Gamification: Not Always Fun & Games

There is a growing body of knowledge—well-researched and well-documented—about the limits of gamification.

Avoiding academic terms like “extrinsic motivation” and “operant conditioning,” the catch with gamification is that if the only way to get someone to do something is to constantly light a fire lit under their butt, sooner or later they’re going to tire of you and leave.

And in today’s world, “sooner” comes a lot faster than it did back when B.F. Skinner was zapping pigeons to study “operant conditioning.” I don’t even have to quit my job anymore to opt out (even though even that’s easier than ever, too)! All I need to do is click a few buttons and then go back to my old ways of working.

For example, let’s say you try to get me to use Google Drive. You gamify the process. Great. So I log in however many times, or create whatever documents, or set up whatever profile I am told I have to do to qualify me for whatever award your game promises.

And then when I’m done with that, since I was just playing a game and have no greater connection to Google Drive, I turn around and fire up One Note, Quip, iCloud, Box, Dropbox, whatever other platform I was already using, and keep on using it.

Game over.

So Why Do Companies Do So Much Gamifiying?

Because it looks like it should work. Because in certain circumstances (like in sales), it does work. Because people say they want it (who wouldn’t want to win an iPad just for doing their job?) Because it generally does work for a little while before it fails. Because it’s easy to set up a pilot that’s successful even when the benefits could never, ever scale. Because even when used correctly to kick start a new process, it’s hard not to want to believe that it’ll work for just a little longer… and just a little longer… and just a little longer… until you’ve delayed the inevitable for too long. Because once started, you’ve hooked some employees on the rewards and taking those rewards away creates a new problem. Because gamification makes “What’s in it for me” conversations look unnecessary and difficult even when they’re the easier and more sustainable option.

To be clear, there are a host of studies on gamification that show it to be effective… in the short-run. The limitations of gamification are well known, but given overwhelmed execs not reading beyond headlines, vendors bombarding buyers with hype, and well-intended practitioners making honest mistakes about internal and external motivators, the quick wins and face-validity, the risks don’t stand a chance in the decision making process.

But Wait: You Did Say It Works in the Short Run, Right?

Again, gamification can be a great way to “kick start” things and get a process moving. It provides an external motivator for behaviors where people have not yet internalized a deeper motivation. Many companies understand the opportunity here and use it just for that initial pop.

But unless it’s paired with a campaign designed to go beyond the game, to get at an answer to the one question that matters (again,“What’s in it for me?”), it’s destined to fail.

Jason Seiden