The Problem with Gamification

Toward the end of last year, Gartner released a report predicting that 80 percent of gamified apps will fail to meet their objectives by 2014. The report cites poor design, including meaningless points and badges, as the top reason for the failure of these applications.

This isn't exactly surprising. Gamification is approaching the peak of its hype cycle, and, as a result, it's being tacked on to applications even when it doesn't make sense for a particular business. Many apps are adding badges and other game mechanics simply because they could appeal to potential investors (or because current investors insisted they be added).

Gartner is right. These superficial game mechanics will almost certainly fail, and there are four major reasons why. By digging into the reasons gamification apps fail, managers interested in business gamification can find an application that will actually improve engagement and business results.

With that in mind, here are four reasons why poor implementations of gamification will fail:

1. Lack of planning and strategy. Gamification is only effective when it encourages specific behaviors to achieve specific goals. Too many business gamification implementations don't identify success factors and therefore don't incentivize the right behaviors. Additionally, game mechanics must be designed to engage a specific audience. Farmville and World of Warcraft, for example, appeal to two very different types of players. Gamification, too, needs to account for differences in users' personalities.

2. Bad processes. Game mechanics can motivate people to operate in accordance with specific goals when those goals are well defined. But even if the goals are clear, they might not align with business objectives. Gamifying bad goals can be just as destructive as ignoring goals altogether. If, for example, a sales team's process for closing sales is inefficient, incentivizing people to follow those steps will only dig a deeper hole. Business gamification apps should be tied to business processes. If the process works, game mechanics will make it more fun and encourage success. But if the process doesn't work, you'll just be incentivizing people to perform ineffectively.

3. Poor design. Poor game design was one of the major reasons Gartner predicted the demise of so many gamification apps before 2014. Expectations for games have never been higher. About half of American adults own smartphones that bring movies, music, and games to users from practically anywhere, so many people are used to having engaging, high-quality content at their fingertips. Points and badges alone won't hold users' attention if the underlying game design doesn't motivate people to play. Additionally, some in-house attempts at game mechanics won't work because they're not professionally designed—some even use PowerPoint slides to broadcast information.

4. Unrealistic expectations. Business gamification can be effective when it's directed at a specific audience, supported with specific, effective goals, and built professionally to ensure engagement. But of course it has limitations. It's important to remember that game mechanics are most effective for jump-starting behaviors, not sustaining them. That's because at a certain point, the impact of any game mechanic will begin to fade. When done right, however, by the time the extrinsic motivator has worn thin, users will have recognized the value of the new behavior and continue it based on their own intrinsic motivation.

Properly implemented game mechanics can help drive motivation and engagement, and bring fun to a business process that might otherwise be dull. Because few companies spend time crafting a business gamification strategy or configuring the game for a particular audience, gamification's potential is often squandered.

Many companies implement the bare minimum—the points, badges, and levels—instead of harnessing scientific game design principles and applying them to business objectives. The Gartner report itself points out that many companies ignore the "more subtle and more important game design elements, such as balancing competition and collaboration, or defining a meaningful game economy."

True game mechanics have been proven to have a psychological impact. The gamification apps that will live past 2014 will apply smart game design to encourage a particular person or group to perform a particular behavior. Done correctly, business gamification will create self-motivated habits that align with business goals.

While there will likely be far fewer gamified apps come 2014, the ones that remain will be the ones that work. That's good news not only for gamification's reputation, but for the growing number of businesses that are putting fun to work in their organizations.

Mike Smalls is CEO and founder of Hoopla, which provides business gamification solutions that help enterprise organizations achieve measurable business results. Go to www.hoopla.net, on Facebook at facebook.com/hooplasoftware, or on Twitter at @hooplasoftware.

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