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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.