Gambling on gamification gimmicks

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s natural to think about giving gifts, playing games, and having fun. In terms of on-screen entertainment, some of the most imaginative and exhilarating adventures can be found in video games. Back in December 2011, my favorite video game was the laser-blasting Star Wars: The Old Republic. But this year, in December 2013, I’m addicted to the swashbuckling Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Hi, my name is Jay, and I’m an IBM TRIRIGA information developer at IBM. For myself and many others, the most-meaningful power of playing video games is not simply to earn artificial points, badges, or levels, but to escape from our uncontrollable reality, forget the limited control over our real lives, and instead enjoy a satisfying storytelling sense of command over our virtual lives or characters.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Having said that, does it make sense to mix reality and fantasy by gamifying office applications or social media platforms? Does gamification fit better as a short-term training tactic or a long-term community strategy? Does it satisfy all levels of users from the less-competitive players to the more-sophisticated gamers? After all, what might be compelling or captivating to me might be completely distracting to you, right?

What is gamification? What are its expected benefits?

First of all, to get a better idea of what gamification is or is supposed to become, here are 4 revealing perspectives from Wikipedia,, Bunchball, and IBM. While aims to be the “ultimate resource for the emerging Gamification Industry”, its exclusive sponsor Badgeville claims to be the “#1 Gamification Platform for the Enterprise”. Meanwhile, Bunchball proclaims itself to be the “leader in gamification” and partnered with IBM to launch Bunchball Nitro for IBM Connections which “puts the most advanced gamification engine inside your social software platform”.

“Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems. Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, return on investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning…

Gamification techniques strive to leverage people’s natural desires for competition, achievement, status, self-expression, altruism, and closure. A core gamification strategy is rewards for players who accomplish desired tasks. Types of rewards include points, achievement badges or levels, the filling of a progress bar, and providing the user with virtual currency. Competition is another element of games that can be used in gamification. Making the rewards for accomplishing tasks visible to other players or providing leader boards are ways of encouraging players to compete. Another approach to gamification is to make existing tasks feel more like games. Some techniques used in this approach include adding meaningful choice, onboarding with a tutorial, increasing challenge, and adding narrative.”

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior…

According to a a recent Gartner Research Report it is estimated that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes. By 2014, Gartner predicts that over 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one ‘gamified’ application, and that ‘gamification is positioned to become a significant trend in the next five years.’ M2 Research reports that gamification will be a $2.8B industry by 2016.”

“Gamification is the process of taking something that already exists – a website, an enterprise application, an online community – and integrating game mechanics into it to motivate participation, engagement, and loyalty. Gamification takes the data-driven techniques that game designers use to engage players, and applies them to non-game experiences to motivate actions that add value to your business…

When people hear gamification, they envision games created for a business purpose. But gamification is not about creating something new. It is about amplifying the effect of an existing, core experience by applying the motivational techniques that make games so engaging. When you increase high-value interactions with customers, employees, and partners, you drive more sales, stronger collaboration, better ROI, deeper loyalty, higher customer satisfaction and more.”

“Gamification is the application of game design techniques to encourage user adoption and participation. The gamification device responsible for my wife’s and my transformation from couch potatoes to fitness freaks was a Fitbit activity tracker. This little device measures steps taken and stairs climbed. I’ve had pedometers before and they’ve not done much to alter my behavior, but it’s Fitbit’s adoption of gamification that makes it so addictive…

My wife’s obsession with repeatedly climbing to the attic was in pursuit of a target: the almighty 50 Daily Floors badge. It’s not even a real badge—just a picture file attached to an email that only she would see. But so far she only had the 25 Daily Floors badge, and a goal is a goal.”



What are the criticisms of gamification?

While the Wikipedia article also discusses several criticisms of gamification, ranging from the artificial sense of achievement to the lack of storytelling elements, I’ll instead present some coincidental observations from my own personal experiences. For example, as I mentioned earlier, my top-two favorite video games are Star Wars: The Old Republic and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. In each case, whether I’m playing a bounty hunter or a pirate assassin, not only does the adventure track my mission objectives, monetary levels, and progress statuses, it also tells an absolutely riveting story! Here are 4 more screen captures that show the sample gameplay in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Conversely, I can already name two websites where gamification fails to motivate my participation or engage my attention, let alone tell a story: World Community Grid and Samsung Nation. Back in May 2011, I joined the World Community Grid to contribute my personal computing resources in solving global problems like fighting deadly diseases and filtering clean water, not to gain points or badges. Yet their website continues to post the endless points and badges that I’ve earned over the last couple of years. Similarly, in November 2012, I joined Samsung Nation to register my smartphone and order a smartphone case, not to gain levels or unlock badges. Yet by logging into their website, I unlocked an unwanted badge. On both websites, gamification was an unnecessary social distraction from my primary objectives.

World Community Grid

World Community Grid

Samsung Nation

Samsung Nation

Because many physical workouts are based solely on counting repetitions, these numerical activities might be the easiest to gamify successfully. In the case of the Fitbit activity tracker, its gamification adds a layer of numerical badges that have the same “level of meaning” as the numerical purpose of counting steps. However, in the case of the World Community Grid, its gamification assigns points and badges that have significantly less meaning than the humanitarian purpose of solving global problems. Similarly, in the case of Samsung Nation, its gamification assigns points and badges that have relatively less meaning than the consumer purpose of registering, comparing, or purchasing products. As a result, I wasn’t motivated.

Based on these limited observations, if the “level of meaning” in the gamification strategy matches that in the core purpose or activity, then there’s a stronger chance of behavioral adoption and traction. Meanwhile, if the “levels of meaning” don’t align or connect, then the gamified elements might more likely become annoying distractions or detriments. For example, while a points-based strategy might work well with quantity-based sales quotas, the same points-based strategy trivializes and defeats the life-and-death purpose of experiencing realistic military and surgical training simulations. How seriously would you treat your cardiac surgeon if you knew he trained with badge-gamified surgical simulators?

What is the most effective environment for gamification?

While I haven’t found any articles that specifically address this concept of matching or aligning these behavioral “levels of meaning”, here are 2 more criticisms of gamification from Salesforce and Gigaom. Both articles support the idea that first and foremost, before any gamification project can be considered, the core purpose or activity in the organization or enterprise must establish its own strategy and find its own meaning. Adding my own perspective, after this core foundation is laid, and if gamification is still deemed necessary, then a matching “level of meaning” can be designed and developed.

“Too many people are focusing attention on ‘gamifying’ their company or their sales team. Instead of sales managers helping to make their organization more productive and successful, they are all too often getting caught up in gamification as a buzzword. While gamification and well-designed competitions can improve employee CRM engagement, gamification does not replace an effective sales push or strategy. Think of gamification as more of a tool to help get the job done – a very effective one when used in a thoughtful manner – but a tool nonetheless. It’s not about gamification, it’s about the execution of your gamification strategy.”

“Supporting my argument, the ‘#1 gamification company,’ Badgeville, recently launched The Behavior Lab, a ‘center for excellence’ for ‘behavior management solutions.’ The company states that 70% of Fortune 500 companies will be trying gamification by 2020, but that most projects will fail. And the reason isn’t that we haven’t developed best practices. The failure is inevitable, because people aren’t pigeons in a Skinner box, pecking a lever to get a food pellet.

The need for a renewed push in the enterprise to reengage every person with their personal work, to find meaning and purpose, has never been greater. But adding badges to users’ profiles on whatever work management tool the company is on, showing that Bette is a super expert customer support staffer, or whatever, is the shallowest sort of employee recognition, like giving out coffee mugs to the folks with the lowest number of sick days.

We need to build deep culture, where the foundation of the new work ethos is on people’s relationship to their own work: gaining mastery in their work domain, acquiring higher levels of autonomy, and gaining the respect of coworkers. For that, we don’t need no stinking badges.”

Let’s go back to my introductory questions. Does it make sense to mix reality and fantasy by gamifying office applications or social media platforms? Does gamification fit better as a short-term training tactic or a long-term community strategy? Does it satisfy all levels of users from the less-competitive players to the more-sophisticated gamers? After all, what might be compelling or captivating to me might be completely distracting to you, right? To answer all of these questions, if your gamification strategy matches the “level of meaning” in the core purpose or activity of your users like it does for Fitbit, then yes, gamification might make sense. However, if the core purpose or activity of your users already supports a captivating strategy and compelling meaning like it does for the World Community Grid, then no, gamification might not be necessary or beneficial at all.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

In the end, this “mastery in their work domain”, “higher levels of autonomy”, and “captivating strategy and compelling meaning” with or without gamification is precisely the “satisfying storytelling sense of command” within video games that empowers both the office workers and video gamers, both the short-term trainees and long-term community members, and both the less-competitive players and more-sophisticated gamers. In other words, if the following perspective by The New Yorker can be extended beyond first-person shooters, then both gamification strategies and video games also aim to give us “a sense of control over our lives”.

“Control, compounded by a first-person perspective, may be the key to the first-person shooter’s enduring appeal. A fundamental component of our happiness is a sense of control over our lives. It is, in fact, “a biological imperative for survival,” according to a recent review of animal, clinical, and neuroimaging evidence. The more in control we think we are, the better we feel; the more that control is taken away, the emotionally worse off we become.

In extreme cases, a loss of control can lead to a condition known as learned helplessness, in which a person becomes helpless to influence his own environment. And our sense of agency, it turns out, is often related quite closely to our motor actions: Do our movements cause a desired change in the environment? If they do, we feel quite satisfied with ourselves and with our personal effectiveness. First-person shooters put our ability to control the environment, and our perception of our effectiveness, at the forefront of play…

In 2009, the psychologist Leonard Reinecke discovered that video games were a surprisingly effective way to combat stress, fatigue, and depression—this proved true for many of the same titles that critics once worried would be isolating, and would negative impact on individual well-being and on society as a whole. In other words, the success of Doom and the games that have followed in its footsteps haven’t sentenced us to a world of violence. On the contrary: for all of their virtual gore, they may, ironically, hold one possible road map for a happier, more fulfilling and more engaged way of life.”


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