What do you want, a medal? Gamification on the intranet

Gamification – applying game design thinking to non-game applications – has certainly been the buzzword of 2012, with some analysts predicting that by 2013 half of all business initiatives will have gamified processes. But the response from digital workplace specialists has been more muted, with many of our blog commenters finding real-life implentations underwhelming at best.

As the Enterprise Gamification Forum kicks off this week over in San Diego, we’re taking a closer look at gamification and asking if it really has a place on your intranet.

Advocates claim enterprise gamification can potentially be applied to any industry, by turning users into players to create fun and engaging experiences.

But critics argue this is patronising and even manipulative. Giving out gold stars for work completed infantalises the workforce; it’s like when, as a child, you tidied your room and your dad would say “what do you want, a medal?”. Critic Brent Simmons argues:

Everybody sees the trend toward simpler, more-focused, better-designed software. Enterprise developers see the consumerization of IT.

You could look at this trend and say, “As software improves, it respects its users more. It works better and looks better, is easier to learn, and leaves out the things that waste a user’s time.”

Or you could look at this trend and say, “As software gets simpler, it gets dumbed-down — even toddlers can use iPads. Users are now on the mental level of children, and we should design accordingly. What do children like? Games.”

Games are great, and gaming is big business. But all too often, the gamification of work and processes gives us a shallow and cursory take on what makes gaming interesting and powerful.

Game designer and producer Stephanie Morgan says “gamification is a misinterpretation of frequently-used game functionality and features for true game mechanics”. All too often, the way gamification is applied in the enterprise produces games that are unengaging and even embarrassing. For every good example, there are at least ten which make us cringe.

We at Intranetizen would be the first to say gamification is an awful word. But has the concept behind it got more merit than the name suggests?

Creating competition and intrigue and offering reward and recognition are all things that have been done for a long time. As Mary Poppins said, when cajoling Jane and Michael Banks to tidy the nursery: In every thing that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and, oh, the job’s a game!  The belief is that games tap directly into the cognitive and psychological predispositions of humans to engage in game-like behaviour that they find interesting, rewarding and engaging.

There are a range of techniques used to gamify business processes, but in the main these come down to awarding points and badges for desired behaviours. However, these simple (and largely valueless) rewards don’t offer intrinsic motivation, so aren’t likely to deliver long-term benefits.

Grown-ups, and particularly those in creative and knowledge occupations, don’t want to be given a badge or a gold star for their work. These simple, valueless rewards don’t offer intrinsic motivation – and can even be de-motivating, leading some to dub it ‘lameification’. To deliver real business value, gamification needs to offer more than points and badges, as these offer only extrinsic rewards that people will quickly grow tired of.

So, for example, you might want more people to blog on your social intranet.  How do you keep them blogging? You do things like: show them readership stats, highlight them on other pages, list them ‘most popular’ or ‘most commented’ first, send them a thank you email. All of those things tap into the psychology of motivation and reward, and are far more meaningful than a 128px squared gif.

Making a success of gamification means thinking beyond the buzzword and considering how you can really use game features in work activities to reward desired behaviour, create more intensively participative processes, track group progress and establish feedback loops that reinforce and accelerate desired business outcomes.

So like any new intranet functionality, this means having a strong understanding of user needs and the work that your users do – then considering how game techniques could make dull tasks more interesting, engaging and participative.

This has its limits: as JP Rangaswami says “if a job sucks, it will still suck if you gamify it”. The chore of tidying your bedroom will still be a chore if you dad gives you a medal for it, and if demotivational factors like poor pay or job insecurity – what Hertzberg terms ‘hygiene factors’ – are an issue, then no amount of gaming will make life at work better.

Myriad badly-thought out implementations give the use of game mechanics a bad name, but with some creative thought gamification can – in the right contexts – deliver tangible benefits.

There are 17 comments

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  1. Alexis Rodrigo

    I agree we have much to learn from game developers as far as their understanding of human psychology and motivation goes. Unfortunately, as you mentioned, this is often taken too literally in the enterprise resulting in everything being made into a game. You’re right, not everyone wants this. Call me old-fashioned but when I sit down to work, I want to work, not be entertained by bells and whistles.

  2. Peter Richards

    Yesterday I participated in a Webinar showcasing SharePoint 2013. Apart from the things I expected to see like the enhanced social features and the widely talked about App Store., I was interested to see some gamification features incorporated. In SharePoint 2013, a new site Community Site template has been added.

    The Community Site is a new site that provides a forum experience in the SharePoint environment. As well as the normal type of forum activities like starting and participating in discussions, the community members receive reputation points for posting, replying, and receiving likes and best answers. A members reputation status is displayed in their personal profile.
    I will be very interested to see how well this feature is embraced by those who roll out SharePoint 2013.

    • @sharonodea

      I’ll admit I’m quite cynical about that; do people need to gain reputation in an enterprise environment? What motivation is there to gain points?

      To give an example, I use TripAdvisor whenever I want to chose hotels, and I try to leave a review of all the hotels I stay at. TripAdvisor use game mechanics to reward leaving more and better-quality reviews, giving reviewers badges for number of reviews and being rated by others as helpful. The motivation for the site is to give users a means by which they can distinguish between poor/fake reviews (eg those reviewing their own or rival hotels) and real reviewers, when all are using pseudonyms. The gain for me is the (small) reward of not being labelled a fake reviewer.

      Enterprise environments are not the same. People are using their real names, and they already have a reputation. Why do they want to get points for this instead? And who wants to be known within their company as the person who posts on the forum the most?

      This strikes me as trying to copy functionality that sometimes works in external sites, without really considering whether these things still motivate people within the firewall.

      • @lukemepham

        In large organisations you can’t expect people to become notorious for their fantastic forum responses – I can see ways that this functionality could be beneficial:
        e.g. gifted badges for organisationally recognised experts

        Past of the problem I see with the SharePoint implementation is that the features can be configured at a local ‘site’ level – meaning that gamification can be (mis)used in a variety of ways across your intranet.

  3. @DigitalJonathan

    Surely organisations have been gamified for years?

    I used to work in sales. Every week, a league table of sales was produced and published. The ‘game’ was to get to the top of the table, the prize was commission money and, ultimately, promotion. This method gamified the sales process and it worked because we were all fiercely competitive and incentivised by the prize. But if you were at the bottom of the chart, was the game any fun? Did it really help everyone and help the company?

    Similarly, over on the right-hand sidebar, there’s a little widget which displays the number of posts that each Intranetizen author has published. It may motivate Luke (10) and Sharon (16), but does it motivate me (42) or Dana (9) to deliver? This is crude gamification as at best, it encourages writers to write more, but not necessarily, better. And does it serve to motivate those at the top or bottom?

    Gamification is not a new concept. Applying the concept to an enterprise can be effective, but one should never ubiquitously apply to every enterprise process. Time must be taken to consider the issue, define a prize and ensure the rules of the game work for all players.

    To that end, I can see gamification working well for a small number of processes, for small enterprises. Finding something that would work for all 13250 employees that work for my company and have it suitably encourage the correct behaviours in all of them seems near impossible. For this reason, I see SP2013 gamification techniques as hugely problematic.

  4. Adam Pope

    Thanks for the post Sharon. I’m largely in agreement here; and while I think gamification has certain merits they are heavily outweighed. As such I’d like to throw some further points onto the dartboard if I may. I believe gamification has the potential to drive a community to a populist status quo, with discussions becoming an extrovert-driven jumble of ephemeral like-baits.

    Populist – Why engage in deep, sustained, and penetrative debate with people who disagree on the particulars of a niche innovation when you could be riding the Mr Popular wave with another cheezburger-cat-lol link? Gamification creates obstacles to innovation and effective discussion; the very qualities it purports to address.

    Status quo – Suggesting that meat sandwiches should cost more than vegetarian ones will ensure my social ranking is cut to pieces by a bunch of ‘one stars’ from the majority who are content with their subsidized meat but unwilling to discuss the issue; a Kafkaesque scenario where I cannot answer the prosecution but suffer the consequences of being anti-the-majority. Gamification hinders an organisation’s ability to adapt in an environment that is otherwise characterized by rapid change.

    Ephemeral – The most popular posts are often the shortest; and the more you post the better your chances of being liked. As the discussions become shorter and quantity trumps quality, posts will inevitably become harder to find. Gamification encourages behaviour that will clutter up your intranet and lead to much larger problems.

    Extrovert-driven – Introverts are more likely to ring people up, mentor, or discuss issues more subtly than in a public social environment; indeed the very presence of a ‘most popular’ list will discourage them from posting at all. Gamification discriminates against and discourages introverts.

    Social business applications have implicit gamification embedded within them. If my contributions are seen as valuable they will lead to me being paid for what I’m passionate about and, ultimately, my promotion. That’s where the real game lies.

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