Gamification without gratification

For years I have wondered if games really can change behavior. Something intuitive tells me it’s true, but the industry is only beginning to mature enough to offer long-term proof of success.

Gamification – the use of game mechanics to meet real-world needs – is the newest buzzword in the field, and this concept is being increasingly incorporated into aspects of employee training and business strategy.

When I worked for a game-based training company, I wondered if what we were doing would provide successful knowledge retention in the months and years following training. We created immersive training modules based on safety regulations, which were used for employee orientation and long-term training. More recently, gamification has expanded beyond “game” modules to include badging systems similar to those that entertainment gamers use to show their prowess.

How is gamification working these days? Not surprisingly, meh.

The Gartner Gamification Report, published last fall, claims that 80% of gamification efforts will fail in the next 2 years due to poor design. What’s wrong with the design? I argue that some mechanics that work in games are applied in a way that is irrelevant in the real world.

I think a large misapplication of game mechanics is badging. This technique adds a nifty visual element to the age-old idea of scoring, and allows players to display and compare their achievements. Badging works in games because the construct IS the economy of games. It is the infrastructure that was created to inform games, players and their communities. It is not the economy of real-life. In reality we have rewards with a practical application – a promotion, a raise, a vacation. You can’t just slap a badge on an accomplishment and expect it to truly compel a learner in the real world.

I hate to present a problem without offering a solution, but I don’t believe there is a silver bullet solution in this case. Badges can be standardized in the game world, because it is fictional – we create the experience and define the reward. Designers have little to no control in the real world, so in order for rewards to be relevant to learners, they need to be individualized.

In a recent article in CFO Magazine, Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games Carnegie Mellon University Faculty member, makes a similar point (more succinctly than I). He argues that real-world pleasure and success are better motivators and better for long-term behavior change. It’s easy for a business to adopt a training program based on novelty, but long-term success is no guarantee.

It will be interesting to see how this concept morphs as generations who grew up with games continue to mature in the workplace. I bet in a few years we will be looking at a different, and hopefully more successful model.