Game Over? - the gamification phenomenon.


I’m sure you will have heard of the concept of ‘gamification’. First coined in 2003, it is defined as the incorporation of gaming elements within non-gaming systems to stimulate user involvement and experience. For some time it was seen to be a positive development with the power to almost magically engage a younger workforce in day to day activities. However, there is evidence to suggest it’s use may have unintended consequences.

How, then, did gamification become so fashionable? The answer of course lies in the huge popularity of gaming itself. I saw this myself last year when I attended a gaming event at which I presented my views on the gamification phenomenon. The event, arranged by AutomationRegion, featured both a conference and a huge day and night gaming convention with hundreds of boys and girls taking part. Gaming is clearly big business and there can be very few people born after the mid-1980s who haven’t become accustomed (or indeed obsessed) with screen-based gaming principles and practice. Indeed, here in Sweden, statistics suggest we watch more gaming-sessions and e-sports through channels such as YouTube and Twitch, than we watch traditional sports on television.

It is this growing familiarity and obsession with gaming over the past two decades that lead to the idea of ‘gamification’. It is increasingly common to see elements such as performance data presented in such a way that a worker ‘competes’ against herself to beat a previous score, or works towards a visualized goal, or receives feedback in a graphical style as might be displayed in a game environment. Such techniques are increasingly incorporated into a range of day to day applications, both at work and beyond, such as those associated with production management, call centres and education amongst many others.

But does it work?

The fact that gamification is increasingly common suggests that the technique must work. However, in practice it is not that simple. Research increasingly suggests that user motivation does not necessarily increase with gamification. In fact, quite the opposite can happen with evidence suggesting some gamification elements can lead to sub-optimal outcomes. Employees may become more interested in winning ‘the game’ rather than in performing work in a manner that benefits the organisation.

In an article in The Guardian ‘High score, low pay: why the gig economy loves gamification’ a driver for Lyft (a US company similar to Uber) recently described how gamification techniques built into day to day processes can lead to stress. Constantly updated feedback summaries and visualizations show how customers have rated their experience with their driver, leaving scores to reflect cleanliness of vehicle, friendliness, promptness etc. At first the worker in question found the gamification elements stimulating. After a while, however, the process became stressful. Working as self-employed, without co-workers, union representation or an employer with which to discuss her experiences made her particularly vulnerable to such stress. This latter scenario is increasingly common as worker numbers increase in the so-called ‘gig economy and, for the driver in question, she either accepts the Lyft process or she risks unemployment.

This is an example of how an organisation has used gamification to create the constant requirement for workers to improve the quality of their services. For those workers who become hooked on ‘the game’, beating personal (or local, regional or national!) high scores might deliver enhanced loyalty as the adrenalin burst of competing meets a competitive need. For anyone who loves to compete gamification is heaven – until they experience burn-out.

So, can gamification ever be a positive thing in the work environment?  Work is not, and can never be, a game. It is a serious activity. A person who works is paid to perform a task for someone else and the implicit and explicit expectations that arise from such a relationship are very different compared to those of gaming and playing. But there are aspects of gaming that can have a very beneficial effect on the employee experience.

Three or more decades of gaming evolution has resulted in the development of superb graphics, interface logic and data presentation techniques. Research shows (unsurprisingly) that employees appreciate interfaces that are user friendly and modern. In industries that still operate processes that are the heirs of data systems implemented in the 1970s many employees despise the legacy systems they must work daily. ‘Millennial’ and ‘Generation Z’ workers have spent a large portion of their lives interacting with beautifully designed graphics in their leisure time through their interest in gaming. Slick interfaces in the workplace may become a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting new staff in the future. With an emergent emphasis on improving employee experience, it is likely day to day systems usability will be an important driver of employee satisfaction and their usability or otherwise will be rapidly highlighted on open source feedback sites such as Glassdoor.

Gamification done well can be a real asset to an organisation as it seeks to increase its appeal to employees by improving their day to day experiences. The gaming industry can teach the world how on-screen visuals and the display of data can be optimised to create a more enjoyable, less stressful employee experience. However, organisations must always bear in mind the fact that incorporating ill-considered challenges, countdowns, ‘levels’ and other competitive gaming elements into day to day working lives can lead to a range of destructive outcomes for both organisation and employee.