An introduction to Gamification

Gamification has become an in vogue buzzword drawing a broad range of support and criticism from all quarters of the communication community. Gamification is the use of game mechanics to non-game applications. Gamification’s major insights focus upon guiding stakeholder behavior in desirable directions by providing incentives and motivations through game-inspired models – the majority of these take the form of a leveling up system that provides staggered rewards after particular milestones or achievements.

Gamification is largely the product of other industries viewing the enormous profitability and success of the gaming industry, inspired by particular game franchises including Halo, Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, with understandable envy. It is hard to argue against other industries’ desire to emulate or even grab a slice of 2010’s conservatively valued $50 Billion of game software sales (excluding the profits of hardware and ancillary sales). The arguments for gamification are further strengthened after viewing the results the 2009 US National Gamers Survey, conducted by the marketing research consultancy Newzoo, which revealed that 83% of the US population consider themselves active players, including 72% of the over 50s surveyed. Figures in other countries, particularly in South East Asia, are even more impressive; with computer games forming a near universal cultural experience in some countries.

Attracted by the ongoing success of the computer game industry, game elements are already being adapted and transplanted into different industries and contexts. These include “serious games” used to educate and draw attention to important issues – the most famous being Darfur is Dying – and more commonly interactive training simulations; the most noteworthy being VBS1 (Virtual Battlespace Simulator 1) used by NATO affiliated militaries. The system uses real-world vehicle hulls and combat interfaces rigged to a virtual battlefield environment used to teach platoon, company and battalion tactics. Other military games further blur the line between the real and virtual, including MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) which is used in field training exercises, attaching laser emitters to blank-firing weapons and sensors onto the real vehicles and personal equipment of the soldiers involved in the exercise to record successful hits. The advantage of all three of these games is that through the application of game mechanics, they let the player experience and learn from simulated dangerous situations without the long term repercussions of possible death, injury and material destruction.

A great deal of debate surrounds gamification with some commentators arguing that gamification offers no new insights, simply repackage lessons in a fashionable new way. Phil Shenk is particularly disparaging in his article “Gamification = b*llsh$t”, arguing that gamification is simply a fad and that the lessons and applications of game mechanics are already commonplace. He uses the competitive drinking and loyalty rewards of pub happy hours as evidence.

In contrast Bryon Reeves, the Paul C. Edwards professor at Stanford’s department of communications, questions whether it matters if video games are the original source of these insights, arguing that the new format highlights these lessons anew whilst providing usable tools to integrate them into business and society.

Games have two primary benefits from the business perspective. The first is that games are essentially learning tools, with all games featuring some form of the Learn, Adapt, Overcome dynamic learning process.  The novice player must first train themselves through play to understand the mechanics of the game, particularly what are the essential skills and tactics required in order to win. The more experienced player moves onto the second stage, refining and adapting their skills and knowledge of the game to new situations and challenges. This stage might also reveal gaps in the player’s skill-base forcing them to repeat stage one. The final stage is when the player has honed their skills and strategies to perfection and is able to master a final challenge. Indeed the learn, adapt, overcome dynamic is such an inherent part of games that in many cases it becomes the central motivation for players to continue playing as they long to learn more skills and strategies to be tested by evermore challenging problems. The business community can adapt the same methods used by games to teach their players how to play more effectively to teach employees skills and methods useful to the business; furthermore by using game mechanics they can instill an enjoyment and delight in learning so that becoming better at one’s job becomes an end or justification unto itself.

The second area in which games have some useful insights to share with the business community is in understanding and manipulating motivations. Games are excellent at providing incentives for continued play. All successful games are at their foundation fun, an attribute that unfortunately many jobs do not share, however the “fun factor” will only last so long until boredom or an enticing new game overshadows an older one. The most successful titles beat these shelf-life factors by going beyond the fun factor and generating commitment and dedication from their players by providing a real sense of fulfillment through achievement. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate some computer games mastery of the motivations of their players is by examining two of the most successful franchises around today; the Call of Duty (CoD) series of first person shooters which to this day holds the record for the most successful entertainment release the world has ever seen, beating the best Hollywood blockbusters and novels; and World of Warcraft (WoW), the single most profitable massive multiplayer online role-playing game with over 12 million subscribers at the end of 2010.

Both of these franchises are over ten years old and owe their enduring popularity and profitability not just to captivating stories and characters but also to subtle reward systems that fully leverage player motivations to encourage them to continue playing. There are two aspects to both game’s versions of incentives, providing practical and social rewards respectively. The practical rewards are that with continued play, the player is rewarded with more powerful weapons and equipment, allowing them to be more effective in game combat. Whereas the social rewards are provided as the player plays more they earn higher titles and ranks. As higher ranks are progressively more and more difficult to achieve, other players naturally assume that higher ranked players are of a correspondingly greater skill, forming an in-game hierarchy with greater respect and admiration afforded to higher ranked players. Everybody wants to be respected and admired so players naturally play more in order reach higher ranks and levels to earn greater social rewards. On closer inspection CoD and WoW’s reward systems are more nuanced than they first appear. In each, levels become progressively more challenging and time-consuming to achieve the further the player progresses – for example in both games the first few levels can be achieved within a few hours by a relatively unskilled player, however to achieve the final ranks require many hours of gameplay making them only attainable by the most seasoned and committed players. The key lesson that the business community can take from this model is that the tasks required to earn rewards must become progressively more and more challenging as the player/employee progresses and becomes more committed and involved in the reward system. Once they have reached a mid level, tasks should become more difficult, while rewards become more exclusive and they are motivated to push forward by the weight of their previous engagement – simply put, player/employees have committed so much time to earn earlier rewards, that to stop now would feel like a waste of all their previous efforts.

Practical and social rewards can be adapted to the business context. Using the game model, everyone should be able to earn the earliest, simple rewards, so everyone can feel that they are a winner or achiever. Additionally everyone is motivated to learn to work harder and better in order to earn the higher level rewards as they begin to experience the weight of all the previous time and energy they have committed to the reward system and the social pressures of the encouraging them to work towards higher status within the in-game hierarchy.

It is important to consider the ethical implications of gamifying your organization, as the process raises some important moral questions about the value and seriousness of your employees’ and customers’ business. Critics like Deterding have been vehement in their stance that gamification cheapens work, siphoning focus away from the real purpose of hard work – producing something useful or making a contribution towards the good of society – towards petty internal competition driven by meaningless rewards. Others question the ethics of manipulating employees and customers to behave in certain ways through rewards schemes and incentives. While there is some merit to these criticisms, it can also be argued that the as long as gamification is used to motivate people towards positive actions, producing worthwhile contributions to society, the true source and agenda behind their motivations and incentives is unimportant. This form of moral relativism argues that it doesn’t matter if people are manipulated of encouraged through incentives to take particular actions, as long as those actions are positive. It is crucial to fully understand these ethical issues before embarking upon a gamification programme.

Finally, you must question whether it is morally correct to incorporate game elements into your organization’s work culture as many of your employees consider their tasks very difficult or of a serious nature. These employees may be angered by incorporating competitive gaming elements as these may be viewed as belittling their efforts. Many critics have argued that it is patronizing to boil down the successes of employees into a simple points or reward system. It is clearly not ethical to apply a reward system to particular professions, such as medical services or law enforcement with scoring based on the number of lives saved or criminals caught. On the other side of your business, customers may in fact feel patronized as incongruous game mechanics are bolted onto products for seemingly little reason.

Gamification offers interesting opportunities and insights to help your business encourage learning and enhance the motivations of its stakeholders. However, it is not without its pitfalls: clearly sensitivity, a little foresight and in-depth knowledge of your organisation’s stakeholders are essential prerequisites to gamification; while it is strongly recommended that you research the effects of gamification upon your stakeholders using small pilot schemes prior to full scale implementation.