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Gamification goes mainstream

Lamont Wood | Jan. 25, 2012
Increased sales, increased participation, increased engagement. It doesn't sound like a game, but those are some of the goals, and reported achievements, of the new field of "gamification."

The end result is that employee performance reviews are much easier to perform, she indicates, since so much feedback is available. She is also confident that the users are not gaming the system, so to speak, to make themselves look good. "Everyone can see what they write, so they don't make anything up," notes Yates. "And they're not just saying 'great job today' -- they're giving special thanks for specific things on specific projects."

Neither Mathur nor Yates report significant problems. But Ryan Elkins, founder and CEO of iActionable Inc., a gamification vendor based in Provo, Utah, cautions that it isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Employee-facing gamification "tends to work well in job functions that don't pay well. In boring jobs or call center jobs, people come in and detach themselves from their work. Gamification helps bring them back and gives them something to focus on."

Conversely, Elkins says, the harder it is to quantify a person's contributions or participation, the less likely gamification is to work. "And you need a big community, since it is hard to promote competition with only a few people."

But even among high-paid, isolated salespeople, Elkins says that he has seen gamification used to encourage them to keep their paperwork up to date.

As for pitfalls, "If you are trying to drive specific behavior, but you don't understand the behavior of the end users, you may create a false dynamic, such as driving salespeople to make [time-wasting] phone calls in situations where normally they only use email," notes Scott Holden, a director at, a San Francisco-based SaaS vendor that offers gamification features.

More potential pitfalls

The gamification field may be too new for it to have run into two problems that Michael Wu predicts. Wu researches online behavior for Lithium Technologies of Emeryville, Calif., which provides social networking services for businesses.

For consumer-facing sites, the problem is called over-justification, he explains.

"If you reward people for doing something they are not interested in, you demotivate them in the long run," Wu says. "It's like giving kids a dollar for doing math problems." They will do the math problems because they like the money, but will become conditioned to do it only for the money.

"Gamification is a good short-term tactic, and is good for getting people to do something, but for the long term, it won't work, as the over-justification effect will kick in," Wu explains. "No one knows how long it will be before it kicks in, but we know it won't be forever," he cautions.

But if users can find some intrinsic value in the site, such as participation in a community, then gamification only needs to work until they find that value, Wu adds. After that, gamification becomes a reinforcement rather than a driver, he notes.


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