gamification: “i do not think it means what you think it means”

Man contemplating a chess board.While in some circles gamification has long since achieved buzzword status, many proponents seem to still be struggling to persuade employers and clients that there’s something of value in this approach. Meanwhile, I’ve been noticing another disconcerting attitude which blindly embraces gamification as a catch-all strategy to once and for all MAKE! LEARNING! FUN!

Often the problem with gamification’s fanatical enthusiasts is the same one that afflicts its naysayers. Either attitude can arise from too simple a notion of what gamification is.

Gamification is not about making games, not necessarily. It’s certainly not about reducing serious activities to something trivial or merely amusing. Gamification is about applying elements of game design in non-game contexts, such as in learning or marketing spaces. Increasing the intrinsic motivation for mundane tasks (making them more “fun”) is a notable benefit of taking a gamified approach, but it’s only a part of the picture. Unfortunately, this “fun factor” tends to get all the attention, causing some people to distrust gamification—because they don’t want to risk trivializing important matters—and others to overlook the most significant opportunities gamification offers to enrich experiences and improve performance.

So what else should be involved in gamification? I won’t attempt a complete answer to that question here, but there are at least a few characteristics of games I feel get overlooked by gamification projects. Games tend to:

  • Allow people to learn from failure. Similarly, gamified systems should probably, to a large degree, provide spaces where people can fail without permanent consequences, where they can try again. Failure should even be encouraged in these spaces, since it’s often the most effective way to learn certain lessons and make improvements.
  • Give rapid and detailed feedback on performance. In gamified systems, learning from failure requires that you know how well you are doing and where your weak points are. The faster you can get this information—the tighter the feedback loop—the better the system can motivate change. I believe the great secret to gamification is that people are naturally motivated to improve and master skills, just as long as they have the proper feedback. Colorful characters, prizes, or cute themes might provide some amusement, but these surface elements on their own can’t usually hold our attention.
  • Offer layers of increasing complexity. Once participants have mastered simple objectives, they should be challenged with more and more difficult configurations. The upshot is that they are constantly striving to surpass their current level of mastery. This is a very personalized level of performance at which efforts to improve are the most productive and grant the maximum intrinsic rewards.
  • Focus on a specific tasks or skills. It would be difficult to gamify being a good sales rep. It would at least be difficult to do so effectively. This is because the role of a sales rep can’t easily be reduced to a single type of performance. It would probably be more effective to gamify making a sales call, to name one example, and more effective still to gamify identifying concerns in a potential customer’s comments (which might could occur in the context of a sales call). The key is to isolate specific tasks that lend themselves to rapid practice and feedback cycles. Take on one skill at a time.

Firefighters putting out a car fire.For several years I’ve worked with firefighter training programs. It’s an environment where committed professionals are developing critical, life-saving skills. But none of the game characteristics I’ve discussed here would be inappropriate in this serious, high-stakes context. Gamification done right wouldn’t create trivial distractions or waste time. It wouldn’t even require playing a game, per se. It would, however, create focused, meaningful opportunities for individual firefighters and crews to improve their capabilities. Heightened levels of performance: this is the vision of gamification.

There’s one final principle I would propose in relation to gamification, which is that:

  • Gamification might not always be the answer. Look at your performance objectives. Is this approach really suited to your goals? And do you really have the resources to make a gamified solution work? The big challenge will often be figuring out how to quickly and accurately measure performance and generate productive feedback. Perhaps another paradigm will offer more useful insights and solutions.

The key is to handle the concept of gamification with a full appreciation for its depths, complexities, and aspirations. Good gamification isn’t as simple a thing as most people think, but the advantages tend to be underestimated as well.

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