Is Gamification Successful?


If there is one thing that almost every civilizations throughout time has had in common, it is the presence of some sort of game or other activity meant to help the player gain a sense of enjoyment or pleasure. Why is that though? What is it about games that make them such a popular escape for people, why do they bring such enjoyment to people to where they could spend hours or even days on the same game? As time passed and people realized that there was profit to be made from gaming, global gaming industries began capitalizing on this with a variety of video games, board games, card games, and more. As the gaming industry has developed into a widespread global phenomenon, many other fields are taking notice and beginning to implement game mechanics into areas of real life. Gamification has recently become a large movement in industries such as medicine, business, and education. Many teachers are implementing game mechanics in the way that they teach in the classroom. Companies like Khan Academy are even bringing the teaching online while also making it a game in order to engage those who are learning. With many children today growing up with a greater exposure to games than previous generations, more specifically video games, using these popular game mechanics can be useful in helping the students learn. It seems as if gamifying education in some ways can be extremely beneficial to the learning of the student. Game mechanics can be used not only motivate people to complete simple tasks, it can be used to solve very complex situations as well. In the medical industry scientists at the University of Seattle in Washington have developed an online program to help understand the structure of proteins. All registered users were then invited to attempt to help configure the structure of an enzyme associated with the AIDS virus. After implementing mechanics such as leaderboards and competitive scores into the program, users were motivated enough to solve a problem in three weeks that had stumped scientists for over fifteen years. If major fields such as education and medicine can use the popular mechanics that almost all games share, what about implementing game mechanics into the workplace? In this essay I will look into the recent trend of many large businesses are attempting to incorporate the mechanics of games into their business to engage both employee and customer, and how they are attempting to do this. While many argue that gamification is an excellent idea that can produce nothing but positive outcomes, we will also discuss the potential negative aspects of a gamified business. However, in order to understand why using game mechanics in the business industry could potentially be successful, one must first understand exactly what a game is and understand just what it is about games that people find so enjoyable.

When explaining what it is about games that makes people happy it is important to understand just exactly what it is that makes something a game. There are four things that almost all games, from board games to sports, have in common. First off, all games have a specific goal or objective that is to be completed in order to win. Next, all games have a specific set of rules that the player is required to follow in order to play the game. It does not matter if those rules are as complex as chess or as simple as rolling dice, all games have rules. Another important aspect of a game is for the player to voluntarily agree to play the game and know that is what they are doing. The fourth, and what I believe is one of the most important aspects of a game, is that they provide immediate feedback for the person playing. This immediate response of knowing you have accomplished something is a very enjoyable experience for the player.

So just what is it about a game that a person finds enjoyable that always keeps them coming back for more? To understand this, it is important to note the difference between an activity that a person finds enjoyable and one that a person finds pleasurable. While an experience can be both pleasurable and enjoyable they are two different sensations. Pleasure is more of a biological human need so one may have a pleasurable experience after eating, sleeping, or drinking, as it meets a goal that is needed to provide temporary relief, but does not provide any sort of benefit in the long run. That’s where an experience that can be considered enjoyable as different. An enjoyable experience provides you with a sense of accomplishment and achievement in the long run. That’s what makes playing games so appealing to people. While they don’t necessarily fulfill a biological need, the sense of accomplishment that you feel after winning a game, or accomplishing a task, is a lasting feeling and one that you want to continue to have.

An excellent theory to help understand why people find games so enjoyable is the concept of flow, which was developed by Mihaly Csikszentimhalyi. While the concept of flow has been around for centuries, Csikzentimayli published his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience in order to explain just why people were at their happiest state of mind while in a sense of flow. You may hear someone refer to something that they were doing and said that they were “in the zone,” this is essentially flow. Every person is capable of obtaining flow; they just have to find what it is that gets them to that state. Flow is explained by Csikzentimayli to be the mental state in which you are so concentrated on one specific task that it has 110% of your concentration and nothing else at all matters while you are working on this task. While the actions that people take in order to obtain flow may be at times drastically different, the feeling itself is almost universal. A dancer and a chess player can both describe their mental states while experiencing flow, and even though their actions are extremely different, they would both say that they were so concentrated on the task at hand that they almost felt one with the activity. Flow in an excellent concept to explain why people get so into a game. In order for one to experience flow, the activity that they are attempting must have certain criteria, all of which are found in games. First of all, the task at hand must be a challenging activity that requires skill. If the activity is not challenging there will be no sense of accomplishment after completing it, therefore flow cannot be achieved. While flow is occurring a person will become so caught up in the task that they do not realize they are even working, what you are doing becomes almost automatic and you don’t think twice about it. One of the most important aspects of a game is also essential in experiencing complete flow. One must understand that the task has clear goals, and must receive immediate feedback. Flow is a fascinating concept. One can end up so caught up in an activity that they lose a sense of who they are outside of the activity, and can also completely lose track of time. It is all too common to hear stories of someone who can get extremely caught up in a game. Stories are constantly reported of the gamer who had spent a week isolated at home playing the latest game. If someone can get into that state by accomplishing a task in a game, wouldn’t using the concept of a game to accomplish much bigger tasks, ones that could have a major impact on your life, be that much more fulfilling?

After learning just what makes people so drawn to games it makes sense that industries such as education, medicine, and more specifically business, capitalized on this social phenomenon and began incorporating certain game mechanics into everyday life. As surprising as it is, this new trend of incorporating game mechanics is not isolated to small private businesses. Many large prestigious corporations have begun implementing game elements as an attempt to boost productivity and socialization between employees as well as customers. By applying mechanics such as leaderboards, badges, levels, and missions, businesses have began making the average work day much more fun for the employee. Applying a leaderboard can promote a sense of competiveness between employees as well as provide an incentive for be more productive, especially if there is a prize or reward at the end. Games provide people with a way to come together. Today it doesn’t matter if you are in the same room or have way across the world; games bring people with similar interests together. So it is no surprise that companies are using this knowledge to promote socialization between employees. The idea of seeing immediate feedback also provides the employee with a sense of real accomplishment, and can see the progress that they are making as it happens. Not only are large companies using this method to attempt to motivate employees, they are also using game mechanisms to motivate consumers to purchase more products. For example, Starbucks uses the My Rewards system, which works as an incentive for customers to keep coming back. They provide a gold star every time you use the mobile app to make a purchase, and the more stars you collect the more rewards you receive. Another popular application that many people use that has applied game mechanics is the Nike+ program. This program uses rewards to motivate people to be active and to live an active lifestyle.

Just what sort of positive outcome does gamifying a business have? Gamification has many potential benefits. The most common reason that companies believe that gamification is useful is that it increases the enjoyment and engagement that one may find in their job. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 70% of workers report not being engaged in their jobs (Luman). Many workers need that little extra boost of motivation, and by turning work into a game many are finding it. As stated earlier, what I believe is one of the most important aspects of a game is the fact that it offers immediate feedback. While it is incredibly important in the aspect of gaming, receiving immediate response to an action can be extremely important in the workplace as well, and this is why gamification can be useful. Employees are now realizing right away when they are doing something good right away as opposed to having to wait around for a yearly review. This immediate response will provide an incentive for employees to be more involved in their work and continue to chase that sense of accomplishment that they feel when they win the “game.” You see this concept of immediate feedback being used to engage consumers as well. People who use the Starbucks My Rewards card or the Nike+ program will continue to use the program because they immediately see what their latest accomplishment has gotten them.

Now just like with anything else there is a potential downside to applying game mechanics to everyday life. Many researchers believer that gamification is not a successful tool in accomplishing tasks. One of the potential effects of gamifying tasks in the workplace is that when someone is essentially forced to accomplish a task, it no longer seems like a game. If you no longer have a choice to voluntarily play along, it essentially loses its impact as a game. Another major effect that gamifying the workplace may have is that it may promote cheating. People have been cheating at games for as long as games have been around, and if the future of your career depends on how successful you are in the game, people will be more inclined to cheat or attempt to sabotage other workers. However, the number one reason that companies who have implemented game mechanics have not found it successful is that they applied these game mechanics in a boring way. According to an article in Forbes published by Brian Burke, “When designed correctly gamification has proven to be very successful in engaging people and motivating them to change behaviors, develop skills or solve problems.”

While some may argue that the idea of gamifying industries such as business may be a bad idea, I personally believe that if developed properly, and incorporated into work properly, it can be extremely effective. Recent gamifcation attempts have failed not because it doesn’t have potential, but rather because businesses are using it for all of the wrong reasons. Everyone loves games, so if you make it fun for the employee or the customer it will make the experience much more enjoyable. It doesn’t matter if you are flying on a plane, ordering coffee, or exercising, companies have began rewarding you for these activities to keep you coming back whether you realize that’s what they are doing or not. Making something a game can be extremely helpful in motivating someone to complete their goals, and can help them engage with their peers. While I don’t believe that gamification would be successful if used as the only method of motivation, making something more fun is very encouraging and could be extremely beneficial. The immediate feedback provided by a gamified action is extremely important, and that itself could be helpful in motivating employees. By successfully utilizing mechanics such as rewards, badges, and leaderboards into important everyday tasks, business could potentially see a huge spike in motivation and success. Many believe that this is just the beginning for the gamifcation movement. Researchers have predicted that many of the largest companies in the world will begin to introduce at least one form of gamication into the workplace. Gamification has all of the potential in the world to be a successful business tool; it is just going to take the right company figuring out the most useful way to adopt the method.