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Game Over: The pitfalls of gamification

While gamification can be an effective tool for increasing engagement, it also has its dark sides.

While gamification can be an effective tool for increasing engagement, it also has its dark sides. These can be intentional such as the promotion of extremist views and designing for addiction or can be unintentional by accidently encouraging unintended behaviours. Here are a few pitfalls you should avoid:

Pitfall: Ignoring the multigenerational workplace

This links directly to analysing the users of the gamification process – who are they? A gamification process must be designed to fit with the end user’s expectations and abilities, the best method to ensure this is by involving stakeholders early in the design process and test thoroughly throughout. This becomes more difficult when the user base is a mixture of different technological abilities and attitudes. However, this can be addressed during the Discovery and On-boarding phases (more details in the full whitepaper about these phases).

During the Discovery phase – where end users first find out about the gamified process – you should create different messaging for each user group based on their values, experiences and attitudes. This will ensure more potential end users try the gamified system rather than simply dismissing it as ‘not for them’. This stage is vital otherwise you risk isolating a large section of the users and the project will fail.

During the On-boarding phase – where end users first start playing your gamified process – testing is key to make sure that tutorials are detailed enough to train inexperienced users but not too laborious to put off those with more exposure to gamification and games in general. Try different techniques to see what works best such as having the tutorial as optional, different difficulty levels, or including a mentoring scheme for certain user types.

Pitfall: Intentionally designing for addictive behaviour

This is a difficult balance, while designers want to encourage engagement and return users, they should avoid intentionally creating something that is addictive. In particular, addictive games focus primarily on the physiological, safety and mastery needs that are covered earlier in the whitepaper.

The mastery need in particular is key to addictive behaviour due to the factors of predictability of feedback. If a player knows when to expect a reward based on their actions, this is predictable feedback and acts as a motivator. This will be enough for most gamification systems as long as other needs are appealed to such as belongingness, purpose, etc. 

However gamification becomes addictive when feedback is not entirely predictable. An example is if a player receives predictable rewards most of the time, but sometimes receives an extra reward for the same action, this encourages the player to repeat this action more.

An example is a fruit machine in a casino. A player pulls the lever and receives feedback in the form of lights, sounds and usually a small pay-out. However, sometimes the player will win big and the lights increase further, the sounds are louder and the reward is much bigger. This disproportionate reward becomes the new goal of the player, removing the need for the smaller reward and instead causing them to play longer for the larger reward.

Pitfall: Gaming for gaming’s sake

One major pitfall that has occurred recently is organisations embracing gamification without really understanding its purpose. They create a gamified process because the CEO has read an article on its effectiveness and asked why they aren’t using it.

To avoid this, organisations need to fully understand what the objective is for the process they intend to gamify and ensure this objective remains the priority throughout.

Pitfall: Ignoring cause and effect

A major pitfall that can occur in gamification is unintended consequences. This means that just because you design a process to achieve a particular outcome, you may unintentionally design for a different outcome entirely.

An example of this is could be a gamified e-learning process where users are awarded badges and eventually pay incentives for reading and completing online tests related to their work. The objective is to improve staff knowledge of industry processes and terminology; however this may quickly devolve into a box ticking exercise where users speed through tests or cheat in order to obtain pay incentives as quickly as possible.

The only way to counter this is to continue testing and measuring the process to ensure that it is still fit for purpose, this testing must be on-going as staffing changes as well as the culture of the organisation and the nature of the process itself.

Pitfall: Creating gamification clones

Similar to ‘gaming for gaming’s sake’, due to the surge of gamification’s popularity, many organisations are testing its principles without understanding the breadth of options available to them. What this has created is a legion of clones that rely on points, badges and leaderboards with no real thought into user needs, the overall objectives or the design of an effective gamification process.

While creating a game clone is relatively easy, it is unlikely to be effective in an organisation purely because it will not take into account any of the factors covered in this whitepaper; users, culture, objectives, etc.  This is backed up by Gartner which has stated that by 2014, 80% of current gamified applications will fail to meet their business objectives primarily due to poor design.


An extract from Dan’s whitepaper: Introducing gamification in e-learning

Read the full whitepaper: Gamification in e-learning.

From Virtual Ashridge, Ashridge Business School.

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