, not the brand! If you are going to rely on a game, it needs to strike a balance of deep gameplay and desirable rewards, but this will and should take time to design.

That’s why good gamification usually focuses on borrowing from games rather than trying to build games. It requires an understanding of the target audience and of what they want and need as well as what the client wants and needs. It requires an understanding of what motivates people to engage over long periods. It requires time and development if it is going to deliver results.

If you want a quick adrenaline shot, the Gimmick Gamification might be for you. If you want sustained and long-term engagement that focuses on change and business outcomes, then you need to look at gamification as a strategy rather than a novelty.

It’s not all Fun and Games

 

The last few weeks have given me plenty of food for thought. The end of November saw the second annual instalment of Gamification Europe, a great chance to catch up with old friends and take stock of what we are all doing around gamification. Then, the beginning of December, gave me the opportunity to sit round the table with graduates and game designers and compare notes on the differences and similarities of gamification and games. Both of these made me reflect on balancing fun and objectives, and how game-like solutions can remain sustainable.

At Gamification Europe, held at a comedy club in Amsterdam, speakers from around the world gave their insights into gamification, serious games, play and how they all fit into the world around us.

Several talks echoed Gartner’s prediction that “80% of gamification will fail”. One message, that was repeated many times, particularly resonated with me: Gamification is a strategy that needs to focus on outcomes and objectives. However, I feel a lot of what is considered to be failure or disenchantment in the industry, seem to trail back to a lack of focus on the outcomes and the objectives of where gamification was and is being implemented.  When planning a gamification-based intervention (or any kind of intervention), it is essential that you start by understanding what the problem is that the intervention will solve and what the outcomes or objectives will be. Rather than gamification being considered a “magic bullet”, it really needs to be about tightly defined outcomes and part of a well thought out strategy. This is something that we are very clear with our clients about.

When we are designing a solution, we split the project into 8 phases. The first two focus specifically on understanding the problem, defining the specific outcomes and how we are going to measure them. That is a quarter of the project phase, dedicated to understanding the What and the Why, before we even start to consider the How!

 

 

 

It’s a stage that often seems to be ignored or retrofitted after the “solution” has been designed. The “game” becomes more important than the outcomes, and the “fun” overtakes what the client really needs.

This was further highlighted during my discussions with the game designers in Newcastle, and goes some way to explain why it is so important for people to understand what gamification actually is compared to games. The clearest difference is simple. Games generally start with “fun” or “entertainment” as their objective. The designer has an idea for an interesting mechanic and that evolves into a game. Obviously there can be other factors. For instance, if the designer has been given a film license, for instance, then there is an objective – the game has to be related to the film.  Beyond that, how the game plays and how it will entertain its players is their biggest concern.

In gamification, we start with an objective first, then work back to how we might be able to use gamification or games to solve that problem in the most effective and efficient way possible. Fun is very rarely a business objective!


Before answering the question of “Why Gamification”, it probably makes sense to wrap our heads around “What is Gamification?” for this discussion. If you look around, you will find several different definitions. From a non-academic perspective, the most useful way to define gamification is “The use of games or game-like experiences to increase motivation and engagement with an activity or process”.

For us, it is one of many tools used when looking to solve problems presented by clients. Whilst gamification is not specifically about turning something into a game, it is useful not to exclude them completely from our minds when looking for solutions. It’s often where most people’s inspiration comes from, or a good place to begin when trying to work out how to make something more interesting.

When we are approached for work that requires gamification, it is usually related to some kind of need to increase active participation, be it on-boarding, loyalty, education, or any myriad of reasons. Frequently at the heart of the challenge is someone wanting someone else to do more of something! Or even “we need everyone to be doing more of this, all together, in the same way”.

Gamification has some unique strengths that other, more traditional approaches, may not have. Especially when it comes to encouraging large groups, and engaging with different profiles of people.

When trying to increase active participation, it is essential that people find the activity accessible. This is something that games do exceptionally well. They have evolved over the years to become accessible to anyone at any age without the need to read large manuals. We can do the same with gamification, creating experiences that hold the user’s hand through the early stages of their participation – their onboarding into the system.

Games are great at breaking down huge experiences into manageable chunks. In the “real world,” we would describe that as goal setting. Taking a large goal and breaking it down into manageable and therefore more achievable goals. There is scientific theory behind this called Goal Setting Theory. Researchers, Locke and Latham set out five principles that improve a person’s chances of achieving a goal. Clarity, Challenge, Commitment, Feedback, Task complexity [1]. Gamification can support all of these five principles in various ways. If we consider that good games get all this right, it is safe to say that well-designed gamification can do it too.

One of the most important things that can be done with games and game-like systems is creating the opportunity to fail. This sounds odd, but games teach you by letting you fail,  try again, fail and try again. It creates a safe environment to improve. The use of business focused games and simulations can do the same. If an employee needs to understand how to find all the exits on an oil rig, surely it is better to let them walk around a virtual model of the rig, rather than the real thing?

Gamification can also add fun to tasks that may not naturally be seen as fun. Whilst it is not the main reason to use gamification, it is certainly one that can resonate with users. Why does ethics training have to be a dull pdf followed by a quiz? It could instead be a fun series of videos that play out various scenarios based on user choices.

So why do we choose gamification as one of our solutions to engagement problems? Because it works really well and users enjoy the resulting experiences!

 

[1]        H. L. Tosi, E. A. Locke, and G. P. Latham, “A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance,” Acad. Manag. Rev., vol. 16, no. 2, p. 480, 1991.

 Happy employees drinking chai lattes, playing pool and table tennis, being creative and brilliant. That is the vision some have come to imagine is the ideal work environment. We have all seen the pictures from companies like Google, with chilled out developers working in converted phone boxes and sliding down the helter-skelter to their next meeting.

The reality is, of course, often very different. The practicalities of most office environments mean that these sorts of extreme designs are not possible. However, that does not stop people trying. The number of times I have seen a pool table or foosball table awkwardly shoehorned into a corner is incredible.

The reasoning behind this is often honourable. Someone somewhere has been given a bit of money to try and increase employee happiness, and therefore engagement, based on a poor employee satisfaction survey result.

It may seem a generous and forward-thinking idea, but it is often a poorly planned “knee-jerk” reaction that fails to address the deeper issues that may be affecting the feelings of the employees or why there may be a low level of engagement.

In reality, satisfaction and engagement surveys have certain issues that could affect the true vision of employee engagement. For starters, not all employees may believe they are anonymous, leading them to refuse to take part, fearing that “Big Brother” is watching. Others may take it as an opportunity to vent frustrations that are not directly related to their overall engagement with the company. Yet more may be too busy to do it, probably those that are actually the top performers! So, the survey never really represents to true levels of engagement across the whole company.

Imagine you find that a particular department has low morale. Do you really think that putting a pool table in the coffee room will lift that long term? Did anyone in their survey cite a lack of a pool table as their reason for being unhappy in their role? Of course not. You need to dig deeper and understand the root cause of the issues, then work to improve that. But you can only do that if the employees trust you, which is where things like a well thought out Employee Value Proposition (EVP) start to become so important!

The same can actually be said of many gamification implementations in companies looking to boost employee engagement. They are introduced to try and add some flavour, fun or competition to boost productivity or happiness. Just like the pool table, this often doesn’t address the core issues. In fact, with badly implemented gamification the issue could be compounded. If a company can afford to invest in that, why can’t they invest in something that employees actually want? That’s why it is so important to plan a gamification solution so carefully and why we put so much time into the user research at the start of any project. If you don’t understand them, you can’t possibly design something that will resonate with them and be accepted.

This doesn’t mean you should not install a pool table, but make sure that it is part of a structured plan to improve all of the factors affecting employee engagement, not just a patch with a “that’ll do” attitude attached.

Onboarding is nothing new. If you have worked at any medium or large company you are likely to have been through it, but it was probably called induction. For many, it is a few days of icebreakers and PowerPoint slides explaining the company in more detail, various important departments and other information needed to get going.

If you are a gamer, you would know this better as the tutorial level at the beginning of the game.

In both cases, the end goal is the same, get a new person being productive as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The big difference is the delivery mechanisms used.

First Impressions Count

An employee’s first look at the “real” company happens during onboarding. This is the first exposure to other people they are likely to be working with, to the true corporate culture and to some of the more practical aspects of their new day to day life. It is also the company’s first opportunity to make them feel at home and like a valued new member of the team. Sure, they will know something about the company, they would have had interviews, done research, possibly gone through assessment centres, but this is different. It is a time where a company can ask itself the question “What do we want our employees to think of us?” If you want them to think of you as a company driven by a culture of “death by PowerPoint”, it might be best to stop reading now.

Onboarding does not stop in the first few days after the induction, though many may feel this way. A study for the Academy of Management journal found that the first 90 days of a person’s new job were essential for creating social connections and bonds to the company. If they felt supported during this time, then they felt more positive towards the company.

What Makes Good Onboarding Experiences

Baek and Bramwell of Cornell University conducted research into how you measure the effectiveness of onboarding. They concluded that one of the best measures of an effective onboarding experience was time to proficiency. They defined this as the time it took a new hire to reach full productivity within the context of their role.

For this to happen, a new employee needs to have a structured onboarding experience, with specifically defined outcomes, and an experience that is hopefully engaging to them. At the end of their onboarding employees need to have achieved four clear objectives for the best chance of ongoing success (Bauer et al):

  1. Role Clarity; employees understand their role, expectations with it, how to perform in order to achieve expected results
  2. Self-efficacy; employees feel confident in their ability to perform and contribute
  3. Social integration – employees feel connected, valued & trusted
  4. Knowledge of organisational culture; employees understanding and adjusting to company politics, social norms such as language, goals, values and history.

How We Approach Onboarding

Bill Paris, Motivait’s go-to guy on HR and Employee Engagement Solutions, is of the firm belief that onboarding into a new company starts from the day a new employee signs on the dotted line. The time before they step foot on company property is ripe for helping them start to understand some of the basics about their new employer. Much of what would traditionally be done in a conference room over a few days, can be achieved online during the weeks they are waiting to start the new role.

Games and gamification are already being utilised in the attraction phases of recruitment, with games being created to simulate everything from a day in the life of a new employee to testing an employee’s soft skills.

Following that trend into the employment phase of an employee’s journey, we can make use of gamification to create unique and engaging experiences that keep them informed and interested up to and during their first few months of employment.

Creating these kinds of experiences takes time and expertise, balancing the needs and culture of the company with needs of the new employee.

We consider these weeks and months as a quest, creating a structure around what they need to learn and understand early on. Each stage or level of the quest represents new knowledge and experiences that will help them to learn. Focusing on intrinsic motivation, we choose mechanics that support the player’s with social connectedness, education and goals to focus on, all in an environment that promotes exploration and discovery at their own pace. To this we this we add mini-games and interactive learning materials all tied together with interesting narratives and storylines. This gives the players reasons to want to continue rather than just knowing they have to continue.

Good onboarding can lead to higher rates of retention in companies, some statistics quoting as much as 69% higher retention after 3 years for companies with great programmes! It gives employees the opportunity to feel at home and become productive faster. Don’t waste this key opportunity to create a more engaged workforce by relying on traditional or even default methods, simply because “That’s how it’s always been done”.

Early in my career I was working for a college as a learning technologist. This meant that I would help teachers design learning materials to put on to the learning management system. It was great fun and gave me the opportunity to work closely with the teachers and the students. We were a further education institution, focusing mostly on students aged between 16 and 18. It was fascinating to see the dynamic between them and the teachers on a day to day basis. Read more

Play and games have been associated with formal learning since the times of Plato in ancient Greece. Today we can see an increasing trend towards the use of games and game-like experiences within education, both of children and adults. For the most part, these experiences come in two flavours. The first is that of Games Based Learning (GBL), sometimes referred to as ‘Serious Games’, the second is ‘Gamification’. Read more

Engagement

Nobody said that inspiring Engagement was simple or easy, quite the contrary. It is in itself a challenging, complex process. Before launching heads first into any project, the first stop is always to consider how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to design a successful, meaningful solution.
Initially, participants can often show lack of interest for reality because they have learned, day after day, that situation does not add any real value to them (learned irrelevance). Read more

The computer games industry has grown steadily over the last 40 odd years. The expansion of accessible platforms, the increase in pure computing power, the social gaming revolution on mobile; all significantly expanding the reach and the use of games for diversion and enjoyment. And the enjoyment aspect is crucially important– after all, that is the sole purpose of games – to stimulate enjoyment, to provide an escape from reality, to have fun! Read more