Posted by: karisyd | May 18, 2014

Why work gamification is a bad idea

This is a blog post that I wanted to write for quite a while now to express my uneasiness with the idea of gamification in the workplace. I will outline why I think work gamification won’t work beyond the short-term and why it is an ethically and economically questionable approach.

What is gamification? Why is it used?

Gamification has been a topic of interest for quite a while now. Gamification refers to “the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems”. Typical game mechanics are scores that are earned for mastering certain activities, badges, so-called level-ups and finally a scoreboard, often to rank players.

Gamification rests on the observation that most people like playing games, and that people become truly immersed and engaged and won’t mind spending time doing so. This has led to the belief that it is part of human nature, that people are intrinsicly motivated to play games and that this motivation can be drawn on to engage people in other contexts as well.

‘The opportunities for gamification are everywhere, and everyone is a gamer – it’s part of human nature. By applying these tactics, you can employ subtle psychological responses that will keep your customers paying and engaging.” Fast Company 5th March 2014

Gamification is widely used in many different contexts. For example,

  • In education so-called serious games are used to immerse the learner in a situational experience to get an educational point across. For example, the beergame lets players experuence first-hand the effects of systems dynamics.
  • In advertising game mechanics are used to entice people to share marketing messages to create viral messaging effects.
  • In health policy gamification is experimented with to break people’s habits to combat smoking or obesity.
  • In scientific research, gamification is used to engage large crowds to solve large-scale problems.

Why gamification in the workplace?

The reason for taking gamification into the workplace is simple: Many people in modern workplaces are said to be disengaged (studies show numbers as high as 70%), and gamification has proven to be successful in engaging people in contexts such as the ones listed above. Disengagement negatively impacts on business productivity. More concretely, people are often unwilling to carry out certain tasks, such as data entry into business software, which results in a lack of data quality.

Against this background, gamification looks like an appealing solution. If we were able to turn work that has proven to be disengaging into a game we could thus appeal to people’s intrinsic game-play motivation. The result would be to re-engage people and to get them to carry out those menial tasks that now feel less like boring work and more like a game. Through earning points, badges and level-ups and through the appearance in public scoreboards people would gain recognition and would thus be motivated and more engaged in their work again. This is the argument in simple terms.

What is the problem then?

On the one hand, we have disengaged people; on the other hand, we have a method that engages people. This looks like a perfect match, doesn’t it?

It does, but it isn’t!

Here are four points why I think it is a bad idea. I will elaborate each of these below:

  1. Gamification is a short-term concept.
  2. Gamification addressed the symptoms of a broken system, but does nothing to fix it.
  3. Gamification is disrespectful of employees.
  4. Gamification only looks good on a simplistic understanding of human activity.

Gamification is a short-term concept

Gamification is a short-term concept. First, it is in the nature of most games that they have some end point. Second, most games lose their appeal after a while (it is only fun for a while to earn that next badge). Finally, the usage of scoreboards exhausts itself fairly quickly. Once the first positions on the board are taken, what is there to compete for for the rest of the game population?

This last point raises another issue. Games are typically competitive; individuals compete for recognition. While gamification works well in certain short-term or one-off activities such as campaign management, in the early stages of community building or even in graduate recruiting, the question arises if the short-term and competitive nature is congruent with building sustainable work systems.

Gamification only treats the symptoms of a broken system

The main problem with using gamification to engage people at work is that it only treats the symptoms of a system that is broken at a deeper level. Shouldn’t we rather ask why so many people are disengaged at work?

Very often, people are disengaged because they can’t see the point of what they are doing, the purpose of their tasks in the greater whole of the work system. Yet, if people can’t see the purpose of their work, then this is the actual problem, disengagement is merely the consequence.

Unfortunately, this is a common disease in many work systems that are designed to follow strict efficiency criteria. The wide-spread and often top-down application of business process re-engineering methods has led to the creation of structured business processes with atomistic tasks that come with clear rules for execution. Yet, such work systems, designed for efficiency, come with unfortunate by-products. Besides an in-built lack of flexibility, the most notable one is that people are degraded to task bearers, to cogs in a well-oiled machine. In such a system it is not important, not possible, and indeed often not wanted, that the individual task bearer gains too much overview of the entire process.

The flip-side however is that people become disenfranchised from the overall enterprise of the organisation. This is where the actual problem lies! If people can no longer see, understand and indeed buy into the greater purpose of the organisation, but are instead treated as labour-for-hire, disengagement is the logical result. I am of course painting a certain picture here, but all too often this is the reality in organisations and the reason for the high levels of disengaged employees. But when people become disenfranchised from work, no gamification will ultimately save the day.

This raises the question of why to use gamification at all, why not fix the underlying problem? First of all, the idea of gamification as a tool “to fix people” is well compatible with the ideology and values that created the structured work system in the first place. Second, fixing the system will be much harder, requires a rethinking of management approaches at a deeper level and requires genuine leadership, all of which is much harder to achieve than the quick-fix promise of engagement through gamification.

Gamification is disrespectful of employees

In applying gamification in the workplace there is a real danger that, even though it might achieve some intended benefits in the short term, it will actually worsen the situation in the long term.

Gamification, despite its intricate features and the game-like environment it creates, is a blunt instrument. Its aim is to change people’s behaviour through making them play games. But does this not amount to trickery? – “You don’t want to do this task, so I make you play a game in the course of which you will do it anyway?” Will people not see through this? And for people who are already disengaged and disenfranchised, will this not make them even more cynical about how they are treated by the organisation? Rather than being empowered and treated seriously as collaborators in a greater enterprise they are now turned into game players. In my view this raises important ethical questions regarding how gamification and the game design aims to exert agency over people through turning them into gamers.

Gamification rests on a narrow understanding of human nature

Gamification is often motivated using a philosophical argument, where gaming is located as an inherently human trait. Playing games is said to be part of human nature which apparently justifies its use in influencing people. After all, gamification only treats people as what they are anyway, game-players at heart. It must be ok then.

But what it actually assumes is that people have certain inherent traits (such as a propensity of gaming) and are bearers of certain behaviours (such as engaging in smoking or refusing to work). Two things are wrong with this view: First it treats people as individuals, when they are in fact social beings at base. Second, it adopts a narrow view of behaviour, as something belonging to the individual. While this view is all too prevalent in everyday thinking (and many academic disciplines), it has long been challenged.

It is well known that we are social beings, who strive for purpose in life. We assume multiple identities in different contexts. We are who we are through becoming part of different social practices. In short we are what we do and we draw our purpose in life from our practical involvement in various activities, at work and otherwise. And we spend much of our awake time at work!

When people care about and are invested in their work, when they draw a sense of purpose and identity form their work, when they understand themselves as part of a greater whole, gamification is not needed. Rather than trying to change people’s behaviour when they are reluctant to engage in tasks, the point of which is lost on them, organisations should ensure that people to draw a genuine sense of identity from their work. People are truly engaged when work is meaningful to them, when they can see the purpose of what they do in contributing to the overall purpose of the organisation.

Yet, this raises two more important points:

First, in many organisations this original purpose (e.g. to become a world-class full service airline) has already been lost and been replaced by a narrow and all too generic quest for profit or (worse even) cost reduction.

Second, while effective in increasing productivity and efficiency in stable environments, the top-down, structured work system (not least through disenfranchising people) poses a considerable risk when the organisation needs to change and become more responsive. Such responsiveness can only be truly achieved systemically, through the self-organising ability of the organisation. But this requires empowered employees who care about and understand the joint enterprise and can engage in the joint sense-making to reorient the organisation in the face of external change. Work gamification and the idea of the responsive organisation don’t gel.


Responses

  1. I agree with the following observations – “Two things are wrong with this view: First it treats people as individuals, when they are in fact social beings at base. Second, it adopts a narrow view of behaviour, as something belonging to the individual.”
    In this regard, however, my submission in support of Gamification (workplace or otherwise), is this:

    The most (and only) successful examples of gamification have been the ones which have been able to address the ‘social’ context of human beings and have been able to ground the expected behavior in the social landscape of individuals. The classic example sited in this regard is the Google Language correction challenge, which was a workplace challenge spanning across the entire globe. A good case of workplace gamification.

    I also completely agree with the point of view that gamification being used to address symptoms of deeper problems in the Organization are bound to fail, especially in the longer run. My submission, however, is that in select situations, an intelligently designed gamified system can help foster certain behaviors, for which the basic environment already exists. How this works is by latching on to the basic dimension of Motivation i.e. Mastery and autonomy, providing feedback on the progression someone is making on a particular behavior or skill and putting that person in charge of the process to choose his own path.

    The classic uses of Point badges & leaderboards are doomed to fail more often then not in the workplace and there are real dangers of these turning into “Electronic whips” rather than a system for creating motivation. classic example is the Disney case.

    So yes, gamification in workplace is fairly challenging and would require far more intelligent design, and would only work in certain kind of situations, provided one is not trying to address symptoms of deeper problems using the same. But I am of the view that those situations do exist where with clever designing and the right choice of problem, gamification can be used to an organization’s benefit in the workplace.

    • Rajdeep,
      I completely agree that there is a place for gamification in the workplace! Gamification might well work in internal campaigns (e.g. the Deloitte green dot campaign comes to mind), when launching a new community platform or otherwise to engage people in a short-term ‘fun’ kind of way. My point was about gamification of work as such as a cure for the problem of disengaged employees. Note that in many cases the problem is indeed attributed to the employees (“they are disengaged”). The systemic problem often cannot even be seen by those within the system. After all the system was modelled in this way for a reason and following a deeply held belief and proven evidence regarding how efficient work systems should be organised. Yet, efficiency often comes at the expense of engagement. Gamification will not remedy this.

      • Quote: “I completely agree that there is a place for gamification in the workplace”

        So what now? Your blog title says the total opposite: “Why work gamification is a bad idea.” Or did you just write it because it’s so much catchier?

      • I am making a distinction between gamification of work (as in the work system) and gamification in the workplace in more general terms.

  2. Hi Kai,
    I couldn’t really make my point via Twitter, so here are some more thoughts.
    Like most things applied in an organisation, if there are underlying problems, then sooner or later the initiative will reflect the problem. A classic example is organisations use of Performance Management tools when there is a low Level of HR Maturity and the executive don’t really value HR more than an admin department. In this example the PM system becomes a burden on the manager and employee and is often a game of completing the form. In other words the intervention is destructive (negative value adding).

    My point about your assumptions is that you have assumed that organisations use gamifications to hide problems and try surreptitiously to motivate staff – of course you are correct if that is the case, but when the work environment is engaging, generating innovation and has a strong EVP, then Gamification can be a strong channel to achieve a business outcome.
    I’ve seen some good use of Gamification in eg. the on boarding process. Its not competitive at all, but rather engages new employees over a 3-6 month period, promotes involvement, encourages the right behaviors and adds a bit of fun!

    I’m a big believer in choice though. And while many organisations have gone down the road of “Standardisation” this was mainly because their HR or other systems could only cope with a singular approach, or they wanted to make their HR jobs easier. I’m seeing companies rethinking this, and as they become more customer focused, they are realizing that not everyone thinks and operates in the same way,and therefor they need multiple channels to keep people engaged and still achieve the expected outcome. This is why I think Gamification has a place as one form of mechanism to achieve company goals.

    Thanks again for your blog, it was an interesting read.

    • Hi Rob,
      I completely agree about the point re the underlying problems as a matter of principle. However, my point runs deeper than that and way beyond the HR function. In simple terms the point is, when employees can see, are connected to and buy into the shared purpose of the organisation, no one needs to keep an eye on whether they are engaged or not, or think about how to engage them, with gamification or otherwise. Yet, in many businesses the wide-spread (and often thought-less) application of business process re-engineering has disconnected many employees from the company purpose (or this purpose has been lost entirely). At the same time, this is often not seen as the (source of the) problem at all, as it is quite compatible with a certain, wide-spread ideology. The problem is attributed to the employees, who are disengaged.
      I completely agree that there is a place for gamification in business and in the workplace also. On-boarding is a good example, internal campaigns or the launch of a new community platform are other instances where gamification can work. But these are all short-term campaigns. My point was about gamifying work as such, which has received some attention of late.

  3. Your blog is called “backed by research” but you don’t provide any research to back up your analysis. Do you have some citations that you can share?

    • Sure. The thoughts shared in this post are based on a systematic analysis of the effects of measurement and ‘gamification’ of the academic system, where we can witness first hand the destructive effects of an over-reliance on publication points, rankings of various sorts and a focus on the ‘scoreboard’. While not exactly gamification in the narrow ‘management toolset’ sense, the effects are the same and run even deeper. Here is a link to the publication. Let me know if you want me to email the article to you.

      Johnston RB and Riemer K 2014 ‘On Putting the Score ahead of the Game’, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, vol.34, pp. 849-56

      • It looks fascinating! please do. I will send you a PM on twitter with email.

  4. […] Gamification addresses the symptoms of a broken system, but does nothing to fix it. via @ericzigus […]

  5. First: if you equal gamification with only 3 out of several dozen game design elements (you mention points or badges – two extrinsic motivators), then of course you are neglecting the others including the intrinsic motivation factors. Here is a list to show you that gamification is way richer in its toolset than you describe:
    http://www.enterprise-gamification.com/mediawiki/index.php?title=Category:Gamification_Design_Elements

    Second: Because you are not really quoting studies, I give you a link to a metastudy of gamification studies and their effectivity
    http://www.enterprise-gamification.com/mediawiki/index.php?title=Does_Gamification_Work%3F_A_Literature_Review_of_Empirical_Studies_on_Gamification
    Many other studies with even more examples of how effective it can be is here:
    http://www.enterprise-gamification.com/mediawiki/index.php?title=Category:Gamification_studies
    And then of course some facts and figures with many practical examples:
    http://www.enterprise-gamification.com/mediawiki/index.php?title=Facts_%26_Figures

    Third: if you take only extrinsic instead of intrinsic motivators, then of course you go towards short-term improvement. Which of course has nothing to do with gamification, but with bad gamification design. Like Lada building a shitty car doesn’t mean that everyone else including BMW, Mercedes, or Tesla is building shitty cars and thus question the concept of building cars.

    Fourth: you need to fix the shitty applications/process/system first, before you apply gamification. If it’s a technical problem, then gamification doesn’t help. gamification changes behaviors and creates habits. It’s like putting Michael Schuhmacher on the worst Formula I race car and then saying that Michael Schuhmacher is a shitty driver. Fix the car, make it good, and then let him drive.

    Fifth: “Gamification is disrespectful of employees.” Gamification is not a blunt concept. if you equal gamification with playing games, you probabaly haven’t realized that gamification can be built so subtle that you don’t even see it. Or did you know that LinkedIn, Amazon, or facebook are heavily gamified systems? Here is an analysis for LinkedIn http://tinyurl.com/o5pu653 and Amazon http://tinyurl.com/p6nsggw
    And be honest: is keeping employees miserable preferable than giving them some fun, meaning, autonomy, mastery, learning etc.?

    Sixth: “Gamification only looks good on a simplistic understanding of human activity.” Right, that’s why we rather give up and let them be miserable.

    Please, there is soooooooooo much more about gamification than your blog post indicates, I challenge you to research the topic better the next time.

    • Hello Mario,

      Thanks for your comments and the links you provided to the resources you collected on your website. Great resource!
      Let me start my response by expressing my surprise at your strong and defensive reaction to my post. You make it sound like I attacked and discounted the entire idea of gamification. I believe I was quite precise in outlining what the exact application and nature of gamification was that I am criticizing. Your comments seem to suggest that you did not quite read the text in its entirety.

      Let me respond to your six points:

      1. 1) I do not equal gamification with these three points. I am critiquing gamification of work as described by these three points. I am quite aware that there exists a far broader understanding of gamification. [As an aside: This in my view is a problem, because gamification (and your 10 points are no exception) is now often conflated to include many aspects of motivation and general systems design that existed previously but are somehow subsumed now under the new concept gamification. Gamification thus loses its distinctive explanatory value. For example, any systems design with feedback mechanism can then be subsumed under gamificiation.]
      2. 2) I am not quoting research because I am making an argument, I am not reporting on research. I am outlining an analysis of why gamification of work systems is counter-productive. Interestingly though, if you look through the collection of both research and examples that you have collected on your website, you will find they are very silent on successful examples of work system gamification.
      3. 3) See my reply to point one. Also the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators stems from the same simplistic understanding of the nature of human activity that I am critiquing. This is evident in the approach of gamification to “fix” (or change) people’s behaviours.
      4. 4) I am critiquing precisely the approach where gamification is used as a solution to fix the problems of the existing managerial and work system. Typically these are not technical problems, these are managerial problems, problems in perspective and attitude problems on the part of the management. The notion that “gamification changes behaviors and creates habits” is precisely the problematic attitude that I am criticizing.
      5. 5) I do not equate gamification with playing games. And sure LinkedIn and Amazon are gamified to a certain extent, but what is the point? I did not criticise this use of gamification in these contexts. And how did you get the idea that I am advocating “keeping employees miserable”. Quite the opposite. But the point is that gamification will not give them meaning. Fixing the broken work system and doing something about people being disenfranchised from the higher purpose of the organization is what I am talking about. Gamification will not fix this. This opinion piece in the New York Times gives a good description of the situation that I am referring to. Note that gamification is not mentioned as a solution!
      6. 6) Again, not sure how you arrive at the conclusion that “we rather give up and let them be miserable.”?!

      You are challenging me to research the topic better next time. Challenge accepted. I am not an expert in gamification to the extent that you are. But I do know a thing or two about work systems and human activity. I would like to return the challenge though and ask you to re-read my post and see that I did not discount gamification at the level you seem to suggest.

  6. […] on from education and go into something more simple, Gamification in Businesses. This site and this site covers why gamification is bad for business when it does […]


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