When Gamification sucks

sometimes evolution sucksEveryone loves Points, Leaderboard and Badges. You love it, right? They’re easy to understand, they’re available in many different solution, they’ve full case history of success… so, is everything great, right?
If you are a consultant, yes, probably PBL works fine. Anyway, from a business point of view, those kind of solutions has issues you have to solve by a good design to achieve an acceptable result: let’s see them.

An anticipation? Issues are all related with the same problem: people cheat. Even
without reason, with no prize at stake, without money or reputation involved, people cheat. Also, do you remember what I wrote before about games as willingly activities? A consequences of that is you can’t use a game as a motivational tool in a job, because a job isn’t always a willingly activity!

Points are easy: the better you do, more point you get. Anyway, as synthetic value, it needs some simplifications to work properly.
When you apply points to a real-life situations, happens the same thing happening every time someone is judged (or pay) in proportion to a mathematical procedure: they align themselves to counter system rather than pursuing some real objectives. that’s fully proven in several fields.

  1. In Microsoft collaboration systems, people who has less point tend to responds to gain point, regardless of skills, competence or utility of their feedback. In fact, they are motivated to spam. Not so good for productivity.
  2. The reward for top ranking management in bank and financial institution is based upon equity related to (short-term) financial result and income. This behaviour has been deeply related to the financial crisis in 2008. If you motivate someone toward short profit…. we he will do that, drifting or cheating if he can obtain a better result.
  3. In education, there no strong consistency between a grade and the skills an alum develop (Einstein and his math grade is quite famous).


Badges suffers from the same problems of points, but they are smoother, and apparently more specific. But collecting a badge is a counter result (or a crossed feedback result), not a language or natural evaluation as it seems afterwards. So, badges have same problems of points: compared to points, they’re easier to use and monitor, and more difficult to be abused (any badge can follows different rules, making hard for player to understand how to use loopholes in badges assignment).

radar chart

Example of a radar chart

But are they really different from point Structurally speaking, no. A table with a lot of numeric value and some highlighted value is a way to simply pass from points to badges, showing consistency of the two methods. A badge have the basic problem that cannot be a meaningful indicator, because it’s a synthetic indicator. You can add badge to badge until you have a rich overview, but in fact you created a framework, not a badge anymore.

Probably, a more accurate showcase than badge collection may be a radar chart, collecting several points/badges in a single chart (like in Pro Evolution Soccer or Fifa – as here aside).

Leaderboard are the new tendencies. Deeply visual, highly graphic, they collect point and badges in a simple solution. An overview on leaderboard approach can be found here. Anyway, apart from presentation, leaderboard share the same structures of points and badges use. The claim is always the same: to quantify, to quantify and to quantify again if necessary.
The biggest fault of leaderboard is their “commercial” approach: they are used apply some tricky solutions to points and ranking list changing their appearance (i.e. first leaderboard approach show the best player, so they are demotivational to worst player. New leaderboard show you only your nearest players, avoiding this problem).
This may work for a commercial or an advertising, but a game is so more engaging: players committed to them more than in advertising, and will carefully monitor any change in game, especially if salary or career may depend on that (and, in this case, showing only partial result may e frustrating for player).

There is also another way to use leaderboard, as tracker to monitor progress. This specific use, for me, it’s good. So I’ve anything against.

Alternate motivational system
You may think I’m never happy. Points aren’t good, Badges aren’t good and even leaderboard don’t work properly. What the hell I want?

I simply prefer a structure designed on people, not numbers. Solutions above share a simple-minded approach to cause and consequences: I’ll let you to monitor yourselves in relationship with your co-workers, thus you will compete with them, thus your productivity will raise.

If the world and the people living in it really may be so simple and straightforward, we’ve never invented something complex and smoothed as gamification. There literally thousand of things that can (and will) goes wrong. People may cooperate to lower expectations and work less harder, rather than compete. They can give up competition from the beginning, removing this motivator to the best competitor that wins easily.

Also, all these systems are imposed from above. The boss, or the gamification designer, or the consultant will decide what are key points to monitor and create engagement, and workers have to align on them. Speaking from experience, that is far away the less intriguing and engaging kind of game. To rely on players contributions (or a crowdsourcing approach) is usually better, and have a better and faster reaction when a cheat, or a glitch, appears.

So, carefully think before implementing a PBL solutions: advantage is easiness, fast implementation, a boost on short engagement and a standard approach.
On the other side, you cannot forecast precisely how your players will react to these solutions. Also, if your rewards are real-life based (money or career opportunities), than you will surely find that users will exploit any possible way to align, to twist or to glitch counters and leaderboard, soon forgetting what they are “really” working for.


One thought on “When Gamification sucks

  1. Pingback: “Killer Apps” for Gamification | Games & Business


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