coworkers laughing in a meeting
Gamification has the power to engage customers and motivate employees — but only when done carefully. — Getty Images/filadendron

Few business tools are revered — and reviled — as passionately as gamification.

While advocates hail its power to engage people in a positive fashion, detractors argue that gamification design is too easy to botch, leading to poor results at best and exploitation at worst. Fortunately, the experience of early adopters produced critical lessons and an instructive path forward for companies of any size willing to give gamification a try.

The power of gamification to ‘engage and motivate’

Gamification is neither a game nor diversion, although it employs game-like elements that appeal to the desire to play, compete and be recognized for achievement. “It’s really more of a behavioral science,” said Brian Burke, vice president of research at Gartner and author of “Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things.”

“What gamification can do is engage and motivate people digitally to achieve their own goals,” Burke told CO—, “and then the organization’s goals are achieved as a consequence.” Successful gamification finds that sweet spot between the goals of an individual and the goals of an organization.

“That is what works for gamification,” Burke added. “A lot of gamification fails because people don’t understand this is not a magic way to manipulate people into doing what you want.”

Many companies have found ways to deploy customer-facing gamification to build customer loyalty, branding and lead generation. Examples include:

  • Starbucks rewards customers with freebies using gamified elements like Bingo while driving repeat store visits and purchases.
  • Fitness gamification from Nike, Peloton, Vitality and Fitbit offer consumers personalized feedback, social interaction, friendly competition and discounts while brands build awareness and good will.
  • Whimsical quizzes from nonprofits Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Heifer International engage consumers on topics close to their hearts. Correct answers generate a third-party donation, making consumers feel good without spending a penny, and the organization builds its email database in the process.

Those efforts have paid off in the currency of attracting new members and followers.

“Quizzes have been a very big piece of our lead generation and email acquisition program,” said Harper Grubbs, director of digital marketing at Heifer International. “Find something that your organization has specific knowledge about, that people are interested in, and create an engaging experience.” For example, protecting the honeybee population resonates with consumers today, so Heifer created a short quiz on bees. “Build in an email capture, and you’ll see results,” he said.

[Read more: How to Motivate Your Employees]

In each case, gamification design is built around the individual values and priorities first. “That is always the goal of gamification: engagement,” said Jenn McMillen, CEO and founder of Incendio, a loyalty consulting firm.

People like to learn things and when you play games, you light up reward centers in the brain and release oxytocin, those chemicals in the brain that make you feel good.

Harper Grubbs, director of digital marketing at Heifer International

Fitness gamification apps are so engaging because they help consumers achieve intrinsic goals they set for themselves. McMillen said she had turned in for the night when her fitness app alerted her that one more ride on her Peloton stationary bike would earn a “10-day streak” badge.

“And that’s what got me out of bed — for a dang badge. We as people, as human beings, are wired to complete tasks. And that is why gamification plays into our primitive wiring,” she told CO—.

Gamification as part of customer loyalty programs is growing, she added, citing The Loyalty Report 2019 from Bond Brand Loyalty and Visa which found that 81% of consumers will engage in gamification when offered as part of a loyalty program. However, only 56% of loyalty programs feature game components today, according the survey of 55,000 consumers.

Gamification in the workplace

Businesses also use game mechanics like leaderboards, badges and prizes for employee recruitment, onboarding and training; to encourage compliance with tedious administrative tasks like filing travel and expense reports; and to enhance work performance.

It is in the area of motivating performance and productivity that experts advise great care be taken with gamification design to avoid unintended results. “Getting people to make more widgets on a factory line is not a good application of gamification,” said Gartner’s Burke.

Gamification can also feed a toxic work culture, as dramatized in the film, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” A menacing Alec Baldwin announces a cutthroat sales contest: “First prize is a Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

Fiction aside, gamification that rewarded bankers with bonuses for making high-risk loans led to a subprime mortgage meltdown and financial crisis in 2008.

Academics are wary. “As a solution, it is often proposed either in order to sell services, or as a way of manipulating a group (workers, students, whatever) to conform to a desired mode of behavior,” Ian Bogost, Ph.D and professor of interactive computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, told CO—.

[Read more: How to Hire in a Competitive Market]

There is healthy competition and unhealthy, said David Cherrie, CEO, founder, Workplace Arcade. “One is going to motivate people for the right reasons and one motivates for the wrong reasons. The wrong reasons breed fragmentation and create a dog-eat-dog world.”

Cherrie’s company provides gamified solutions with social features that encourage co-workers to collaborate and celebrate the success of peers.

“We use competition as a way to get people to compete against their own personal goals, to improve, but also compete against co-workers in a healthy context, which means, as long as employees are staying in the game, caring and trying, they will earn rewards and be recognized,” he told CO—.

In sales, there will always be the star performers, Cherrie said. So it’s important to recognize those at the midlevel who are trying, lest they get discouraged and disengage, as he did as a salesman. “People want to feel a sense of belonging and purpose. That is what helps employees keep engaged over the long run rather than a sugar rush.”

Gamification provides a sense of belonging and being socially connected in the workplace, according 87% of employees surveyed by TalentLMS. Further, 82% said game elements provide a greater sense of purpose in their jobs, with 89% and 88% of respondents saying gamification makes them more productive and happier at work, respectively. The survey, released last month, also found that 78% of respondents believe gamification used during the recruitment process makes prospective employers more desirable.

Training is a great fit for gamification, especially for younger workers, said Beth Thomas, CEO of Change 4 Growth. “I am a big fan, but it has to be done in the right environment, the right audience and the right content/context or it will be another false start in trying something new just because it’s cool.” The ability to create simulations — in a “safe environment” — that can be repeated for remedial learning and maximum proficiency, are added benefits.

“It can make learning fun, entertaining and almost stealth,” she told CO—.

Incorporating game-like elements into mundane tasks makes them more palatable. Educating workers about privacy, data security and other corporate policies are “as interesting as watching paint dry,” said Gartner’s Burke, and yet, this training is essential.

At Heifer International, gamification was built into to its intranet this summer. “Every organization struggles with ‘How do I get more people to use the intranet to learn things and stay informed?’” Grubbs told CO—. By awarding points and merit badges for using the intranet — and interacting with one another through social components — employees shared knowledge and built community. The most active employee earning the most points was awarded a modest gift card.

“I was surprised at how much it incentivized people to become more active,” he added.

“Gamification is absolutely about the individual first,” Grubbs said. “People like to learn things and when you play games, you light up reward centers in the brain and release oxytocin, those chemicals in the brain that make you feel good.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published September 19, 2019