How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Gamification

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Gamification

There is something about games that makes us want to play them more and more. In Bioshock’s case it might be a compelling story, Halo’s encounters are a masterpiece of satisfying combat design, and playing as Nathan Drake fulfills your inner Indiana Jones fantasies.

There are, however, games that utilize mechanics outside of these carefully crafted player experiences, and manage to motivate players to do busywork that is not essentially fun at all times. These games motivate their players to – to borrow the wrestling term – “embrace the grind”. World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Candy Crush Saga, Jetpack Joyride and many, many other games use (or abuse) well-designed progression and feedback loops to give their players satisfaction and motivation to progress further even when there are no boss fights and flashy cutscenes in sight.

A Name Unfit
Saying that a name “Gamification“ is not liked by the “gamificators” would be an understatement. It implies “turning something into a game”, but means using game elements to create something that is explicitly not a game. Even Jane McGonigal, the person most responsible for the popularization of the term, has distanced her work from the name “Gamification”

Clever people have observed these loops and tried to apply game elements to non-game processes, in order to make them more engaging. They reverse-engineer successful games in search for parts that can be applied to business environments. If something makes the grind fun in, say, Azeroth, there is a chance that it can be used to make the grind fun in a bank or a coffee shop. This emerging business practice is called gamification, and companies use it to drive engagement everywhere– from airplane flights to productivity at work.

So, you are thinking about applying gamification to make some part of your business more appealing or more engaging? It’s a game, it’s fun – there is nothing that can go wrong, right?

Not really. A couple years ago, Disneyland and Paradise Pier hotels in Anaheim have decided to “gamify” the way employees work, in hopes that it would increase the average speed of their workers. They have created a system of points, badges and leaderboards that relate to work performance, and then put the data on huge flat-screens around, so every worker can see it.

Disney and gamification examplearns Its Wage edition
Disney: The Best Employee Earns Its Wage edition

Employees hated this “electronic whip”. It has created the atmosphere of stress, paranoia and distrust among workers, as the low point on the leaderboard meant a potential loss of job. It has created a conflict between Disney and unions and caused a loss of reputation for said hotels.

Gamifying something the wrong way can hurt your reputation, alienate your user base and introduce distrust and discomfort in their interaction with your product.

When thinking about gamification, you have to keep in mind these rules.

1. You do not define “play”

“Playing” your game elements should be fun. A valuable reward can be a good motivator for people to join in, but the process should be rooted in something that is intrinsically fun.

Do not base the goals of the game on the value your users generate for you, and try to find the value they find in your services. If you are creating a gamified system for a mobile network, do not give them a medal for spending 10 dollars – award them for calling their mom 5 days in a row; do not give them a point for paying a bill – give it for wishing their kids good night when abroad. Make the game fun, or you will be forced to pay your players to play it.

2. Do not “pointsify”

Do not poinsify in gamification
You get a point, and you get a point, everybody gets a point!

Game designer Margaret Robertson has coined a term “pointsification” to describe “taking the thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience”. Collecting stickers for every coffee bought in order to redeem five of them for a free coffee is not something you do for fun – it is something you do for a free coffee.

For The Win

For The Win - reccomended book on gamificationWant to know more about the gamification? We recommend the amazing book “For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business” by Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter. It explains the origins and history of gamification, argues the benefit of using game design principles to improve your business, and gives you a great framework for creating a gamified system to help you succeed in marketing, productivity enhancement, innovation, employee motivation or customer engagement.

Slapping a system of points, badges and leaderboards on something does not make it a game. Gamification starts with your users, not with you. Think about their motivation; Make sure the activities are interesting; Try to pair the desired behaviors with algorithms that will power the system, and make sure the existing motivational structures are not in conflict.

3. Care about the ethics

Gamified systems are in danger of turning a blind eye on some of the practices of questionable ethics. Not caring about these things can seriously hurt your reputation:

  • Do not infringe on your users’ privacy.
  • Do not make your users do something they do not want to do, or something that is against their interest.
  • Do not turn parts of your system into gambling.
  • If you are creating an internal gamified system – never aim toward creating a compulsion for your workers to act against their interest (Exploitationware).
  • Double-check the laws: if you are using your system as a marketing tool, creating a virtual currency, or encouraging endorsements for your company or products – you are bound to follow the laws that regulate these practices. USA is usually more lenient, but other countries may make you jump through more hoops.

Happy gamifying!


Milutin Pavicevic

Milutin is a UX designer and front-end developer at <a href="">Alicorn</a>, with an academic degree in mathematics and computer sciences. He is an amateur comic book artist and an avid gamer with a taste for strange and weird.

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