Gamification Can Work — Just Don’t Hire A Game Designer

Editor’s note: Rajat Paharia is the founder of Bunchball, a provider of online gamification solutions. Follow him on Twitter @rajatrocks.

Gartner recently issued a press release that made the following provocative assertion: “Gamification is currently being driven by novelty and hype. Gartner predicts that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design.”

While the rest of the release discusses the various ways that gamification can effectively be used to drive behavior change, skill development, and innovation, the only thing that sticks in most readers’ minds is, “80 percent of gamification will fail.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

First off, there is still a misconception about what gamification is, and the prefix “game” probably doesn’t help. Gamification is the process of taking something that already exists – that has some core, intrinsic value – and integrating game mechanics into it to motivate participation, engagement, and loyalty.

Let me share with you some other phrases that we use when we describe it to people: “measure and motivate,” “recognition and reward,” “loyalty,” “reputation,” “guiding and amplifying high-value behavior.” I don’t think that anyone would disagree that these are good things, and smart businesses have been doing many of them very effectively for years. The core theme that runs through these, and the mission that gets my colleagues and I out of bed every morning, is motivating people through data. And in this case, we’re specifically talking about user-activity data.

User Activity As A Motivator

One way that you can use user-activity data to motivate people is by enabling them to visualize and derive some insight from it, which will hopefully motivate behavior change (aka “Quantified Self”). Companies like RescueTime and Mint do this to get people to waste less time on their computers and manage their personal finances better.

Another way that you can use this data to motivate people is to supplement the visualization with goals to work toward, real-time feedback as they progress, rewards for their achievements and a community of people to compete and collaborate with. This is gamification, and companies like Khan Academy, USA Network, and Nike are using it very effectively to motivate consumers, students and employees. There are also several technology vendors in the space, including Bunchball (my company), Gigya, Badgeville and BigDoor among others.

Like anything else, gamification can be done well and it can be done poorly. In any new field that captures the collective imagination like gamification has, you will see companies, driven by the “novelty and hype”, copying what they see others doing, doing it poorly, and failing. And they do this without any real understanding of why they’re doing it, just with a blind faith that if it worked for someone else, it will work for them. Both big and small companies are susceptible to this – look no further than Google News Badges (now, thankfully deceased) for a great example of this kind of thinking.

Yes, Poor Gamification Design Leads To Failure

I agree with Gartner’s implicit assertion that poor design will lead to failed gamification programs. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that poor design also leads to failed enterprise software applications, silverware, and airplanes. How do you prevent this failure? You don’t ask people like me to design your silverware or your airplanes, you ask people with experience. Having people with gamification experience on your side, who have seen what works and doesn’t work, have made all the mistakes and who understand how to craft compelling motivation programs, can substantially reduce the risk of failure.

But what kind of experience should you be looking for? Here’s where Gartner and several of the companies in the gamification space have it completely wrong, and it’s part of the problem of listening to people with no real-world experience. They believe that it’s a “game design” problem, so they recommend hiring game designers and they tout the fact that they have people from Electronic Arts, Zynga and Playdom on their payroll.

Do you know what game designers do? They make games. They start with a blank sheet of paper and they create something out of nothing, an experience whose sole purpose is to entertain. Gamification is not a game design problem. If anyone tries to sell you a game designer to design your gamification program, you should run screaming. And any game designer worth his salt would run screaming from you – gamification is the last thing in the world they want to do.

Gamification is an “interaction design” problem. According to Wikipedia interaction design is: “The practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services. Like many other design fields interaction design also has an interest in form but its main focus is on behavior… Interaction design is heavily focused on satisfying the needs and desires of the people who will use the product.”

I predict that in a couple of years, “motivating people through data” is going to be called “good design,” and it’s going to be a critical part of any interaction designer’s toolkit. Why do I think this? Because all the macro trends are pointing that way. Here are three of the big ones:

  • We’re living more and more of our lives online – community, entertainment, education, work – everything we’re doing is being mediated by technology. To quote Marc Andreessen, “software is eating the world.” And the by-product of us living our lives online is reams of big data on user activity, the perfect fuel for motivation engines.
  • Businesses realize that they’re competing for attention and loyalty in a crowded, 24/7, global marketplace, and they’re putting an increased focus on customer, partner and employee engagement.
  • Gen Y, already comprising 25 percent of the workforce, have grown up with the language and metaphors of games, and expect real-time feedback, recognition and reward in all their experiences.

So I’d encourage you to look beyond the headlines, because this particular analysis does everyone a disservice, while the results companies are achieving with gamification speak for themselves. Using gamification, companies like Eloqua are seeing a 55 percent lift in active users in their user communities, companies like Zamzee are motivating kids to exercise 59 percent more, and companies like Bluewolf are experiencing a  68 percent increase in traffic to their website. Well-designed gamification programs work, or these companies and others including NBCUniversal, Intuit, MTV, Salesforce, Adobe, and others, wouldn’t be funding gamification initiatives. At the end of the day, the market will be the best judge.

USA Network, Zamzee, Bluewolf, NBCUniversal, Intuit, MTV, Salesforce, Adobe and Eloqua are all Bunchball customers, either directly or through a partner.