To gamify or not to gamify, that is the question

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When my kids were in elementary school, I took an online course on Gamification – the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It was something we were thinking about implementing in one of our products, and I wanted to learn more about it. We could gamify our interface if we wanted to, but did we want to?

As I do with all important decisions, I took it to my kids for their insights.

I described the activity to them as putting “game-like elements” into our software, which would make the work our customers were doing and the goals they were trying to achieve feel more like beating the levels of a game. Their vehement reactions were surprising.

“I hate it when teachers make math exercises into a game. It’s stupid,” my daughter said. “You know it’s not a game, and so they shouldn’t try to trick us. They should either let us play a real game or make the math more interesting.”

My son, on the other hand, said that he loved games. He wished they would make everything at school into a game and that he would like school a lot more if they just played games all day.

And then they argued. For a while. Passionately.

My children displayed in a nutshell the ongoing debate over gamification today. On one hand, people who are driven by competition may enjoy a gamified workplace. For some, the idea of building up points, “likes”, badges, or other measures of daily work will feel like progress.  But an equal number will not, instead feeling rewarded by work itself when their work is meaningful and engaging. Further, some people will feel uninspired, or – similar to my daughter – downright resentful of the gamification artifice.

Take, for example, the universally-known Status Report. Whether it is put together on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even quarterly basis, it’s not a fun task for any employee. And it’s particularly unsatisfying and demoralizing if it never gets read. Would gamification help in this instance?  Badges and other similar reward systems placed on top of mindless activities don’t change the fundamental nature of the work. But on the other hand, when done well, badges can signify meaningful work and incremental progress toward a real goal. Such feedback and visualizations aggregated company-wide can be particularly useful for helping individual employees understand what’s happening beyond their subjective experience.

And so the debate goes on. But I’ll never forget what my kids (oh, and the course…) taught me about gamification: always proceed with caution. Before applying it, make sure you objectively measure, analyze and reflect upon the dynamics of the workplace. It’s important to recognize your audience and, above all, focus on the work itself.