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Susan Hunt Stevens


CEO, Founder

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Gamification isn’t dead, it’s just one piece of the employee engagement puzzle


As recently as last year it was widely and optimistically accepted that applying game mechanics to corporate tasks, like rewarding points, levels or badges to completing a timecard or participating in a giving campaign would have a significant increase in employee engagement.

Studies from industry research experts such as the Aberdeen Group, found in a recent study that organizations who deploy gamification improve engagement by 48% and decreased turnover by 36%. 

These are impressive figures that would have any HR executive excited to add game mechanics to a number of activities. However, the “gamify everything” approach has recently experienced a wave of negative publicity.

Organizations are realizing that game mechanics alone may not be as effective as initially thought. Industry analysts at Gartner now predict a mere 5 to 10% market penetration rate, causing other industry leaders and analysts quick to deem this “the death of gamification.”

The reality is that not all business activities benefit from game mechanics – nor should they – and gamification was never intended to be the only tactic used to promote employee engagement.

Let’s explore why organizations need to shift their all-encompassing thinking around gamification and how they can effectively apply game mechanics in the workplace to truly impact employee engagement.

Gamification is a tool, not the whole toolbox

In 2012 Gartner estimated that 80% of gamification applications would fail to meet business objectives because of poor design in respect to broader engagement models. Aligning with this prediction, in recent years, many have mistakenly considered gamification the entire framework for their employee engagement model, as opposed to just one piece of the puzzle.

In 2012 Gartner estimated that 80% of gamification applications would fail to meet business objectives.

The reality is that employee engagement is just as much an issue of enabling ability for employees to do something, which often requires creating awareness and educating employees, connecting them to experts or peers who have experience, or making financial or operational processes better.

For motivation to work, employees first must be able to actually complete what is being asked of them.

The right time and place

So, when and where are game mechanics most appropriate and effective when it comes to employee engagement? One classic example of game mechanics is an employee challenge model – specifically initiatives that are limited in time or are aimed at reaching a particular goal.

Think about a “Chuck the Cup Challenge” to eliminate the use of disposable cups.

A campaign like this a ripe for gamification. Why? Because it has a few key characteristics that not all employee engagement programs do, including:

  • A time limit: it may only last for the month of April to recognize Earth Day
  • Ability is easy to optimize: providing employees with a mug or cup is affordable and cafeterias can be instructed to serve or even reward people with reusable mugs and even offer to wash them
  • Metrics to drive competition: reduced cup usage is relatively easy to count and measure which enables counting, leaderboards and competition across the organization.
  • Impact results: Yahoo! made a fun art display out of all the cups that were saved outside of their building.  Companies can display progress bars towards goals, which is in turn motivation for others to participate or people to keep participating.
  • Natural real-world triggers:  cup usage is highly visual and serves as a trigger for others to participate when people carry their mugs around. There are also obvious areas in the company like the coffee station where motivating cues can be placed – whether that’s a leaderboard, impact results, or this week’s champion team.

While a Chuck the Cup program is a great example of how gamification can be successful, not every initiative falls into this category, and it’s important that organizations understand how and where they should be applying game mechanics.

Take, for example, a recycling program or bike to work program. They are more about incenting long-term behavior change and should focus on employee ability and education.

Employee engagement is just as much an issue of enabling ability for employees to do something.

Ability may be the biggest challenge to tackle first – for example, making sure there are showers, places to lock a bike, and a safe path to the office for the rider. For recycling, it’s important to remember how truly confusing it is to the average person and therefore, showing exactly which items should be put where is more critical to start with than a challenge.

These campaigns can start by sharing information and data on how biking and recycling can make a significant impact on health or environmental goals.  They can highlight people who have figured out HOW to do something in order to encourage others.

Educating and simplifying the action and driving up ability is the most critical first step. Then you can decide whether the work force is ready for something that adds a gamification element to the program. 

Making the most of gamification

In order for organizations to utilize game mechanics in the most effective way possible, they need to first review every employee engagement and initiative in place and identify whether or not it’s truly a motivation issue or whether ability is the first issue to tackle. A great way to determine potential success is to use the BJ Fogg model of behavior change, which focuses on understanding motivations, abilities and triggers:

  • Motivations are the reasons for which your employees will participate. Think pleasure vs. pain or social rejection vs. social acceptance.
  • Abilities are the qualities your employee must have in order to participate. What are you asking from your employee in order to participate in this program, is it time, money, knowledge?
  • Triggers are the modes or channels you’re relying upon in order create awareness and spark your employees to take action.

If it’s easy for people to do, but they just aren’t motivated to do it – game mechanics could be a great way to make it more engaging, more fun and more likely to drive participation and impact.  If people are struggling with how to do something, it’s likely better to focus on ability before adding in game mechanics.

Bottom line, gamification is still an important part of every employee engagement program. And it’s certainly not dead.

But if organizations are going to be successful when they implement these tactics, it’s going to be because they understand that gamification and game mechanics are just one piece of the engagement puzzle. In doing so, organizations can successfully use gamification to work toward a common goal, solve a problem, educate and achieve deeper levels of engagement.

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Susan Hunt Stevens

CEO, Founder

Read more from Susan Hunt Stevens

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