To harness the power of gamification, HR leaders need to create optional, low-pressure fun so compelling that employees can’t resist participating, writes Richard Landers

If you’ve been anywhere even vaguely in the vicinity of a HR technologist lately, you’ve heard the term “gamification”. Gamification has been touted as the solution to all of HR’s problems, from attaining universally high employee engagement to attracting better job candidates. Unfortunately, as research firm Gartner predicted, most organisational gamification efforts this year are doomed to failure.

Beware gamification spruikers
Such failure is not the fault of gamification per se, but of its promoters. An industry has sprung up practically overnight to peddle gamification solutions to organisations. Yet many purveyors of gamification use only the most obvious aspects of games – points and leaderboards – without truly understanding why games are successful at motivating billions of people to play them.

If points were really the motivating aspect of games, games would be twice as fun if you earned double the points. Imagine the classic Atari video game PONG. Every time you win a round against your opponent, you earn a point. So wouldn’t PONG be twice as much fun if you earned two points for each round instead of one?

“Consistent throughout all successful games is choice. The player must be able to decide his or her own destiny”

No, it wouldn’t. The reason is that points aren’t compelling by themselves – they instead represent an underlying psychological state that has changed for the player. You have been victorious! You have bested an opponent! The points serve as a record and a reminder of that success. What that means for HR is that simply throwing points or a leaderboard onto a pre-existing process is not going to change anything. At best, it wastes time, and at worst, it alienates employees who feel they are being manipulated by management. If you don’t want a gamification failure, you first need to know why games motivate.

As famed game designer Sid Meier once noted, a game is “a series of interesting choices”. Players are presented novel situations, and they are able to select how to respond. Sometimes these responses involve hand–eye coordination (as in the case of PONG), and sometimes they are more strategic (as in Sid Meier’s own Civilization series). Consistent throughout all successful games is choice. The player must be able to decide his or her own destiny. Another major theme is a lack of consequences – if the player fails, they can always try again later.

Where gamification meets HR
In HR, this is where things often go awry. What starts out as an effort to increase employee fun and engagement ends up becoming a job requirement. And no matter how much you love your job, new requirements imposed upon you are never “fun”. Thus, successful gamification most often involves the creation of optional fun. Employees shouldn’t participate in gamification efforts because their supervisors require it, but instead because it seems like an opportunity to enjoy themselves. Things get even worse when gamification is tied to administrative outcomes – when failure means losing an opportunity for a raise or promotion, it’s hard to have a good time along the way.

That means HR leaders need to create optional, low-pressure fun – fun so compelling that employees can’t resist participating. That is the hallmark of successful gamification. If we do gamify something mandatory (like assessments!), we must ensure that people can still do well even if they don’t buy into the idea of the “game”.

How to gamify effectively
So to gamify effectively, we must think about what other game elements, beyond simple points and leaderboards, can be borrowed from games and applied to the HR context. There are many such possibilities. For example, a common game element is game fiction – the idea that players follow a narrative or story as they complete a game. To gamify recruitment, we might change the recruitment message on our website from simple (boring) pages of information and instead tell the story of a new hire’s first day at our organisation, bringing the job to life.

A second powerful game element is human interaction. Many games enable and encourage interaction between players. Human interaction is compelling in games because humans are driven to interact with and compare themselves to others, and largely for this reason, multi-player games are generally much more popular (and profitable) than single-player games.

At work, the same is true. When people work alone, locked away in an isolated space, we would certainly expect their productivity to decrease. But the opposite applies as well – we would expect engagement benefits by redesigning work to be more social. That doesn’t just mean adding teamwork; it means adding the opportunity for low-pressure, optional, fun interactions with co-workers – a great example is Google’s foosball room, which does exactly that.

Gamification has a lot of promise, and it can be done quite inexpensively for a high return, but that doesn’t mean throwing points at something is going to make it better. To implement gamification effectively, you need to identify exactly what problem you’re trying to solve and determine which specific game element is going to help you get there – and it’s probably not “points”. To do any less is a sure path to gamification failure.

Richard Landers is assistant professor, industrial/organisational psychology at Old Dominion University