We all know that work and play are both separate, but do they have to be? Is it possible to take game mechanics and theory and apply it to the workplace? That's what gamification is all about, but can it work?

This past week I had the privilege of attending the Gamification Summit in San Francisco. It’s the first year for the conference and it was completely sold out (awesome job Gabe!). Brands, game developers, gaming platforms and anyone interested in gaming concepts and mechanics were present at this event. Everyone wanted to discuss how they can "gamify" their business.  I know what you're thinking,

What is Gamifcation?

According to Wikipedia:

Gamification is the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications (also known as "funware"), particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. It also strives to encourage users to engage in desired behaviors in connection with the applications. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, and by encouraging desired behaviors, taking advantage of humans' psychological predisposition to engage in gaming. The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, or reading web sites.

Gabe Zichermann, the founder of the conference states that today we have a very clear differentiation between work and play and that most people consider the two very separate. I completely agree. We always tend to view the two as separate which is quite apparent in the quote, "work before play."  However, Gabe states that this doesn’t have to be the case and in fact we can have fun and enjoy work by incorporating gaming concepts and ideas into how we run and operate businesses. Why can't we work AND play?

Examples of Gamification

You’re probably already familiar with examples of gamification. Think of your frequent flyer program or your hotel rewards program or perhaps that Starbucks card that is waiting for you in your wallet. All of these are designed around rewarding desired customer behaviors. Some loyalty programs are great such as Southwest Airlines, others…not so much (such as Virgin America). In the past few years we have seen other more modern types of gamification such as:

  • Foursquare, where users are rewarded and achieve a certain status by accomplishing tasks via “checking-in” at locations.
  • Twitter, which uses the follower count as a form of game where users are always striving to increase the amount of followers they have.
  • Lithium, which is a community platform used by many large brands to help reward and motivate users based on engagement and interaction with the brand.

Silicon.com also talks about two examples of how gamification concepts are used to help people take their medicine and help entertain commuters when they are stuck in traffic. While it seems as though the concept of gamification is gaining more traction, it also seems as though many of the examples we are seeing are consumer facing. What about using the concepts of gamification within the enterprise? Is it possible to use game concepts and ideas to “gamify” work?

Gamification in the Enterprise

Good examples of this can be found around platforms such as Spigit, which is an ideation management platform used within organizations. Employees submit and vote on ideas and are rewarded based on their participation and engagement. Another example can be found with Crowdcast, a prediction market platform which allows employees to “bet” on or predict business activities such as release dates for a product. Employees “bet” on things with fictional currency and winners are rewarded with anything from paid days off to gift cards or just hard cash (this depends on how the company chooses to reward employees). 

Could these types of concepts help with more mundane tasks that so many of us are accustomed to such as email or meetings? When I spoke with Gabe he mentioned the idea of being able to sort of prioritize emails by assigning stars to them. Employees would be given a certain amount of stars that they can use during a given time period, when they send an email they have to assign a certain amount of stars to it based on priority. The fact that employees have limited stars will make them prioritize emails so that only the most important emails sent are assigned the most amount of stars to them.

These are all interesting concepts that do have some merit to them but we haven't really seen mass adoption of gamification within the enterprise, indeed this is still an emerging concept for many companies.

Dangers of Gamification

There are also the negatives of gamification to be considered, such as "what happens when gamification backfires?" If employees can be encouraged to participate in something with good gamification then surely they can be discouraged from participating with bad gamification. The same is true for customers.

We also need to consider that everyone has different aptitudes for different types of games so is it possible to design something for an enterprise that all employees will find useful and entertaining? What happens when things become too easy or too hard? As with any game there are frustrations but also rewards. The question is, what will gamification truly bring for the enterprise? The former or the later?