Why gamification apps are playing out badly for business

Companies can see the potential in applying games techniques to business issues — but when it comes to implementation, too many firms have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

More organisations are trying out gamification — applying game mechanics to non-game activities — but most of their gamified applications are failing because of poor design.

It comes down to a failure to grasp the basic concepts of game design, according to Gartner research vice president Brian Burke.

"The gamified application focuses on enabling the players to achieve their objectives as opposed to treating people as puppets" — Brian Burke, Gartner

"They jump instantly to points, badges and leaderboards without thinking through the design and end up motivating the wrong group of people to behave in ways that are probably not meeting the business objectives," Burke told a London roundtable event.

The analyst firm estimates that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design.

Nevertheless, by 2015, gamification will be the primary mechanism used by 40 percent of Fortune 1000 companies to transform business operations.

'Force-marched gamification'

Unlike traditional schemes, such as frequent-flyer promotions, good gamified applications tend to motivate players to achieve their own objectives, according to Burke — and players participate voluntarily.

"Force-marched gamification, although it is done, has some inherent risks and the best applications have a couple of different characteristics," Burke said.

"One is that the players themselves opt in to participation and the other — and this is really key — is that the gamified application focuses on enabling the players to achieve their objectives as opposed to treating people as puppets," he said.

"When you look at successful gamification, those gamified applications are built around enabling the players to succeed and the incidental benefits are beneficial to whatever organisation is the sponsor of that game."

Done well, he added, gamification taps into more powerful motivators such as self-esteem and social capital rather than simple paybacks for participation.

Competitive models

Yet when organisations think of gamified applications, they often think first in terms of competitive models, such as poker. Conventional sales schemes follow this approach.

"You get to be the top salesman for selling the most and you get the trip to Hawaii. That drives a behaviour, but that behaviour is to maximise the performance of your peak performers. But the people who are not in the top third are probably not even going to participate because they know they're not going to win," he said.

"With gamified applications... what you're often really looking for is collaborative behaviour rather than competitive behaviour"

It is an example of a gamified application failing to drive entirely the desired behaviour. "So a different type of game dynamic where it's a more collaborative environment that's going to maximise the middle [tier of sales staff] is going to be more effective in terms of the organisation achieving its goals," he said.

"With gamified applications, when you're thinking about performance or getting people to adopt a new system, what you're often really looking for is collaborative behaviour rather than competitive behaviour," Burke said.

Quirky.com, an open gamified application, enables people to collaborate on product design. According to Burke, it shows how gamified apps can embody elements of collaboration and competition.

"Only the best products are going to get selected but those products are developed in a collaborative environment," he said.

Scripted and emergent games

Gamification apps divide into two distinct types: scripted games, which lead people to a known end-point, and emergent games, which provide a space to play and games-rules tools, but the end-point is unknown. Quirky is an example of an emergent game.

According to Burke, scripted games predominate. "The predominant application in gamification is changing behaviours in some shape or form and that generally is a scripted game that leads to behaviour change," he said.

Along with changing behaviours, gamification can be applied to developing skills and driving motivation.

Burke argued that how you position a gamified application is critical in driving the right behaviours. "A lot of times, that is an area that people don't think through very clearly," he added.

The contest organised by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a new Fast, Adaptable, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG) is an example of a carefully thought-out application.

"DARPA does not really want every high-school student submitting their design. They probably want a couple of dozen of the best teams to work on this to win the prize. So in that environment it's appropriate to set up an extrinsic reward in a competitive environment to drive the best performance from the best players," he said

Designing a gamified application

Organisations could break down the process of designing a gamified application into stages, according to Burke.

"First, identify the business objectives. A lot of organisations miss that step of really clearly understanding what the organisation is trying to achieve out of building a gamified application," he said.

"A lot of organisations miss that step of really clearly understanding what it is trying to achieve out of building a gamified application"

The next step is to identify the target audience that you want to engage — what are the profiles of those people and what will motivate them?

Next come the player objectives of that target audience — what's in it for them? "This is really key. The business objective could be sell more stuff. The player objective could be get more free stuff," he said.

Burke cited the example of Nike+ as a gamification approach that uses points and levels to address this issue. "There's nowhere in the Nike+ website that's trying to sell you a pair of shoes — that's not what it's positioned to do. It's positioned to get people engaged and successful in what they want to do — achieve their fitness goals," he said.

"Help them achieve their objectives and [you] incidentally achieve the business objectives. All the game design — how we position this game — becomes clearer once you've sorted this out."

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