Why Gamification Fails

What do you think of when you think about gamification? Points, badges, and leaderboards? Leveling up avatars? Gathering thumbs up?

All of these game-like mechanics are often found in gamification, a practice that is growing more and more common in schools, commercial products, and corporate environments. I wrote more about what gamification is previously, and how it differs from serious games. But in this article I am going to talk about why these tools are typically only effective in the short term and do not create the same type of engagement and good will as true play.

To understand playful design, let us first consider play itself. It is hard to define, but I like to say that play is what we do simply because we want to. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have ulterior motives for playing, but that the primary drive behind play is our own pleasure.

Nom nom nom!

Also, understand that any activity can be playful, not just games. We can eat a meal in a purely utilitarian way, cramming down a sandwich in the car or eating cereal while we surf the web, or we can eat it in a playful way, with gusto, or the way my son eats broccoli, pretending to be a brontosaurus eating trees.

We can walk down the street with our heads down, all business, or we can skip, hop over cracks, and whistle. We can play a game very seriously indeed, or we can work in a playful way. In this way, play is something we do, but also a way of doing things, a way of being.

When Amazon.com’s “gamified” warehouse floors popped up in the news cycle not long ago, the reaction was pretty much uniformly horrified. “Dystopian” and “Black Mirror!” were common descriptors. In case you missed it, here is a quote from the Washington Post’s reporting:

The games can register the completion of the task, which is tracked by scanning devices, and can pit individuals, teams or entire floors in a race to pick or stow Lego sets, cellphone cases or dish soap, for instance. Game-playing employees are rewarded with points, virtual badges and other goodies throughout a shift.

And why do all this? Doesn’t play get in the way of work?

Amazon’s experiment is part of a broader industry push to “gamify” low-skill work, particularly as historically low unemployment has driven up wages and attrition.

Wow, sounds fun! No? Shockingly, being pressured to play video games for badges and points at work, although evidently effective at boosting productivity, did not engender many positive takes.

That’s because play, at its core, is a fundamental part of our humanity. It is a way we express ourselves. When we play a game, whether it is friendly or competitive, we are saying something about ourselves to others around us. “I’m clever.” “I have skill.” “I am creative.” “This is what I value.”

Workplace gamification co-opts this and instead pressures employees to burn out, instilling ill will and potentially even backfiring. Employees in such systems tend to try and optimize their performance for rewards instead of for true quality. For instance, a call center worker rewarded for completing as many calls as possible may quickly transfer customers to other associates, helping no one and creating no value, but earning the most points in a broken system. That’s why gamification must always be entered into carefully and thoughtfully, if undertaken at all.

Compare this to playful design, that is, design that respects the humanity of the user and values their creativity, expression, and pleasure.

Goby the fish

Goby the fish is a brilliant example of playful design. I strongly recommend reading the linked article, which is short, but to summarize, a wire sculpture of a fish on the beach is used as a receptacle for plastic bottles. This isn’t gamification, it makes the act of recycling itself fun. The article below says “Kids love feeding Goby,” but I bet adults do, too. Critically, it is a method of keeping plastic out of the ocean that people do not resent; they actually like doing it.

Imagine if, instead, recycling bins were placed on the beach that dispensed points to users, who were asked to make accounts and select avatars. Each time you put a bottle in, you enter or scan your ID and after you recycle 100 bottles, you receive a digital trophy that you can share to facebook.

Who would ever want to do this? Why add extra steps and work into an already mundane task? It might be novel the first few times, but after a while people would begin to resent it, become bored by it, and may even recycle fewer bottles.

What’s more, such a strategy is complex and costly to set up and maintain.

So what is the lesson here? If you are considering hiring a serious games consultant or bringing gamification into your workplace or classroom, first understand why you’re doing it and what you really hope to achieve. What is already playful about what you do? How can you give your employees playful tools to express themselves in the workplace? The playful action doesn’t even need to be task-related at all, as long as it is meaningful and personal.

What makes a playful action meaningful? That’s a topic for another day.

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Sam Liberty is co-founder of Extra Ludic, a serious games consultancy based in Boston, MA. He teaches playful design and game criticism and theory at Northeastern University.

Co-Founder of Extra Ludic; Designing and teaching serious games for social change and real-world impact