September 22, 2016

Gamification in the Enterprise

I remember, back to 2014, I saw a TED talk by Jane McGonigal, in which she argued that gaming can make a better world. At that time, I was so addicted to one card game (but also troubled by such addiction), when such a topic suddenly hit me. I immediately turned it into serious questions: If so, then can I spend more time playing card games with my friends? Doesn’t playing games no longer mean a waste of time? However, my rational consideration could not lead me to a “yes” answer to this doubt.

Then, I started reading Jane’s popular book Reality is Broken. The book describes in much detail than the merely 20-minute TED talk, where I learned the word “gamification”, and come to understand why that question doesn’t successfully turn me into a positive answer. — Maybe it’s because the word gamification itself is somewhat inappropriate and misleading: although gamification has the prefix “-gam(e)”, actually it has little to do with playing actual games. It just means to achieve goals with some gaming motivation strategies.

Gamification is popular during these days, and the area of gamification can be really broad, from education, healthcare, to enterprise productivity, etc. Yet until now, there is not a certain definition of gamification. In this article, I will limit gamification to the enterprise level, and thus define it as “using game-based techniques to increase engagement in a non-gaming activity”. It focuses on achieving company’s business goals, as well as keeping people more engaged in their work.

Gamification has been used in many enterprises. For example, the U.S. Army uses games for training purposes as well as attracting new recruits. And at Google, engineers have been able to spend an in-house currency called ‘Goobles’ on server time. Another example is Workplace Arcade (, an Australia start-up company that offers organisations a gamification platform solution to enhance employee engagement. Employees can take a unique game experience to compete, develop, and progress as a player, and thus achieve their goals in the workplace.

Why is gamification useful in business? Probably because gamification is a good tool for motivation. In the area of organisational management, we know that motivating employees is one of the most important and challenging parts. Goal-setting theory, proposed by Edwin Locke in the late 1960s, says that intentions to work toward a goal are a major source of work motivation. Engaged employees always produce more than the disengaged ones, and that is where gamification takes effects.

Gamification can set effective goals for employees and motivate them via various game mechanics. It’s similar to the game designs that have a series of branching trees along the way. An enterprise level gamification usually has a goal to tell employees what is desired to be done and how much effort is needed. Studies show that specific goals can increase performance, and gamification wants to achieve such effects. The goal-oriented design can be seen at most of the common forms of gamification, including the use of points, badges, and leaderboard.

Besides, it’s about a rapid feedback. Just like real games, game players not only take action from motivation, but also frequently receive feedback such as award points, that in turn motivates them to take further actions. Studies show that employees learn quickly, perform better and correct behaviours when they receive immediate and real-time feedback. So the feedback design is widely used in gamification.

To sum up, why is gamification powerful? Because game mechanisms helps an organisation in the motivation-action-feedback cycle. It starts with motivating employees into action, then continuously gives them feedback, which turns again into motivation. The cycle continues and incentivises employee’s behaviours during working, that supports company’s goals.

However, although gamification has many positive outcomes, it is not unequivocally beneficial. Ian Bogost, an award-winning game designer, wrote in his blog that “Gamification is Bullshit”. He argued: “gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is video games and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.” And do not get surprised: this is only one of the hundreds of impassioned blog posts and articles on the internet, that expressed harsh criticisms of the gamification movement.

It is true that some design of gamification is poor: pointless but addicting, which leads to many issues. In one aspect, gamification methodology may limit employees to focus on a single standard, while excluding all others. Behaviours like that are usually short-sighted, without considerations of long-time goals. In addition, it may lead employees into late and unnecessary works, which harms their body. Another perceived issue is that gamification is disrespectful of employees, and may affect employees’ levels of self-worth. For example, if an employee does not collect much “likes” on the designed platform, he may be disappointed to consider no one likes him.

Some people have also criticised that gamification treats the symptoms of a system at a superficial level. What is the actual reason employee’s doesn’t engage in their work? Probably it’s because modern work systems is usually designed for efficiency, but they built lack of flexibility. As a result, people become disenfranchised from the organisation. However, enterprises ignore such in-depth problem, and just use gamification as a method.

Building a successful gamification within a workspace is difficult. Before implementing gamification, we should always be well understood that the actual meaning of gamification, and what the company’s actual goal of using gamification is. To implement gamification in the workplace, I would suggest a company to identify the activities that they most want to have a change, and start to work from there. Meanwhile, the design should not only include short-term goals, but also think about the long time goals. Another suggestion is to develop game mechanisms with proper points and badges within limits and hits the right place.

Though gamification actually has some limitations, my opinion about the power of gamification is still positive. Gamification is still a new industry, and in the current level, putting gamification into its right use is more important than lavishly abusing it. In the future, gamification may take greater power with the emerging of new technologies such as virtual reality, mobile learning, etc. And maybe designing gamification will also be an emerging career with great demands. But who knows?

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