Gamification Basics

car raceLet’s assume you’ve decided to use gamification – the use of game mechanics to encourage behaviors – such as checking in (foursquare/swarm), selling (CRM scenarios), completing coursework (eLearning). Let’s assume it is in an enterprise gamification context. Maybe you’re gamifying learning, or call center activities, or sales.

Now let me ask you question: is your gamification project going to be addictive? or how about this question: should it be addictive? are you hemming and hawing and refraining from an outright answer? I was when I was first asked this.

I’ll admit that I myself hesitated when I started to hear these types of questions from gamification novices. After all, isn’t addiction a bad word? Its dictionary definition is “the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity”. THAT’S BAD. And if addiction is BAD (notwithstanding addictions to chocolate or coffee or extreme sports), then isn’t gamificaiton kind of diabolical?

Well, it IS NOT. I was reading  Erin Hoffman’s postLife, Addictive Game Mechanics, And The Truth Hiding In Bejeweled. And then it hit me: game mechanics may compel us to act. But they are not addictive or evil, and the sometimes naive portrayals in the business press (“in the future we will go to work and think we are playing a video game, but in fact the big corporate will be playing with our mind”) are incorrect.

This is why:

Game mechanics are not a game; working with game mechanics isn’t play.

The implementation of game mechanics (leaderboards, completion bars), narrative gamification metaphors (such as song contests and fantasy sports) and many others does not turn an enterprise application into a game. Employees are not playing with the game mechanics, at least according to the dictionary definition:  “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. Their engagement is definitely for serious and practical purposes.

Game mechanics work well because we’re human – and humans are compelled by game mechanics – the desire to climb to the top of a leaderboard, win a fantasy sports match, build a virtual city or complete a completion bar. That’s how our brains work. Game mechanics are not play, since we don’t complete the LinkedIn profile completion bar to “play”. The activity of filling in our profile has meaning. It is not recreational and shouldn’t be.

Game mechanics are a means of communication.

But game mechanics are much more that a “trick” to get people to do something. They indicate corporate goals, aspirations and objectives. They signal what’s important and what’s not, they tell employees how to balance the different tasks and goals they have. It’s somewhat of a corporate performance management system (to read more about this, go here).  To put it differently, game elements are becoming part of the user interface of the future. Using them in a corporate setting is about making the user interface work well. And it’s also about giving employees the sense of a job well done. That is almost the opposite of “play” or manipulation.

Gamification is not addictive.

You may still ask yourself whether gamification is addictive.

Here is where Erin Hoffman’s blog post explained something to me, a very good observation about addiction and games.

The post says this:

“Addictive” is a word we use in game development perhaps too lightly, though I would argue that there is no game designer who doesn’t treat that term with a huge dollop of trepidation. Executives love to hear the phrase “addictive gameplay”. Game designers, speaking for myself and those I know (whom I’m sure will correct me if they disagree), find the concept intriguing but simultaneously dangerous  no one, from executives to game designers to behavioral psychologists, can give you an absolutely clear and quantifiable test for what “addictive” means when applied purely to a behavior or action.”

The post describes playing Bejwelled, the thrill and satisfaction of it, and analyzes the game mechanics that make it work well. Yet, as the player asks herself “what are other players experiencing when playing this” truth hits: there are other , more complex tasks left to do (aka work and life). Although playing the game satisfies the internal five-year-old, one must get some work done, and one does.

And then Hoffman says: “Addiction is not about what you DO, but what you DON’T DO because of the replacement of the addictive behavior”. When we say that something is addictive, we want to say that the addictive behavior tells us that we’d rather do it than perform the things we are supposed to do and that we are anxious about avoiding the work/life behaviour.

These are huge human questions: what should we do with life?. Hoffman even argues that behind the perception of addiction lie anxiety and depression about not doing what we are “supposed” to do. But this does give us the answer for enterprise gamification: since game mechanics help us do our job, they aren’t addictive, since they don’t make us avoid our work. They help employees work, feel compelled by work, understand what they are doing and, most importantly, feel a sense of accomplishment.

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