Have you ever experienced that the work you just did was boring, routine, or a real pain? Maybe you haven’t always felt that “spark” during a long meeting, when you called a customer, or when you filled in those numbers in an Excel worksheet? Then you are completely normal. Most of us have moments when we don’t feel enthused or motivated to do things that don’t always feel so stimulating.
Imagine now that you could make those tasks much more inviting and engaging. That is what gamification is about. To simply make work tasks more fun. By borrowing ideas from the playfulness of computer games and design and transferring them to other areas that are not game applications, we can increase an individual’s motivation and enthusiasm. This is primarily about workplaces, but the ideas can even be applied in public environments, for personal development, or in purchasing and sales processes. In practice it is about drawing attention to and rewarding desired behaviors: using carrots instead of sticks. Gamification today is a global phenomenon that has grown into a strong trend, where the market is expected to grow from 4.4 to nearly 10 billion US dollars by the year 2021.1
There are many driving forces behind this trend. Perhaps the strongest is that we play computer games like never before. And this is not just about young men, which is easy to believe. 43 percent of American gamers are older than 35, and between 40 and 50 percent of them are women.2 Globally, the game market generates close to 80 billion US dollars.3
Another driver is that many companies are struggling with detached employees. Gallup’s measurements show for example that only 8 percent of all employees in the UK are engaged in their work, and an entire 73 percent are detached.4 This is a problem, because motivated employees correlate strongly to increased sales and profitability. The reason for these low levels of engagement can be debated, but probably lies in a combination of lack of leadership and the new generation’s changing demands at the workplace – it should be fun to be at work. Gamification is often mentioned as a recipe for improving these dismal figures, and is described as a key to engaging young dopamine-dependent people who have grown up with computer games and social media.
From a human perspective, we can assert that games and playing are important. The Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga goes so far in his book Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture to say that games and playing are part of what makes us human.5 We need games and play to learn how to handle danger, improvise, be creative and thereby develop and create more effective brains. They are central, therefore, to human development. And it doesn’t stop there. Even adults play, it is of Mayor importance for us to feel drive and be creative at the workplace. This is one of the reasons why many companies are transforming their offices into what can appear to be pure playgrounds, with ping pong tables, pinball machines and gaming consoles.
How does gamification work in practice? Exactly like in computer games, gamification is based on different gaming mechanisms that have been proven to motivate and engage users. A combination of these are used for specific goals within the company. With the help of software for gamification you can, for example, award for the desired activities that a sales rep performs, which increases the participant in the game’s status but also provides the opportunity to purchase virtual or real products. With badges, you can give participants evidence of their performance or their competence, which also increases understanding of their own worth. Visualizing what level your sales person is at indicates their long-term and sustained performance, which provides increased internal status. With leaderboards and different ranking systems, you as well as your sales rep know how they are doing in comparison to others. The leaderboard can show performance in real time and thereby create increased engagement.
The ideas behind gamification are about achieving short- and long-term goals through immediate feedback, visualization of targets and the progress of individuals or teams toward achieving the goal, and creating a sense of context. What is to be achieved depends of course on which goals are established by the company. For one it might be about prioritizing a certain target group amongst customers. For another, it could be about contributing to the company’s core values and for a third about increased collaboration. A fourth might want to encourage employees to develop their competencies by answering questions. The possibilities are limitless.
Games reward us in a way that reality doesn’t. | Jane McGonigal, Lecturer and best-selling author in game design
Gamification is used today in a range of different contexts. Not the least of these is sales, which is highly applicable because the work is often comprised of measurable activities. This is also one explanation for why the large suppliers of CRM systems, such as SalesForce and Microsoft, currently offer gamification built in to their solutions. Microsoft Dynamics 365 has, for example, a solution that enables employees to participate in individual and team-based competitions that motivate them to achieve certain pre-defined goals. If they are achieved, the user has a chance to win nice prizes and obtain merits, privileges and recognition.
The list of companies that use gamification is long and is comprised of applications that not only engage personnel but also customers. When you fly with companies like SAS and Norwegian they want to entice you into their loyalty programs, so that you will fly more with them. This is built on gamification. At the coffee chain Starbucks you get gold stars every time you pay using their app. Five gold stars gives you a free refill. And on travel sites like TripAdvisor you can collect points and badges. Every time you post a review, a picture, a forum post, a rating or a video clip you get different points or badges. The more points you collect the higher your level. You don’t earn money with your points but it is fun, and you gain high status.
The world’s largest online service for renting out private residences – Airbnb – has used gamification very successfully to encourage both hosts and rental guests to live up to their commitments. The guests get to rate the host for things like precision, communication, and cleanliness, while the host rates the guest in the same way. You can reach different levels, such as “super host,” if you get really good ratings. The ratings are published publicly and encourage everyone to improve.
One can ask one’s self, however, what meaning these points, recognition and badges have beyond momentary increased engagement. One possible development is that gaming results will be standardized and in the long run become a form of social currency, even outside of one’s own company or customer base. If they are also connected to real monetary systems, this would open up for many future scenarios where being good and various deeds are rewarded.
Does this sound like an unrealistic “big brother sees you” reality? Maybe, but it is actually already reality. In China, several large companies with enormous customer databases are collaborating to evaluate and rate citizens’ credibility. Credit histories, ability to pay, but also character traits, behavior and personal contacts are analyzed and summarized in a so-called Zhima score.6 The data is combined with information from authorities, courts and schools to provide as complete a picture of an individual as possible. A maximum of 950 points are awarded and high points result in high trust and thereby a range of different benefits. For people with low scores things get worse. The risk of being blacklisted or publicly shamed is high.
For many people this development is objectionable, and it is probably not a model that will be allowed in many countries. It is more likely that the trend will stop at social currency that can be used by individuals to describe their efforts in considerably more detail than solely through achieved results. Conscientiousness, helpfulness, customer focus, ability to collaborate, creativity or drive could be rated with markers or stars and provided in a job application. But this requires, as mentioned above, that many of the behaviors that companies want to encourage are standardized and that suppliers cooperate to develop such a game plan.
1 Statista (2018). Value of the gamification market worldwide in 2016 and 2021. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/608824/gamification-market-value-worldwide/
2 Statista (2018). Age breakdown of video game players in the United States in 2018. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://www.statista.com/statistics/189582/age-of-us-video-game-players-since-2010/
3 Malmqvist, M. (2016, 12 December). Dataspelsmarknaden drar in över 800 miljarder – mobilen klart störst. Computer Sweden. Downloaded from: https://computersweden.idg.se/2.2683/1.672551/dataspel-omsattning-mobil
4 Crabtree, S. (2017, 6 October). Weak Workplace Cultures Help Explain UK’s Productivity Woes. [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/219947/weak-workplace-cultures-help-explain-productivity-woes.aspx
5 Huizinga, J. (2004). Den lekande människan: (homo ludens). (2. utg.) Stockholm: Natur och kultur.
6 Andersson Åkerblom T. (2015, 25 September). Så blir du en kinesisk mönstermedborgare. [blog post]. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from https://kit.se/2015/09/25/11823/sa-blir-du-en-kinesisk-monstermedborgare/