Gamification: making work fun, or making fun of work?


This is an abbreviated abstract from a research paper I submitted to Sage publications on the topic of  “Gamification”. The full article is available from the June 2014 edition of Business Information Review.


Gamification is about understanding and influencing human behaviours that organizations want to encourage amongst their workforce or customers. Gamification seeks to take enjoyable aspects of games – fun, play and challenge – and apply them to real-world business processes. Analysts are predicting massive growth of gamification over the next few years, but is there any substance to the benefits being touted? This article takes a critical look at the potential of gamification as a business change agent that can deliver a more motivated and engaged workforce.

This article seeks to explain what gamification is and answers the following questions:

1. Does gamification have a place as an effective business change agent?
2. Can gamification encourage knowledge sharing behaviours and better  employee engagement within and across the enterprise?

What is ‘gamification’?

The term ‘gamification’ has been used since around 2003 as a way to influence online and real-world behaviour. Software applications or mobile apps encourage people to
do a variety of things – sometimes play games, sometimes respond to particular stimuli or situations – with rewards for users exhibiting the ‘right’ behaviours. Gamification makes a game out of something – and game design has certain conventions. Every game has to have rules, tools, mechanics and players. Rules and tools are specific to each game, dependent on what outcomes are desired. The players are either employees or exist outside
of the corporate firewall. Therefore there are two main types of gamification – enterprise gamification and social gamification.

The most common game mechanics are:

  • achievements (Experience points, Levels, Bonuses etc.);
  • exercises (Challenges, Discoveries etc.);
  • synchronizing with the community (Leaderboards, Collaboration etc.);
  • result transparency (Experience bars, Continuous feedback etc.);
  • time (Countdown, Speed etc.);
  • luck (Lottery, Random Achievements etc.).

The Science

Gamification is much more than simply rewarding points and badges; it’s aboutunderstanding and influencing the human behaviours that companies want to encourage among their users. Gamification is founded in the fundamentals of human psychology and behavioural science, and rests on three primary factors: motivation, ability level and triggers.

For a behaviour to change, 3 things have to be present: a trigger, the ability to do the behaviour, and motivation. And the last two, motivation and ability, are trade-offs. That means if you have low amounts of ability, you need to have more motivation. If you have low amounts of motivation you need to make the behaviour steps really small.

When done correctly, gamification provides an experience that is inherently engaging and, most importantly, promotes learning. The elements of games that make for effective gamification are those of storytelling, which provides a context, challenge, immediate feedback, sense of curiosity, problem-solving, a sense of accomplishment, autonomy and mastery.

Typical components of a gamified application include:

1. Points – points are allocated for specific high value behaviours and achievements.

2. Achievements – provide positive reinforcement for high value user behaviours. 3. Levels – signify levels of engagement and act as gateways into new challenges.

4. Missions – used to create a set of behaviours that will enable users to unlock specific rewards.

5. Contests – a combination of missions that reward those who finish most quickly or effectively.

6. Leaderboards – introduces a sense of competition by letting people know where they stand relative to their peers.

7. Notifications – to encourage engagement when users perform a desired action.

8. Anti-Gaming Mechanics – used to set limits on how often a behaviour can be rewarded.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards

Activities are intrinsically motivating if they help you fulfill your inherent desire for personal growth by achieving some kind of competence (“I am good, getting better, mastering this”); if they help learners feel they are working towards their own set of goals with some amount of autonomy (“I am in control and doing things that match my values”); and if they contribute to the sense of relatedness that learners feel by being part of a group, or some kind of purposeful movement larger than themselves (“I am a part of something here that I think is kind of cool or important”).

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand is all the trifling enticements and punishments that are used to make subjects do what they are told to do: salaries, grades, threats of prison time, as well as points, badges, leaderboards, and other tools of gamification.

The following table gives some examples of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.

Table 1 – Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Rewards

Extrinsic Intrinsic
Money Recognition
Points/Badges/Trophies Personal Achievement
Prizes Responsibility
Penalties Power
Quests Fun
Progress bars Mastery

To further illustrate the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic reward mechanisms, we can look at an extract from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In this scene, Tom’s aunt orders him to whitewash a fence as punishment for playing truant from school. He doesn’t relish this so he tricks several of his friends to do the job for him by convincing them that the task is so enjoyable that he doesn’t want their help. The boys beg him to let them take over – they even pay him with twelve marbles, a piece of blue glass to look through, a kite, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, and a dead rat he could swing from a string. Twain wrote: “Tom had discovered a great law of human action, namely, that in order to make someone covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain”.

If Tom had money, he might have tried to buy his way out of his plight, an “extrinsic reward”. Although they would have benefited from the cash, their hearts would not have really been in the task, which they would have categorised as “work”. Instead, Tom served up an “intrinsic reward”, by convincing his friends that whitewashing a fence was fun. Having started the task, they would convince themselves that it was fun, and not work, and therefore avoiding cognitive dissonance.

(NB In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time).

Gamification in the Workplace

Companies deploying gamification fall into two main categories: Consumer and service organisations that are looking for improvements to their loyalty solutions, and companies that want to find the right employee engagement tools.

These are just some of the benefits a company can hope to achieve through a well-implemented gamification strategy:

  • Increased motivation and productivity of employees
  • Alignment of goals and expectations of employees, stakeholders and customers with the company’s goals.
  • Employees fully engaged with new company initiatives
  • Employees converted into advocates of the company

However, a problem faced by many companies is getting things done within legacy structures and cultures that – often unwittingly – inhibit the free flow of knowledge and expertise. Resistance to change can be endemic; business processes remain locked and impervious to improvement. But there is growing evidence that, given the right incentives, people and behaviours will change. Perhaps surprisingly these incentives do not have to be financial; there are many other triggers that can deliver more effective knowledge sharing and encourage employee and customer loyalty.

A gamification strategy aimed at increasing employee engagement could consider the following triggers:

  • Visit specific pages on the company’s website (e.g. the corporate blog, a bulletin board…)
  • Share news of the company in social networks
  • Follow the company on social networks
  • Participate in surveys
  • Participate in a contest (photos, texts or images)
  • Comment on blogs and discussion forums
  • Download any type of corporate material

As mentioned earlier, it is best to avoid giving financial incentives and rewards since this is more associated with “normal work” as opposed to “fun” – an important element of any gamification strategy. However, the gamification software must be able to track and measure these activities, for example, number of “Likes”, number of comments, number of downloads etc. But don’t limit the incentives to extrinsic rewards such as points, badges and trophies, which are fairly one-dimensional. Consider also the behaviours that are driven by intrinsic rewards (see Table 1). Involving the users in the gamification design is essential, and should enable the right balance to be achieved between extrinsic and intrinsic reward mechanisms.

Companies that want to boost their internal training programmes are also looking at gamification as a way to increase engagement and friendly competition. The willingness to play, to fail, and to try again, could be said to be the essence of what makes learning a compelling activity. These types of rewards need to be much more frequent than the annual review/award, and encourage staff to always be working towards achievements. The engagements need to focus more on emotional experience in order to keep people with short attention spans properly interested. When done well, gamification can be used to shape user interactions and to push people to go further, to build up streaks of learning, and to condition behaviour.

Some examples of where gamification is being used for business improvement or environmental change:

  • At Google, engineers have been able to spend an in-house currency called ‘Goobles’ on server time — often a scarce resource at Google.
  • SAP created a game to encourage workers to carpool in order to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.
  • DirecTV introduced a gamification portal to encourage knowledge sharing through “lunch and learn” presentations.
  • Foldit engages users in a collective for querying and analysing data to solve scientific problems
  • DevHub  applied gamification techniques by giving rewards to participants who completed certain tasks on the site. They increased user engagement by 70%
  • Deloitte training programs using Gamification took 50% less time to complete and kept more students involved than ever before (source: Huffington Post)
  • Marketo layered Badgeville games on their community and achieved 67% more engagement, 51% more active members and 10% more engagements per member
  • Recycle Bank and Opowerl increased recycling by 20% and reduced carbon emissions
  • Engine Yard increased the response rate for its customer service representatives by 40% after posting response-time leaders for employees to see (source: Society for Human Resource Management)
  • JOIZ, a Swiss television network, increased sharing by 100% and social referral traffic by 54% with social infrastructure and gamification technology (source: Gigya)
  • Spotify and Living Social replaced annual reviews with a mobile, gamified solution. Over 90% of employees participated voluntarily (source: Huffington Post)
  • Halton Borough Council has introduced RFID tags on bins to provide accurate tracking of the recycling efforts of each household. Points are awarded based on the weight of recycled products. The points can be redeemed at local businesses for goods and services.

One obvious question about gamification in the workplace and the examples given above, is whether these behaviour changes are sustainable over the long term? The jury remains out on this point – unless you know differently – any evidence gratefully received!

Implementation Good Practice

While gamification has the potential to become an integral part of the workplace, it must be done right. Considering how difficult it is to build a hit game, it should come as no surprise that building successful gamification within a work environment is no different; there are many more ways to do it wrong than right. From small mistakes that waste your time to disasters that can turn users against you. Gamification should be well understood and planned out prior to implementation. Some points to consider during the planning process include:

  • Be sure your organisation’s goals for using gamification are clear. This is an especially important step to take before getting too deep into the effort. It is far better to determine all of the goals of a gamification programme during the beginning stages.
  • Think carefully about your company culture. What types of rewards will motivate employees, andhow can you build out a recognition programme that ties into the prevailing culture.
  • Focus on what behaviours you are trying to encourage or discourage first, and work backwards from there. Identify the activities and triggers that are most likely to influence the behaviour change you wish to achieve.
  • Changing the rewards system periodically will ensure employees remain engaged and not get bored with the same-old options.
  • Don’t develop game mechanisms that dole out points and badges like sugar pellets every time the user hits the right lever.
  • Don’t “game” the workers. Companies need to design game systems that enhance work rather than exploiting their workers.
  • Don’t use money as a motivator. Research, as summarized by Daniel Pink’s famous TED talk[, states that extrinsic rewards rarely work. Introducing money automatically makes the activity about money—other motivations, such as taking pride in a job well done or collaborating as part of a team, are set aside


Gamification is being touted as a way to immerse more enterprise users more deeply in business processes and tasks. Gamification borrows heavily from interactive and reward & recognition elements from online games, and – if done correctly – maps them to business goals to drive engagement, interactivity, participation, and (hopefully) better results. The thinking is simple: the more interesting it is, the more likely people are to engage.

However, there are two conflicting trends emerging: on the one hand analysts are predicting that organisations will allocate 2.8 billion USD (1.7 billion GBP) in direct spending on gamification by 2015, and yet also predict that 80% of Gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives (Gartner).

At its core, gamification is about engaging people on an emotional level and motivating them to achieve their goals. One way to motivate people is to present them with compelling and personalised challenges; encourage them as they progress through levels, and get them emotionally engaged to achieve their very best.

This all sounds very good, but I strongly suspect that implementers will place more focus on aspects of the technology and the mechanics (bells and whistles) of gamification applications than engaging with (and understanding) its potential users.  After all technology is relatively simple to understand whereas people are far more complex. The long and painful history of failed projects usually stems from the tendency to focus on technology first and people (users) second.

So, to answer the two questions I posed at the beginning of this piece:

  1. Does gamification have a place as an effective business change agent?
  2. Can gamification encourage knowledge sharing behaviours and better employee engagement within and across the enterprise?

I believe the answer to both is ‘yes’…but as with any new product or service, it really comes down to how it is implemented. User involvement in the design and implementation of a gamification strategy is essential. Otherwise users (employees, customers, stakeholders) risk being “gamed” or manipulated, which could ultimately bring about the opposite behaviour to what was originally intended, e.g. mass defections.

Until and unless organisations begin to focus more on motivating people – customers, stakeholders, employees – to achieve their own goals and less on the organisation’s goals, I’m with the analysts in predicting that within 5 years, gamification will be nestling within the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. Perhaps the secret here is for organisation’s to work towards aligning their goals with those of their employees and customers.

Any organisation considering introducing a gamification strategy must, as a minimum:

  • understand the target audience they intend to engage;
  • recognise the behaviours they want to change;
  • understand what motivates their audience and maintains their engagement;
  • define how success will be measured.

I’m also sure there will also be some amazing success stories, where gamification has delivered better user engagement, increased employee satisfaction and advocacy, or opened up opportunities for innovation, but this will depend largely on how willing the industry is to share good practice. And only time can tell whether or not these desirable behaviour changes are sustainable over the long term.

Whatever happens over the next 2- 5 years, we’re all going to hear a lot more about gamification.

Further Reading

  1. Gamify — How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things” (Bibliomotion, April 2014), Brian Burke
  2. Gamification by Design” (O’Reilly), Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham
  3. Play at Work: how games inspire break-through thinking. (Amazon Media EU) Adam L Penenberg
  4. Game Frame unlocking the power of game dynamics in business and in life (Simon & Schuster 12 May 2011. Aaron Dignon
  5. The Gamification Research Network
  6. The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology
  7. A theory of goal setting & task performance: Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P.Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc. (1990)


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