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Gamification in the workplace

The concept of gamification stirs up a significant amount of controversy within enterprises across the globe. Its combined use of positive engagement concepts from gaming and applied behavioural economics has made it extremely popular in creative workspaces. That being said, opinion has long been divided between liberal business leaders, driven by motivation and productivity, and those who believe that the traditional disciplined environment is ultimately more productive.

Some critics claim that gamifying the workflow removes professionalism and trivialises serious projects whilst failing to improve commercial performance; however, there is a general consensus between both supporters and critics alike that poor implementation and programme management is often to blame for a decline in productivity.

A new way of thinking

Gamification was originally coined in 2002 by a British computer programmer but the term didn’t fully catch on until around 2010. It describes the process whereby game-like mechanics are introduced into the workflow to increase employee engagement by stimulating their curiosity, competitiveness, and desire for reward, or at least in theory. Though at first the term may seem to suggest elements of play integrated into work, the reality is actually closer to the incorporation of social reward structures into work processes to provide workers with a more direct sense of achievement.

One of the most notable supporters of gamification, Gabe Zichermann, stated in a 2013 blog that employers who implement gamification techniques can see increases in productivity of around forty per cent.

In stark contrast, a 2014 TechCrunch article entitled ‘Gamification’ Is Dead, Long Live Games For Learning, asserted that gamification is merely a lacklustre implementation, which cannot hope to drive greater efficiency and engagement among learners. However, Enterprise Gamification Consultancy's 2015 report refutes this claim, indicating that not only is gamification alive and kicking, it is only just maturing into a fully constructed technique for increasing engagement and performance in the workplace.

The fundamental problem with this argument against gamification is that most critics take the game aspect too literally. The real purpose is not to replicate the fun which one would have when playing an actual game, but rather it is a way to utilise our desire to see and be rewarded for our progression and development towards a specific goal.

The work game

Gamification, therefore, is most effective when it introduces virtual goals which can be physically perceived, using tools like progression metres, levelling, and experience points. These tools are highly effective motivators, as they keep the user engaged regardless of how much they actually enjoy the task itself. As discussed in a 2014 article for The Guardian, the art of keeping game players engaged is not in the game itself, but rather how reward is perceived and granted.

The well-known game Candy Crush became a highly addictive phenomenon because once it had convinced players that they could win, it increased the difficulty of the game and provided fewer rewards but enough to fuel the desperation needed to complete more levels and achieve more points. In essence, this is exactly what gamification represents for the workplace: a perceived reward that can help sustain motivation, regardless of the complexity and nature of the task. It is also the reason why it has such potential in learning and development platforms.

Learn to play

One of the most common issues with online learning and development platforms is the lack of adoption among those meant to benefit from the resources. There are a variety of reasons for this: many workers find they are too busy to make time to access learning resources during work hours and once they have left the discipline of their office environment, they simply cannot motivate themselves to engage.

This is where the true power of gamification reveals itself. By introducing reward mechanisms, learners have an additional drive to complete training programmes, which is more tangible and immediate than the concept of self-development. Once they are engaged, the mechanics will assist in maintaining focus by promising a string of increasingly intermittent rewards in exchange for the learner’s undivided attention.

The success of these tools is in assisting the learner to stay focused on the content, allowing them to learn more effectively whilst fuelling their desire to keep progressing to more difficult concepts. For the learner, they inspire a sense of immediate achievement as well as an opportunity to track progression and evaluate the benefits of having undertaken specific training modules.

The future is engagement

By harnessing the natural competitive drive of employees and manipulating the power of perceived progression and reward, it is possible to increase levels of motivation and engagement in learners without having to turn the delivery of the content itself into a game.

Businesses in particular have a lot to gain from such methodology, as it ensures maximum learning efficiency and minimises the effects of potential diversions or distractions, by motivating the user to remain engaged in the content. Learners with a strong motivation to progress will complete more modules and gain more experience, retaining more of the content, thus validating the success of the learning experience as a whole.

More importantly, once learners begin to develop their competencies under their own volition, they take on the responsibility for their own professional development, fuelling self-empowerment and considerably increasing their value in the eyes of their employers.

Liam Butler, VP Sales EMEA of SumTotal