The Allure and Alarm Bells of Gamification

Fifty years ago, if you’d walked into a business meeting and suggested employees start playing games at work, you might’ve been fired. Today, the idea isn’t just a random suggestion; it’s a multimillion dollar industry.

Gamification — the concept of motivating users to stay engaged, complete tasks and achieve goals through game play — has sent software developers into overdrive. As you read these very words, coders are hard at work trying to design applications to meet the gaming (yes, gaming) needs of organizations large and small. Yet whether gamification is right for you is a question well worth asking.

Why gamify?

Have you ever lost track of time playing a game — be it an old-fashioned crossword puzzle in the newspaper or one of those social word games on your smartphone? And have you ever felt that particular sense of satisfaction that comes with finishing the crossword or winning the word game?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you already know the driving force behind gamification. Games enthrall us, holding our attention and helping us learn. And, as long as they’re not too frustrating, games bring us a sense of accomplishment — eventually. Games are also social: We like to play them together and talk about them.

Now transfer all of these positives to your workplace. A properly gamified process will engage employees, giving them extra motivation to stay focused and complete the job-related tasks involved in the game. From a training perspective, they’ll learn more quickly and easily. Job satisfaction will increase, because they’re not just succeeding at work — they’re winning games! And again, ideally, gamification will bring employees closer together as they work and play collaboratively.

Employees or customers?

It’s here we should make an important distinction. When gamification first began to arise in the public consciousness several years ago, there was some debate and discussion about whether games should be offered to employees or customers.

Many organizations first opted for customers. There’s a certain logic to doing so. What better way to keep a website visitor (and potential buyer) from wandering elsewhere than drawing him or her into a game? How can you go wrong having your logo on users’ smartphones, maintaining your marketing visibility and giving them a fun distraction?

Yet the general consensus today is that gamification is better suited for internal purposes, not external ones. With so much competition for customers’ eyeballs, many aren’t going to spend all that much time playing a product- or service-provider’s game unless the prize at the end is ridiculously substantial and easy to obtain. Otherwise, the end result (typically a discount or freebie) typically isn’t worth the time expended.

That’s not to say some organizations might not be able to pull off a customer-focused game. It all depends on your industry, strategic objectives and specific market. But, by and large, organizations are focusing their gamification efforts on two aspects of employee engagement: 1) training and career development, and 2) fulfillment of job-related tasks and goals.

Who’s doing it?

So, seriously, are real-world organizations using games to train and engage their employees? In a word, yes. And they’ve been doing so for some time.

Retail giant Wal-Mart launched a gamified approach to corporate safety and compliance procedures in 2012. The program aims to improve performance behaviors using game play, participant competition and leaderboards. The company has reported a 50% decline in lost time and reduced incident rates regarding days away from work and job restrictions, thanks to the initiative.

In 2013, RMH Franchise, the company that runs popular restaurant chain Applebee’s, launched a gamified website for the eatery’s hourly employees. The goal: Increase employee retention in an industry plagued by high turnover. A company rep has indicated that the early results have been positive.

Overall, gamification is projected as going nowhere but up. In 2012, tech industry observer M2 Research estimated that the global market for gamification apps and services will grow to $2.8 billion by 2016. Research group MarketsandMarkets has gone one better, projecting the gamification market to rise in value to $5.5 billion by 2018.

What could go wrong?

Naturally, judicious organizations should proceed carefully. As enticing and interesting as gamification may be, there are considerable risks to jumping headlong onto the bandwagon.

For starters, many gamification projects fail when the organization in question doesn’t really know what it’s trying to achieve. It wants to gamify something because the idea is appealing and employees will surely love it. But, without a clear objective, months go by while concepts are debated and many hours and dollars are lost fumbling around in the dark. Pick a clearly gamifiable training program or business process, gather consensus, and construct a feasible plan.

Also, be sure your gamified process sits squarely in the middle of two overlapping circles. One circle should represent your organizational goals, while the other represents each participant’s performance goals. If there’s white space between these two circles, the gamification effort could very well fail.

Another big risk is the absence of emotion. We know — generally, when tackling business matters, you want to leave emotions out of it. But, for a game to succeed, it must have an emotional component for players. If employees won’t really care about the outcome, the process in question won’t likely see any of gamification’s potential benefits.

Where to begin?

If we’ve piqued your interest about gamification, you’re probably wondering where to get started. Please feel free to contact us here at Performance Dimensions Group. We’d be happy to serve as a source of objectivity and reason regarding the concept of gamification as it applies to your organization. We also have many other ideas, assessments and tools for increasing employee engagement.