Gamification is a buzzword that has become increasingly prevalent in today’s business world. Companies such as Cisco, Uber, and Duolingo all use gamification to help them achieve strategic business objectives. But what is gamification and where does it come from? The word gamification starts to show up around 2010 on Google trends and it was initially defined as the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems. However, gamification has not been stagnant and the definition has developed over the years with the most commonly cited focusing on the use of game design elements in non-game contexts.
Gamification is a buzzword that has become increasingly prevalent in today’s business world. Companies such as Cisco, Uber, and Duolingo all use gamification to help them achieve strategic business objectives. But what is gamification and where does it come from?
The word gamification starts to show up around 2010 on Google trends and it was initially defined as the use of game thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems (Zichermann & Cunningham, 2011). However gamification has not been stagnant and the definition has developed over the years with the most commonly cited focusing on the use of game design elements in non-game contexts (Deterding, Khaled, Nacke, & Dixon, 2011). Whereas past definitions fixated on the design of gamification, more contemporary definitions are focusing on the users and the user experience, where gamification refers to a process of enhancing a service with affordances for gameful experiences in order to support users’ overall value creation (Huotari & Hamari, 2017).
Combining these three definitions gives us a good idea of what gamification entails. It may be defined as: The use of characteristic game elements in typically non-game contexts to create gameful experiences that enhance value creation by users. Gamification is clearly distinct to games due to their nongame settings, including business, education, and healthcare, in which the games fulfil a purpose separate to their normal purpose of entertainment. Gamification uses game design elements to create the environment for the gamified experiences and from a technical perspective includes typically game-like aspects such as badges, points, and rules.
A plethora of case studies exist highlighting how different companies utilise gamification. Cisco uses it to motivate their sales force, Microsoft to improve customer service, and Uber to get their driver to take more rides. The benefit of gamification is that it can be tailored to the individual needs of the company. A typical example could be a company utilising a leaderboard on which employees receive points based on performance with monthly or weekly prizes for the top performers. The prizes could be in the form of virtual badges that employees can then display on their profiles. This might sound commonplace, but gamification is not about developing revolutionary new strategies for how companies engage with their workforce, it is much more about adding a playful spin on the daily tasks. Thereby hopefully motivating employees to focus on winning badges, improving performance along the way.
Gamification is not just used within companies to motivate their sales force or improve customer service, however.
Gamification also has a wide application outside of business. Within healthcare, for example, combining gamification with automated monitoring systems helps increase nurse hygiene levels at hospital intensive care units (Marques et al., 2017). In education, gamification shows potential to improve learning both in classrooms for students (Da Rocha Seixas, Gomes, & De Melo Filho, 2016) but also through applications such as Duolingo in everyday life.
Our societies are becoming increasingly playful, from business through health care and education, gamification is trying to change the way we live our lives. Tinder is trying to gamify our relationships and even governments are attempting to use gamification to make us better citizens. But what are the dangers of turning Homo sapiens into Homo ludens?
One of the commonly observed potential pitfalls of gamification is deviant behaviour, such as cheating, by the players (Jordan, 2014; Manrique, 2013; Marczewski, 2014). Deviant behavior in gamification departs from the standardly accepted and intended forms of play and rules, which can threaten the survival of gamified environments because it can give the perpetrators an unfair advantage and dissuade other users from participating.
Deviant behaviour can break the game and destroy the intended value creation, thereby having a severely negative impact on the sustainability of gamification. Deviant behaviour such as cheating cannot only lead to less engagement by other users, but it can also have negative impacts on objectives, and when these objectives are linked to hygiene in healthcare or learning in classrooms then gamification may do a lot more harm than good.
It is important therefore to reduce the amount of cheating in gamified environments.
Increased immersion can reduce the amount of cheating by increasing the likeness to games in which social contracts dissuade misbehaving. Gamification needs to offer more than just points and badges, it needs to create an engaging environment that allows users to go on a journey. Problems such as deviant behaviour are facets of gamification that can be overcome with the correct design.
However, there are much more essential questions about the ethicality of gamification, which is something that cannot be designed away.
Recent articles have argued that gamification is a form of exploitation-ware (Dymek, 2017; Kim & Werbach, 2016) which incentivises users to complete a task without any tangible rewards, just to gain a virtual badge or points. In addition, it manipulates users in a way that the designers want them to behave, without the users being necessarily aware of it. This can cause psychological harm and influence peoples characters because they feel shame, embarrassment, and anxiety for appearing at the bottom of a leaderboard for example.
Such serious ethical and moral concerns are perhaps more common in gamified business environments than elsewhere, but they are still a crucial factor of gamification that we need to pay attention to. The potential dangers of gamification only become too apparent in projects such as the Chinese governments attempt to start rating their citizens (Botsman, 2017) and making access to travel, housing and education badges in a gamified society.
In conclusion, gamification has huge potential to improve sales and customer satisfaction for companies, make services such as healthcare better, and help us stay lifelong learners. But as with any new technology we need to be responsible with the use of gamification, be aware of its limitations and dangers, and not apply it blindly to every aspect of our lives.
Botsman, Rachel. (2017). Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens. Retrieved from wired.co.uk on 21.02.2018:
Da Rocha Seixas, L., Gomes, A. S., & De Melo Filho, I. J. (2016). Effectiveness of gamification in the engagement of students. Computers in Human Behavior, 58, 48–63.
Deterding, S., Khaled, R., Nacke, L., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification: toward a definition. Chi 2011, 12–15.
Dymek, M. (2017). Expanding the magic circle – gamification as a marketplace icon. Consumption Markets and Culture, pp. 1–13. Taylor & Francis.
Huotari, K., & Hamari, J. (2017). A definition for gamification: anchoring gamification in the service marketing literature. Electronic Markets, 1–11.
Kim, T. W., & Werbach, K. (2016). More than just a game: ethical issues in gamification. Ethics and Information Technology, 18(2), 157–173.
Marques, R., Gregório, J., Pinheiro, F., Póvoa, P., da Silva, M. M., & Lapão, L. V. (2017). How can information systems provide support to nurses’ hand hygiene performance? Using gamification and indoor location to improve hand hygiene awareness and reduce hospital infections. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 17(1), 15.
Zichermann, Gabe & Cunningham, Christopher. (2011). Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps.
Nethal is an academic at Cass Business school researching gamification. Having worked in sales for a number of years he specifically focused on sales gamification. He considers himself a 'global nomad' having lived in 8 countries and speaking 3 languages.