Gamification, which is the use of game mechanics developed for video games in non-game software, used to bother me. Stripped of the marketing title, gamification is about behavior modification. The techniques such as badging, rankings, and levels are all a form of reward designed to affect our behaviors in some fashion or another. This is classic operant conditioning, pioneered by B.F. Skinner. Voluntary behavior can be modified through a system of perceived rewards and punishments so that the behavior is shaped in a certain manner. Gamification tries to do just this. It helps to shape behaviors in a direction that benefits the company deploying the software. A common place one finds gamification in business applications is in onboarding knowledge workers to new applications, shaping their ability to make use of the software through a series of rewards. Another area where gamification has taken hold has been in CRM and Sales Enablement systems to help drive behaviors that result in more sales revenues. Gamification shows up a lot in customer-facing applications especially social applications where peer interactions can be leveraged by the game mechanics. Typically, companies use game mechanics to engage customers and encourage them to buy products.
The potential for abuse seems high. Could employees be induced into doing things of dubious ethics or working against their own interests? Would customers be driven to buy products and services they didn’t really need or want because their behavior was being manipulated? Ethics aside, it is dangerous to use behavior modification in this manner since the eventual discovery of manipulation drives an inevitable backlash.
Gamification has a very positive side though. Behavior modification is not bad in of itself. It instead becomes unethical when it is used for unethical reasons. If gamification acts as positive learning tool then it can be a useful technique. Game mechanics can be used, for example, to encourage success behaviors and help people to incorporate those behaviors into everyday business. A sales professional receives a badge or other form of encouragement when they do something that will lead to a sale, which provides value to the company and to the sales professional. It helps them to be better at selling which will provide them with financial rewards as well. The same is true for social interactions generated through gamification—it can lead the way for others who will benefit from what their peers are doing.
What separates gamification from other behavioral techniques is the focus on rewards. It favors the carrot over the stick. Positive feedback through rewards is a much better mechanism for encouraging success behaviors than fear of punishment. Money is a prime example of a reward that can come from being successful, as is status. Those are big rewards that come at the end of a long road. Gamification provides small rewards for the individual success behaviors that get one toward those big goals.
Gamification can be used positively if approached from the right angle. If the goal is to encourage successful behaviors or behaviors that provide real and satisfying engagement for customers, then everybody wins and gamification is a success. On the other hand, if the goals are unethical, aimed at manipulating people into doing something that is not in their best interest—in essence to trick them into doing something they don’t really want to do—then gamification is both unethical and doomed to failure. The good news is that most use of gamification seems to be of the former, more positive, sort. So that’s why I can stop worrying and learn to like it, if not love it.