May 28, 2015

Don’t Use The “G” Word: Gamification


Wikipedia defines gamification as “the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ contributions.”

Gamification has become a buzzword in marketing, management, and education. With a number of gurus praising its potential for engagement, companies and organizations are scrambling to cobble together their own takes on gamification. For some, gamification has become the latest silver bullet:

  • Teachers are looking to gamification to improve knowledge acquisition and retention.
  • Managers are looking to gamification to make their employees more productive.
  • Marketers are looking to gamification to boost customer engagement and loyalty.

Unfortunately—as it is with most silver bullets—very few gamification adopters are actually harnessing the mechanics that make games engaging and captivating. Arbitrarily assigning point values to tasks or posting a leaderboard in the break room is not effective gamification. Yes, these things are part of many games, but on their own they are not the mechanics that motivate players to come back to games over and over again.

Motivation is the key word here.

Motivation and the Art of Home Row

In the education realm, we already have points. We already have leaderboards. They’re called grades. Fancying those up misses the point of what would motivate a student to attend class and learn in the first place. For example, when I was in fifth grade I was required to take a typing class where we used one of the earliest versions of Mavis Beacon typing software. My motivation in that class was never defined by the game mechanics of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, no matter how many UFOs zapped words out of a pixelated midnight sky.

Instead, I was motivated to get a good grade out of fear of my parent’s wrath. The gamification of typing didn’t really help my motivation or my learning. You know where I really learned to type? Zork. Kings Quest 1 and 2. Ultima Online. Yahoo! chess rooms.

The point of these games was not to teach typing, but I was motivated to perfect the skill because of my engagement with the depth of each game’s content. Nothing teaches you to type quickly and accurately like running through a dungeon in Ultima Online and trying to dodge enemy attacks as you type out command instructions to the other four players romping through the dungeon with you.

I wanted to play Ultima Online hour after hour. I never wanted to play Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

And that’s where the majority of gamification efforts miss the mark: they rarely connect with the intrinsic motivations that can make games powerful pastimes.

Gamification Won’t Solve Deeply-Rooted Problems

If employee motivation is a glaring problem in the workplace, that motivation is unlikely to be solved with gamification. Motivation issues are more likely rooted in deeper issues like compensation or perceived value in the workplace. The research on employee motivation and satisfaction is fairly unanimous on this front: employees that feel fairly compensated, valued, and respected in the workplace tend to perform better. But problems in pay and in culture can be expensive and difficult to fix, so it’s not a big surprise when a manager tries to shortcut a fix with gamification.

When marketing misses the mark with gamification, it’s for a similar reason: despite mountains of research on what makes a brand engaging and meaningful for consumers (hint: a point-based leaderboard isn’t it), they try hashtag contests or brand-themed badges to “enhance” the experience. Badges worked for Foursquare (for a bit) because it gave users social recognition within communities they already valued. Badges didn’t work for Zappos because badges have nothing to do with why customers use Zappos in the first-place.

If sales are dipping or customers aren’t sharing your product with their friends, it’s probably not because you haven’t adopted gamification. It’s more likely that your product or brand personality just isn’t resonating with consumers. When consumers feel strongly about something, they talk about it. Therefore, the reward for being loyal to a brand can’t be captured by points. The reward is wired to brand and product experience, which in turn interfaces with a person’s identity. People like to be seen as experts. They like to recommend something cool to their friends. They like to champion the values of their chosen subculture.

Gamification has the potential to leverage and increase brand loyalty, but it will not fix an existing disconnect between your brand and your target audience.

What Gamification Should Be

Gamification at its best picks up on an existing thread within a community. It builds on the momentum of an already compelling idea through mechanics that actually engage the target audience. The reason we see gamification stopping at points, badges, and leaderboards is because implementing good gamification mechanics is pretty hard. Essentially, adopting a gamification strategy is like adding a complementary product to an existing product line. Consequently, it should be taken just as seriously as any new product development process.

How gamification can benefit your particular company or organization is difficult to say because the approach should be as unique as your mission. These examples, however, might help:

  • Educators working with grade-schoolers might look first at creating a compelling story with compelling characters and then working to weave educational elements into that. For example, Eco Quest (one of my favorite childhood games) took the proven gameplay mechanics of point-and-click adventure games to teach children about the realities and consequences of pollution (while also teaching critical thinking and problem solving). For me, this learning experience was much different from Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and it’s the reason why I still cut the plastic loops around cans of soda before I throw them away.
  • Once business managers have solved more pressing workplace problems (because removing the glass ceiling is more critical to your company’s culture than gamification), they could look to gamify productivity by tying certain metrics to a cause that employees are passionate about. Perhaps the company promises to donate a sizeable portion of the profits gleaned from the boost in productivity to a cause like rehabilitating a park in the community where most of the employees live. This would make the points feel much less arbitrary, giving them real financial and emotional value.
  • From a brand engagement perspective, the potential for gamification is as diverse as the number of brands in the market. A brand like Jeep, for example, that celebrates adventure, self-reliance, and exploration, could have capitalized on the geocaching crazy with Jeep-themed achievements and rewards because it speaks to the values that already exist within the Jeep fan community. As another example, Twitter leveraged gamification right out of the gate by making follower-count a visible measure of someone’s social worth or role within a community. In this context, the product takes a backseat and the values that the products represent become the primary drivers of the gamification experience.

At Synersteel, we believe in the power of gamification and that nearly every community could benefit from it, but it’s really depressing to see it implemented poorly. If you are looking to adopt gamification, take your time, be creative, and challenge yourself to think deeply about the mechanics that will actually matter to your audience.

Originally written for Synersteel Studio.

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