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Is Gamification a Silly Idea?
David Creelman

Many people have been struck by how hard people ‘work’ at playing video games. They wonder if they can make real work more like games to spur motivation. The act of redesigning work to make it more game-like is called ‘gamification’.

While the idea of making work more fun is hardly new—Mary Poppins had a word or two in favour of the concept—it really is video games that have brought this concept to serious attention. These games are complex, require a lot of learning, and people will concentrate on them not just for an hour or two, but for weeks on end.

Is gamification a silly fad or an important trend? Many people scoff at the idea that work ought to be fun. Work is work, they say, and the ability to concentrate on stuff that is not fun is a core virtue. The other view is that we should use the most effective tools we have to motivate people and gamification provides an effective set of tools.

Some Gamification Techniques
Gamification is not a little bag of tricks, it’s a big one. Games use a wide range of techniques that connect to core motivators. People like to have a sense of progress towards a goal, so games have objectives, point systems and various badges to signal accomplishments. People like a little competition so games feature leader boards comparing your results to others. People want social connection and recognition so gamification often involves a social aspect like multiplayer role playing. What is striking about successful games is how well designed the experience is, making thoughtful use of this big bag of tricks.

The Positives
Gamification actually goes far beyond making work fun; it is really about creating positive emotions that motivate behaviour. Motivation can come from many things including relationships, self-expression or a sense of accomplishment. Gamification can be seen as the science of engagement.

The impressive thing about gamification is that it is based on rich empirical evidence. Game makers, and marketers who have embraced gamification, have tried many approaches and have a fantastic amount of data on what works. They are not just saying that the various engagement mechanisms (like leader boards, points systems and so on) make sense in theory; they can prove they work in practice.

The Negatives
For HR in traditional businesses the biggest negative is that gamification sounds flaky. This reputational risk is so serious that I would advise HR in those companies not to be seen as a champion of the idea. That does not mean you have to abandon the science; simply talk about empirically proven motivational techniques, don’t call it gamification.

The other potential negative is that anything you do to motivate people can potentially be a complete dud or even have harmful consequences. If you have a normal bonus scheme and it is a dud (most are) that does not count against you because it is a standard practice. If you introduce a gamification technique and it fails, then you may face sharp criticism. Again, this does not mean not to do it. It means first to assemble the evidence that this is a sound technique, secondly to run a trial, and thirdly to assess the results of the trial. This iterative, evidenced-based approach will allow you to do innovative work with minimal risks.

The last negative is the opposite of failure. If it works too well then one runs the ethical risk of being manipulative. That is a serious concern but we can cross the bridge of being “too effective” when we come to it.

Staying on the Frontier
HR deals with issues of universal significance, so we can find lessons from all sorts of other fields. The frontier of motivational research is to be found in the video gaming industry. They have the resources, the motivation, and the platform to drive rapid advances in the field. HR has a lot to learn from these pioneers, so staying in touch with gaming will keep you of the cutting edge of human motivation.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at creelman@creelmanresearch.com


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