Five Ways to Mess Up Gamification

How to get the most value from an increasingly popular methodology for changing employees' behavior and driving engagement.
Whitney CookAugust 19, 2013

Top companies all over the world are adopting gamification into their core business strategies in order to drive engagement for employees, customers and partners. Through our experience working with some of the world’s largest brands, we have discovered some unexpected pitfalls along the way. The following is a list of what we consider the top five pitfalls that plague gamification programs today.

1. Forgetting that Motivation Is Everything
Understanding and strategically planning around the “what’s in it for me” mindset is essential to gamification success. There are two types of motivators that strategists use when installing gamification methods into corporate programs: intrinsic (from within) and extrinsic (an external force). Intrinsic motivators aren’t necessarily better than extrinsic motivators, and most experts would agree that there is value in both. These motivators are naturally ingrained in humans and are proved to be universal across cultures, age groups and time.

Intrinsic motivators:

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  • Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: the desire to get better at something that “matters” to us
  • Purpose: longing to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
  • Progress: the desire to see results in the direction of mastery and the greater purpose
  • Social interaction: the need to belong and to be connected to and interact with others

Extrinsic motivators:

  • Rewards
  • Cash awards
  • Recognition

Companies make the mistake of creating programs that get initial new and shiny attention. But in the end they lose their audience because there is not the right combination or rewards to earn their audience’s participation. The introduction of carefully selected extrinsic rewards, built around a design that speaks to intrinsic motivational states, is the most powerful design model today. Find out what motivates your audience, and your game and its intended results will win every time.

2. Trying to Just “Tack On” Gamification
Many companies make the mistake of thinking they can easily add a game to their current strategy. It’s easy to stick in a layer of game mechanics that doesn’t truly generate value for users. There are hundreds of game mechanics you could apply to any piece of content, but that doesn’t mean you should apply them all. When you start the planning phase of a gamification strategy, you should use a consciously selective process when deciding how and why you are going to gamify.

Start with the goals (which behaviors do you want to motivate?) before the tools (which game mechanics should you implement?). At the end of the day, the bottom line is that superficial gamification can lead to superficial engagement and a disappointing ROI. Investing the time up-front to nail down your strategy is critical to long-term success.

3. Not Knowing How Gamification and Games Differ
Gamification can be scary for some people, especially executives that look at lost productivity as lost profit. They are reluctant to create an environment in which employees are playing instead of adding value. Making sure leadership understands the difference between gamification and games will help clear confusion and will enable them to understand and buy into your strategy.

Games are purely entertaining with no other real purpose, like Words with Friends or Angry Birds.

Gamification moves along the continuum of entertainment with purpose. Gamification isn’t necessarily a game. It’s the concept of using game dynamics (competition, rewards, status) and mechanics (points, leaderboards, badges) in the not-so-game friendly business world to engage users, drive participation, influence behavior and solve business problems.

There are two types of gamification: implicit and explicit. Implicit refers to a game-like design that fulfills non-game purposes. There is no game play but game design elements are invisible to user (example: LinkedIn’s progress bar).

Explicit refers to games that fulfill non-game purposes – actual games that users opt-in to play (example: McDonalds’ Monopoly game – people know they are playing a game, but the goal is to get people to come buy more food). Serious games include all the elements of gamification as well as a real game. It will look and feel like a real game, but has some defined purpose, outcome or message the creators want to convey.

Both implicit and explicit gamification are great solutions for engaging employees, customers, students – you name it. One isn’t better than the other. The key is knowing your audience, understanding what motivates them and designing your gamification program to best suit their needs.

4. Not Allowing Success to Be Shared
Through our experience implementing gamification projects for our clients, we have learned the “power of the share” – that is, people’s ability to share their status, learning or advancement to a group of other people. Without this level of engagement, we found that our gamification strategy was much weaker. Gamification has little power if users can’t share their experience and accomplishments with others. Creating a program that has a social aspect is imperative to driving motivation and success.

5. Being Predictable
Games can quickly become stale and monotonous unless there is a concerted and conscious effort to manage it, update it and keep it alive. Content must be ever-changing, interesting and challenging. Not managing content correctly is one of the biggest factors in gamification success. Remember that people get used to processes, and “new and shiny” can quickly become “old and boring.” Creating a variable rewards structure and planting randomized fun mysteries throughout the user experience will help avoid the potential for boredom and decreased users

Regardless of what industry, avoiding these pitfalls will help create meaningful gamification programs that won’t just be a flavor-of-the-month company initiative, but will help drive engagement and provide long-lasting business results.

Whitney Cook is an account manager at Inward Strategic Consulting, which focuses on employee brand engagement. She specializes in gamification and employee engagement in the retail space. She can be reached at [email protected]