The 3 Mistakes Every First-Timer Makes with Gamification Design

Gamification does not mean simply handing out points or badges to learners. It’s about finding the right motivators to promote actions that achieve the desired outcomes

I see a lot of confusion about what it means to gamify a learning program. Gamification is NOT about designing a game. Nor is it simply handing out points or badges to your learners. It’s about finding the right motivators for your audience to promote actions that achieve the desired outcomes.

As you start your gamification strategy design, avoid these common mistakes:

Mistake #1 : Failing to identify who the game is for. Why do some people engage in a gamified process, while others disengage in frustration? Why do some game elements appeal to some people, but have no effect on others?

The problem is based in our personal motivation profile, which is core to how we make decisions. The breakdown happens because we have trouble understanding the perspective of those whose profile is significantly different from ours. Dr. Reiss, of The Reiss Profile, identifies this problem as “self-hugging.” He says not only do we believe everyone should be like us, but that they are like us.

In gamification design, it is important to realize that you have different motivations for playing than most of the people you encounter. Don’t assume your players want things your way. Talk with potential players to find out what makes them tick.

Mistake #2 : Attempting to fix a broken product or service with gamification. It’s like the time my youngest son baked a cake for us. The icing looked deliciously creamy and sweet. But with the first bite, we were puzzled, because although the icing tasted as good as it looked, it was apparent something was wrong with the cake. With a second bite, our fear was confirmed, and we said, ‘The icing is great, but what’s wrong with the cake?” My son laughed and confessed he misread the recipe and put in three tablespoons instead of three teaspoons of baking powder, which caused the cake to be flat and bitter.

He was hoping the sweetness of the icing would compensate for the bitterness of the cake. Instead, it left me wondering, “Why would you take the time and energy to put this delicious icing on such a terrible cake?”

The same is true for your gamification design. If done right, it will draw in your users, and they’ll want to see if it tastes as good as it looks. When they find out your customer service department should be called the Customer Torture Department, they will wonder why you bothered gamifying the process. You have to solve the problem of a bad product or service before you can leverage the power of gamification.

Mistake #3 : Believing that PBLs are gamification. When asked about choosing a gamification platform, I advise, “If the salesperson starts by describing how his or her gamification platform provides points, badges, and leaderboards (PBLs), run from the room as fast as you can.” Surprised, people often respond, ‘What do you mean? I thought that is what gamification is!” Of course, they did, because most (but not all) gamification platforms on the market begin and end with oversimplified, non-engaging mechanics.

PBLs are part of gamification, but if all you focus on are those mechanics, then say hello to your colleagues as you join them in the 80 percent of gamification projects that will fail this year.

Leaderboards actually can drive users away if used inappropriately. Imagine that you oversee a help desk, and in an attempt to improve efficiency, you add a leaderboard, award points, and issue cash rewards to employees with the fastest times in resolving Tier 1 issues. Chances are good that you instead will see wait times increase and a spike in employee turnover. Why? Because the help desk employees won’t view your gamification efforts as positive feedback, but rather as management watching over them.

You cannot simply add a cookie-cutter gamification overlay to a system and expect success. Take a closer look.

Designed properly, gamification will provide learners with a sense of accomplishment, skill building, achievement, and purpose. Now it’s your turn.

A gamification speaker and designer, Monica Cornetti is rated as a No. 1 Gamification Guru in the World by UK-based Leaderboarded. She is the founder and CEO of the Sententia Gamification Consortium and the author of the book, “Totally Awesome Training Activity Guide: Put Gamification to Work for You.” For more information, visit or Connect with Cornetti on Twitter @monicacornetti.