What Do You Do When Gamification Is No Longer Fun?

A healthy sense of competition is only good if it results in long-term, substantive gains in employee engagement and improvements in customer service and profitability.

“Gamification” sounds like a blast—workdays turned into fun games with peers. But it turns out it’s usually not like that at all. The fun, competitive spirit of the gamified workplace can quickly turn darkly stressful, according to Adrian Hon, author of “You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All,” which recently was excerpted in Big Think.

“More often than not, it doesn’t even try to make difficult or repetitive activities more fun, like I’ve done with my own games. Instead, the games are usually paper-thin layerings of points, badges, rewards, and leaderboards on top of existing task-tracking systems, nagging workers to pack boxes faster or keep driving longer—generic gamification at its finest,” Hon writes.

So, in other words, the “games” are a trick intended to get employees to compete more fiercely against each other and work ever harder.

I’m ahead of the curve in guarding against being gamified in that I have always disliked video games and online competitions. I was a child during the Atari and Nintendo crazes of the 1980s and early 1990s. I wasn’t having it. I much preferred a pinball machine or hours spent daydreaming. Using an electronic device to control action happening on a screen wasn’t nearly as enjoyable to me as offline whimsy.

With young people today even more attuned than people of my generation to video/computer games, it’s no wonder someone figured out how to take advantage of that passion. It’s harder to turn offline pursuits into ways of tricking employees into being tracked and doing more work. Once employees who initially were having so much fun with their games figure out that they’re being played, so to speak, the “fun” fades.

The Novelty Effect

Indeed, the gains from gamification often are short-lived. “Staff tend to work harder or become happier in the short term, but after a few months, the effect disappears,” writes Hon. “In some cases, the effect even goes into reverse, with performance dropping below its original level. Since each instance of gamification is different from the next, it’s hard to draw broad conclusions, but the likely explanation for the short-term improvement is the ‘novelty effect,’ a catch-all term for what happens when you change the environment or technology involved in a task.”

I wonder if the answer is to create “games” that are not games as we think of them today. The “game” could be more analog—i.e., employees submit customer-pleasing, revenue-generating business ideas over the course of the year. Employees whose ideas get implemented are recognized, plus receive an impressive financial bonus and the opportunity to participate in the implementation, thereby boosting their career. This kind of game is substantive. And while it sets employees up to compete against each other, it’s played out over a long period of time, allowing for thoughtful, meaningful contributions. It also probably would increase workforce engagement. Employees, in the course of researching and planning out their ideas, would learn more about the company, its customers, and goals. And even if their idea was not among those selected by decision-makers to implement, they might feel pride just in coming up with and getting a chance to pitch it.

Other Game Options

What other ways can you create “games” that are rewarding for employees and result in long-term gains? You could train departmental or work group managers to create meaningful games and contests throughout the year. For example, if a business unit participates in an annual conference, the manager of that group of employees could ask for ideas for a conference session someone from the business unit could facilitate or present. The winner not only would get to lead a session at the conference in the name of the business unit and company, but the session would be recorded and posted online publicly and to the company’s intranet site. The employee would get wide recognition and a chance to promote themselves to customers and company executives in a position to offer higher-level opportunities. In addition, the business unit could offer a reward such as a financial bonus or a few extra vacation days.

A healthy sense of competition is only good if it results in long-term, substantive gains in employee engagement and improvements in customer service and profitability. What you don’t want are games that turn employees into lab rats that have been incentivized to find faster ways to the cheese.

Is your organization gamified? If so, how do you ensure the games have your intended impact on employees?