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Is Gamification Overhyped?

POSTED 04/21/2015
By A.J. O'Connell

This is the third article in a four-part series looking at the use of gamification in the workplace. 

A few years ago, you couldn’t Google gamification without bringing up pages of breathless articles about how incorporating game elements into life would change the workplace and the world.

Since then, articles and editorials on the subject have begun to get more skeptical. One article compared a gamified future to an “Orwellian nightmare,” while a headline from Fortune in June declared “that whole ‘gamification’ thing is over.”

In reality, gamification probably isn’t “over,” but its honeymoon sure has come to an end. Just look at the Gartner Hype Cycle — a tool used by the Gartner Group to measure the public’s love affairs with more than 2,000 trends, services and technologies.

The Hype Cycle, for those not in the know, is a chart, shaped like an S-curve, partitioned off into descriptively-named sections. The most popular new trends — 3D printing, for example — are at The Peak of Inflated Expectations. The ones that have fallen out of favor are descending into the Trough of Disillusionment.

The trends that survive the public’s disappointment then ascend the Slope of Enlightenment and, if lucky, then attain the Plateau of Productivity, which means those trends cease to be trends and become part of everyday life. (Speech recognition entered the plateau last year in their analysis.)

At the moment, gamification is sliding into the trough.

Game over?

Brian Burke, a Gartner analyst, says, “We can see from the press, the buzz and our conversations with clients that the euphoria around gamification has subsided somewhat. More articles being written that are cautious or critical.”

Game designer John Ferrara, author of Playful Design, is concerned that the downturn in public opinion means gamification is a tainted concept. As a big fan of using games in non-game settings, Ferrara doesn’t want disillusionment with gamification to kill the work games have been doing in training and education.

“The thing that I’m concerned about is what I regard as a poisoned idea,” he says. “Gamification (has) been bound for collapse for a while. My concern is that the failure of that and the collapsing interest might take with it the work that has been done.”

Burke describes the situation like this: “The fundamental value of gamification hasn’t changed. What has changed and what will change are people’s perceptions. But as I say, the value of gamification is still there.”

Burke, who published a book this year called Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things, has been tracking the subject for Gartner since 2009. In 2011, the company predicted that more than 70 percent of Global 2000 organizations would have at least one gamified application by this year. However, a year later, Gartner predicted that 80 percent of gamified applications would fail by this year.

Those two predictions are usually reported as a contradiction, but Burke says that’s not the case. “They don’t really conflict,” he explains. “One says the uptick will be significant and the failure rate will be beyond the average significantly.”

What’s in a word

The word “gamification” doesn’t sit well with Ferrara. “There’s not a clear definition of what that means,” he says. “It’s a term I tend not to use anymore.”

Part of this problem might be that while “gamification” refers to any game elements added to a non-game, the word itself calls to mind points, badges and leaderboards — the three elements most often added to initiatives to “gamify” them.

Ferrara is very much in favor of using games in non-gaming contexts, but is against the trend of gamification.

For the younger crowd

Games are being introduced as a way to interest millenials — the generation that grew up reading Harry Potter (a story in which the Hogwarts’ House Cup demonstrates gamification in education)  — in everything from shopping to training materials for work.

Training materials can be pretty dry, says Karl Kapp, author of The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, so gamification seems like a good way to draw in employees.

“As this younger generation comes up,” says Kapp, businesses are thinking, “let’s make some games. Games are being used in a variety of business contexts.”

Look at Deloitte, which uses games in many aspects of its training. Nicole Roy-Tobin, director of best practices and innovation, says that the company would like to create a community of practice, and use gamification to entice employees to participate. It’s a move aimed at the younger employees.

Tushar Tejuja, founder of the gamified recruitment site HackerTrail, believes gamification is the way to capture the interest of the youngest people in the workforce. His business, which pits developers against one another for prizes (the ultimate prize: win a coding challenge and win the chance to interview for a job) is aimed at the millennial mindset.

According to Tejuja, “injecting elements of fun, transparency and meritocracy into the recruitment process” is a way to speak directly to the millennial mindset.

“Globally, companies are conforming and adapting their culture and structure to welcome the more opinionated and driven Gen Y candidates into their workforce,” Tejuja says. “Attracting and engaging this new workforce requires new tools and new ways of thinking, and that was the impetus for creating HackerTrail.”

Games for all

And what might older workers think about games in the workplace?

“The concept initially, without knowing what it means, might seem a little fluffy to more experienced generations,” says Roy-Tobin. “That said, once they begin to engage . . . if a game is designed properly, it should appeal to any user.”

Ferrara believes all successful gamification should place emphasis on design — the focus should be on making an engaging game, rather than by adding points, badges and leaderboards. “That’s much more difficult for people to design than adding badges,” he says. “And it takes more work.”

The best gamification, says Burke, happens when players’ goals and the gamified organization’s goals are aligned. “That’s really where the sweet spot for gamification is,” he explains. “When organizational goals are achieved as a consequence of individuals achieving their goals.”

Jagged Edge Media JAcom Consultants