Risks of Gamification for the Enterprise

By Jacob Morgan posted 07-24-2012 14:22



This post was inspired by a discussion I had with Bert Sandie who is the Director of Technical Excellence at Electronic Arts.

It seems as though nowadays everyone is talking about “gamification” for the enterprise.  For those of you not familiar with the concept, gamification is all around taking game mechanics and concepts and applying them to a business setting.  Think of something like an airline loyalty program or a customer service forum where participants are rewarded and recognized for their contributions but applied to the workplace .  Although we throw around the gamification terms haphazardly, the reality is that there is a lot that is required to understand how games work and what makes them successful (just ask Bert over at EA).  People go to to school and study game theory, psychology, and game mechanics to understand what drives people to play games and what makes some games so addictive (and fun).  Why do some games succeed while others fail? You can see that there is a lot that goes into understanding gamification which is why it can be a bit frustrating to hear so many people just throw the terms and concepts around.  It seems as though nowadays everyone is a gamification expert.  I studied a bit of this at UCSC (majored in Psychology and Economics) and was always fascinated by the topic.
In all of our excitement around gamification I have yet to hear anyone step back and think about what the negatives or consequences of gamification for the enterprise can be.  When you think about it, gamification is really a feedback mechanism that positively (or negatively) reinforces individuals and groups.  Reinforcement can be a very very powerful thing.  There are four types of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, and extinction.
Positive reinforcement examples include rewarding employees for doing something or exhibiting a desired behavior such as sharing information or being active in a community forum.  Other examples include complimenting our peers for good work, praising kids for doing their chores or giving dogs a treat for performing a trick.  You combine a desired behavior with positive feedback to increase that desired behavior.
Negative reinforcement involves strengthening a behavior by removing something negative.  For example lets say we have an employee that is constantly being asked by a manager to show how productive and active they are at work.  The employee joins an internal community and starts helping his coworkers and peers by answering questions or pointing them to resources.  This employee is now able to show his boss what he is doing at work and the boss stops nagging the employee (which makes the employee continue using this internal community platform).
Punishment involves adding something negative to decrease a behavior.  In this situation let’s say we have an employee who is very active in an internal network and always shares his ideas and thoughts with his peers at work.  Soon he notices that people are taking his ideas and implementing them without giving him the proper credit or recognition.  Eventually the employee stops participating and sharing his ideas.
Extinction involves removing something to decrease a behavior.  In this example that “something” can be attention.  For example let’s say you have an employee who is really trying to show off at work by commenting on every internal discussion topic and idea that employees are submitting even if he doesn’t have much to add.  Eventually other employees realize this and start ignoring his comments and contributions in other words removing their attention so that he stops.
These types of reinforcement can have a dramatic impact on organizations and most of the conversations and discussions around gamification today typically reference (although not explicitly) the concept of positive reinforcement.  If you participate you get put on the leader board, you will get status, you will be rewarded, you will get a badge.
What happens if an organization starts to inadvertently reinforce a behavior that is actually negative?  For example an employee that is so determined to get on the leader board that they spend their off hours in addition to work hours trying to participate in a community and eventually get burned out.  Or an employee that starts to feel left out and isolated because they are not as active as their peers or co-workers (perhaps they are an introvert at work).  What if we have employees that spend so much time on these gamified platforms that they start to neglect many of their other tasks which are required to get their jobs done?  These don’t need to be intentions of the organization; these things can happen inadvertently.
Different rewards or types of reinforcement are not the same for everyone so what one employee perceives as being a great type of positive reinforcement might be perceived as being moderate at best by another employee.  I’ve heard of some companies trying to experiment with financial rewards as well and the challenge with anything of this nature is that it is very difficult to scale across a large organization and that eventually the rewards will start to wear off and will need to be increased to maintain their affect (think of someone that drinks a lot, eventually it will take them more drinks to get the same buzz).  Kathy Sierra also made an excellent observation last month when she talked about the problem of rewarding actions and behaviors that should inherently be rewarding in and of themselves.  For example reading a book, collaborating with employees, or helping peers.  We should be doing these things because they are valuable and good things to do not because we are being rewarded to do them.  The issue of short term reward vs long term risk is still something which is being debated.
Since gamification for the enterprise is still relatively new we haven’t seen these negative examples or discussions come up yet but they will.  I’m not saying gamification for the enterprise is good or bad but I do think there are both pros and cons to going down this road and organizations really need to step back and think about these things before they jump onto the gamification bandwagon.  And while we’re at it, it would be interesting to see vendors and enterprises incorporate some of these other reinforcements as well.
There are two things we need to keep in mind, the first is that gamification won’t solve all of your problems at work, if employees don’t like their jobs and the culture at your organization is deteriorating then gamification won’t all of a sudden make your company a fantastic place to work.
The second thing to keep in mind is that gamification on the surface is about making work more fun and enjoyable but the reality is that we are dealing with the behaviors and emotions of our employees and these can both be delicate things, tread carefully.
1 comment


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07-31-2012 13:31

Most of your examples of "gamification" are things that most workplaces have had in place for ages: financial incentives (aka promotions, raises, and bonuses), peer recognition, etc. Not all games have leader boards and points.
I’ve seen two recent AIIM blog posts about gamification. Both are dismissive of the concept, this one speculating that there could be significant risks (that are maybe unknown to us at this point), and the other saying that “serious professionals” won’t consider gamifying their work. I think the point has been missed.
Here’s an example of a game that is more in line with what I think the “gamification” movement is: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/april/traffic-incentive-study-040212.html. Mundane task: driving to work. Larger problem: traffic. Purpose of game: decrease car volumes at peak times. Strategy of game: reward people for avoiding rush hour commuting.
Applying these blog post warnings to the game example above, we get the following: does the traffic game increase or decrease the risks associated with driving? No. Does the game make the act of driving any more or less serious a task? No.
The risks outlined in this post are only a factor if a company relies on the game structure as its sole means for rewarding and punishing its employees (which no one is proposing). For instance, if a worker begins to play the game during work hours, when other tasks are supposed to be completed, he will fall behind in his work. Wouldn’t other systems (e.g. coworkers, customers, supervisors) detect his negligence? Also, with a full understanding of gamification, the analogy of the drinker can be taken further. In a game, a player's appetite for rewards might grow, sure. But, when the reward is cash, as in the traffic game, the player's appetite is bottomless. Players are more likely to accept what reward they can get (return to the game again and again) as opposed to quitting the game completely (rejecting the reward system). Furthermore, these games don't go into overtime.
I'm curious: Did you and Bert (at EA) talk about the difference between games that are made for the sole purpose of gaming (i.e. there is no task or expectation associated with playing Bejeweled), and building game-like structures into systems of responsibility? That’s an important distinction to make.