Gamification takes time to do right
By Jim Lundy
A funny thing happens in Silicon Valley. Venture capital-funded firms are great at getting their message out. They want to do well and to hire talented people, so they make a lot of noise to get your attention. After all, they’re staying up all night to start a business because they think their idea is the best. Well, maybe it is, but their enthusiasm doesn’t mean their first-generation product is right for you. And to make responsible choices, you can’t let their enthusiasm drown out your judgement and experience.
A case in point is gamification, the application of game mechanics to other kinds of software. In startup circles these days, you can’t go five minutes without hearing about gamification. What the enthusiastic promoters don’t mention is that gamification, for all the noise around it, is still in its infancy.
In years of covering corporate learning, I’ve coached a lot of clients on various aspects of gaming and simulations. I’ve even created some award-winning learning simulations. They were successful, but only because of long planning and work. I never found a magic bullet or a magic button that said “Click here to add game stuff.”
It’s certainly tempting to look for one. After all, if you can make learning fun and engaging, why not do it everywhere? Airlines and customer communities have used gamification for years with moderate success. Reading about these successes, some people think of their current project and say, “Hey, let’s find that button and gamify this thing!” Unfortunately, like a poorly-designed video game, gamification can be overdone, done unnecessarily or inappropriately, or just flat-out done wrong.
Gamification doesn’t replace good design
Just like building a great game, designing gamification to be part of a product or service takes work. That means deciding on the objectives first, and then using things like algorithms (machine learning) to reward certain types of user behavior (rewards, levels etc.). Done right, these things can increase the right kinds of behavior. Done wrong (like a bolt-on) and you can end up trying to undo what was a weak attempt at gamification in the first place.
Gamification: Think of behaviors first
The oldest form of gamification is a sales compensation system. Sales compensation rewards a sales executive financially for selling products and services. The compensation system is designed to reward certain behaviors, such as sales to new customers or sales of certain types of products. Sales executives quickly figure out what the comp plan is about and tailor their activities for the maximum payout. Similarly, frequent flyers do the same thing, such as planning their trips to maximize reward points.
Unfortunately, application development has yet to use game techniques to foster good planning and design practices, so you’re on your own for motivation. Just resist the urge to leap into gamification before you figure out what you are trying to accomplish. Then, think about how gamification can help you meet that goal – and most importantly, how it cannot. This takes work, planning and the discipline to ignore the hype, focus on the endpoint you’ve decided on, and use only the game elements that make sense in that context.
We think gamification is important and it is here to stay. It is part of a software design approach; it isn’t a quick fix.