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The Risks of "Gamification" for the Enterprise

Posted by on March 29, 2012

This post was inspired by a discussion I had with Bert Sandie who is the Director of Technical Excellence at Electronic Arts.

It seems as though nowadays everyone is talking about “gamification” for the enterprise.  For those of you not familiar with the concept, gamification is all around taking game mechanics and concepts and applying them to a business setting.  Think of something like an airline loyalty program or a customer service forum where participants are rewarded and recognized for their contributions but applied to the workplace .  Although we throw around the gamification terms haphazardly, the reality is that there is a lot that is required to understand how games work and what makes them successful (just ask Bert over at EA).  People go to to school and study game theory, psychology, and game mechanics to understand what drives people to play games and what makes some games so addictive (and fun).  Why do some games succeed while others fail? You can see that there is a lot that goes into understanding gamification which is why it can be a bit frustrating to hear so many people just throw the terms and concepts around.  It seems as though nowadays everyone is a gamification expert.  I studied a bit of this at UCSC (majored in Psychology and Economics) and was always fascinated by the topic.

In all of our excitement around gamification I have yet to hear anyone step back and think about what the negatives or consequences of gamification for the enterprise can be.  When you think about it, gamification is really a feedback mechanism that positively (or negatively) reinforces individuals and groups.  Reinforcement can be a very very powerful thing.  There are four types of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, and extinction.

Positive reinforcement examples include rewarding employees for doing something or exhibiting a desired behavior such as sharing information or being active in a community forum.  Other examples include complimenting our peers for good work, praising kids for doing their chores or giving dogs a treat for performing a trick.  You combine a desired behavior with positive feedback to increase that desired behavior.

Negative reinforcement involves strengthening a behavior by removing something negative.  For example lets say we have an employee that is constantly being asked by a manager to show how productive and active they are at work.  The employee joins an internal community and starts helping his coworkers and peers by answering questions or pointing them to resources.  This employee is now able to show his boss what he is doing at work and the boss stops nagging the employee (which makes the employee continue using this internal community platform).

Punishment involves adding something negative to decrease a behavior.  In this situation let’s say we have an employee who is very active in an internal network and always shares his ideas and thoughts with his peers at work.  Soon he notices that people are taking his ideas and implementing them without giving him the proper credit or recognition.  Eventually the employee stops participating and sharing his ideas.

Extinction involves removing something to decrease a behavior.  In this example that “something” can be attention.  For example let’s say you have an employee who is really trying to show off at work by commenting on every internal discussion topic and idea that employees are submitting even if he doesn’t have much to add.  Eventually other employees realize this and start ignoring his comments and contributions in other words removing their attention so that he stops.

These types of reinforcement can have a dramatic impact on organizations and most of the conversations and discussions around gamification today typically reference (although not explicitly) the concept of positive reinforcement.  If you participate you get put on the leader board, you will get status, you will be rewarded, you will get a badge.

What happens if an organization starts to inadvertently reinforce a behavior that is actually negative?  For example an employee that is so determined to get on the leader board that they spend their off hours in addition to work hours trying to participate in a community and eventually get burned out.  Or an employee that starts to feel left out and isolated because they are not as active as their peers or co-workers (perhaps they are an introvert at work).  What if we have employees that spend so much time on these gamified platforms that they start to neglect many of their other tasks which are required to get their jobs done?  These don’t need to be intentions of the organization; these things can happen inadvertently.

Different rewards or types of reinforcement are not the same for everyone so what one employee perceives as being a great type of positive reinforcement might be perceived as being moderate at best by another employee.  I’ve heard of some companies trying to experiment with financial rewards as well and the challenge with anything of this nature is that it is very difficult to scale across a large organization and that eventually the rewards will start to wear off and will need to be increased to maintain their affect (think of someone that drinks a lot, eventually it will take them more drinks to get the same buzz).  Kathy Sierra also made an excellent observation last month when she talked about the problem of rewarding actions and behaviors that should inherently be rewarding in and of themselves.  For example reading a book, collaborating with employees, or helping peers.  We should be doing these things because they are valuable and good things to do not because we are being rewarded to do them.  The issue of short term reward vs long term risk is still something which is being debated.

Since gamification for the enterprise is still relatively new we haven’t seen these negative examples or discussions come up yet but they will.  I’m not saying gamification for the enterprise is good or bad but I do think there are both pros and cons to going down this road and organizations really need to step back and think about these things before they jump onto the gamification bandwagon.  And while we’re at it, it would be interesting to see vendors and enterprises incorporate some of these other reinforcements as well.

There are two things we need to keep in mind, the first is that gamification won’t solve all of your problems at work, if employees don’t like their jobs and the culture at your organization is deteriorating then gamification won’t all of a sudden make your company a fantastic place to work.

The second thing to keep in mind is that gamification on the surface is about making work more fun and enjoyable but the reality is that we are dealing with the behaviors and emotions of our employees and these can both be delicate things, tread carefully.

  • I must say that you do a good things! I read
    this post with a big pleasure. Thank you for your work.

  • Mark

    Best example of gamification in the enterprise that I have seen is

    They a made a “Woo” a currency of recognition…so simple but so effective.

  • Marc Rodrigue

    Thanks for putting this concept in perspective. Your points reflect my doubts about all the buzz that surround it. My feeling from the start is that the gamification doesn’t take into account the whole spectrum of individuals and their contribution in the workplace. If used like a magic bullet, it will probably do more damage than good. If backed by a solid assessment about what’s needed by the team, it could be a powerful tool indeed.

    • Hi Marc,

      Thanks for the comment.  We don’t completely understand the long term affects of enterprise gamification, it’s a continuous learning and evolving field but a part of that learning and evolving is not just focusing on the ideal benefits but also understanding the potential risks, and that’s not something we discuss enough.

      Thanks again!

  • Michael Crocker

    I am glad that someone is helping cut through the Buzz and provide balance.  Too many see this as a quick fix to correct deeper issues around employee motivation and productivity.

    • Thanks Mike,

      We rarely hear about the negatives of any social related anymore, which is a bit naive and unrealistic especially for the enterprise.

  • Yes, gamification can have a negative impact if not properly executed. But, if you look past that, it can also bring a lot of benefits to a company if there is internal unity and a proper work force. Well, I think the implementation of this all depends on the nature and stability of the employee pool.

    • Hi Tyra,

      Completely agree, gamification can have benefits but I think it’s a bit irresponsible of companies to just “look past” the risks as they can far outweigh the benefits in the long run if not understood and mitigated.

  • Hey Jacob awesome post! totally agree with your points. Yes, people need to execute gamification carefully, or else it will be jus a layer of useless fancy badges and experience points for no reason. It is important for companies to understand what gamification actually is, before jumping in.