Workplace Issues

Don’t Gamify. Pleasurize.

Some gamification efforts may try too hard to win over workers with unreal motivators like points, badges, and leader boards. Just adding a little ...
Taylor ProvostMarch 6, 2013

Orlando, Fla. — Will gamification catch on in a big and enduring way in Corporate America? Will it flame for a while before burning out? Or could it go either way, depending on how many companies do it right?

PwC, for one, predicted in January that this year more companies than ever will use gamification. The newly popular word generally means the use of game mechanics in nonentertainment environments to change user behavior, drive engagement, deepen connections with customers, and enhance employee experiences.

PwC principal Sean O’Driscoll further theorizes that existing gamification platforms will mature and begin to provide real-time metrics and behavioral data. Companies then could more quickly determine where people are falling behind and respond accordingly, his theory goes.

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That was a rosy outlook compared with that of technology research firm Gartner, which last November predicted that by 2014, 80% of current gamification applications will fail to meet business objectives, mainly because of poor design.

To be sure, such simplistic core-keeping elements as points, merit badges, and leader boards, whose only value is within the game itself, are hallmarks of gamification. The goal, rather, should be to design applications offering the kinds of motivations that will engage players more deeply, said Jesse Schell, chief executive officer of Schell Games, at the CFO Rising East Conference here on Monday.

Schell, also a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, warned attendees that the kind of gaming mechanics often used in attempts to improve business processes end up doing the opposite. He stressed that the success or failure of a gamification effort depends on behavioral psychology. For example, “if your plan is to offer a reward to get someone into the habit of doing an activity, and then once the habit is required, gradually remove the reward, that is almost sure to backfire.”

When an activity comes with an external reward, the human brain takes it as a message that the activity isn’t worth doing without that reward. The result is that offering a limited-time reward may eventually cause people to do the activity less than if you had offered no reward at all, Schell told the conference participants.

Effective gamification is not necessarily about having fun at work, Schell noted, drawing a narrow distinction between fun and pleasure. Fun, he said, is less important than such key aspects of pleasure as competence (feeling you’re good at what you do), autonomy (having the freedom to make your own decisions), and relatedness (feeling connected to others). The most successful games provide those three motivating factors, which are central to the much-researched topic of Self-Determination Theory.

Schell believes that when people say they want to “gamify” an aspect of the work environment, what they really mean is they want people to get more pleasure out of their everyday activities and therefore want to work harder at them, which will make them more productive. And that doesn’t necessarily require the use of points, badges, and leader boards.

“It could involve other things: the feeling of a job well done, a more attractive interface, some nice music, or social interaction with a friend,” said Schell. “Improving motivational design involves solving the deeper problem of how you can make specific activities more enjoyable.”

Businesses should consider what people find most satisfying about their job and find ways to strengthen that satisfaction. “A CFO should recognize that any such effort will be experimental and insist on hearing details of how the experiment will be designed, monitored, and improved, such as whom the game designer is, why [he thinks] the experiment will work, and what [he] will do when it doesn’t.”

Schell asserted that if businesses are willing to undertake a deep study of how their business processes can be made more pleasurable, and then are willing to reinvent the products or processes in that image, they’ll see a positive change in the way their workplace functions.

Nirma Colon, controller at Florida Hospital in Orlando, said she too believes that what motivates people to do the best job is related to feeling competent, free, and connected. Morale has been down among Colon’s employees as the health-care industry goes though major changes, she said, and many have been wondering how much longer their job will last. She has been looking for a way to make workers happier and more focused.

Colon said she planned to meet with her employees one-on-one to discuss their ideas for alternative business processes or solutions to current problems. She believes just letting them be heard is a first step in improving motivational design.

“I know that it’s about treating your employees with respect,” Colon said during a break at the conference. “Listening to people costs nothing. If people feel valued, they’ll do anything for you, and you’re not going to have a lot of turnover.”

The bottom line, Schell concluded, is that pleasure is much more important to workers now than ever before, and businesses are starting to realize it. When attempting to improve processes in a way that demonstrates a shift toward a more enjoyable work experience, he said, company leaders should ask themselves two questions: “Given what I know about my employees, why will they like this new initiative?” and “How can I get them to like it more?”