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In Defense of Gamification

It's Not All Badges and Leaderboards

Remember when ‘gamification’ was the new kid on the block? This tech-savvy term, promising to turn our work routines into an interactive game with badges, leaderboards, and digital confetti, rode the wave of the millennial invasion into our offices. For a while, it seemed like it might just work. But like many trends, it faced backlash and skepticism. Now, as we re-evaluate its value, we argue that gamification, when done right, can indeed transform learning and working environments for the better.

The Rise and Fall of Gamification | Simplayfi

The Rise and Fall of Gamification

Ah, the halcyon days of the early 2010s. Those were the days of Farmville, planking, cupcakes, and the first wave of QR codes. Initially dismissed as a passing fad, QR codes fell out of favor, only to make a surprising comeback in recent years, finding new life in everything from restaurant menus to virtual events. Much like gamification, they rode a wave of initial hype, faced backlash, but ultimately proved their value. The millennials had arrived in our workplaces and brought with them their myriad addictions to their Facebook walls, their iPhones, their video games, and their work-life balance. Those of us old enough to remember the hype cycle around the arrival of the millennials into the workforce will remember the wild predictions of the impact that circulated in the business and popular press. These digital natives were expected to change everything about the workplace.

Inspired by the Harvard Business Review, enterprises began to experiment with new strategies in their earnest attempts to cater to this new generation. They shook off their rigid, old-school corporate structures and started to embrace the unfamiliar. Everything was on the table: flexible working hours, remote work, flat hierarchies, and even…games. Yes, games. Not the clandestine Minesweeper you played during your lunch breaks, but games embedded into the very fabric of our work.

Thus was born the era of ‘gamification’—a buzzword that took the corporate world by storm. It was thought to be the magic key to engaging these digital natives, transforming mundane tasks into exciting quests to earn badges, level up, or top leaderboards. But as with any trend, the luster of gamification began to dim. As we moved further into the decade, the word itself became a symbol of hollow promises and superficial engagement strategies.

What is Gamification?

Those of us who navigated the labyrinth of gamification during its early days spent countless hours explaining ourselves. So much so that the definition of ‘gamification’—”the application of game mechanics to non-game contexts”—became a permanent fixture in our brains. To the uninitiated, the explanation might seem opaque. But truly, it’s as straightforward as it sounds.

To ‘gamify’ something is to reframe an inherently non-game-like activity within the framework of a game, introducing elements typically found in board games, video games, and the like. This approach caters to a universal truth: people enjoy games. They willingly, even eagerly, invest their free time in them. And those digital-native millennials? They practically thrive in them.

The concept of gamification was thus birthed from a desire to harness this widespread affinity for games, with the aim of boosting engagement and productivity by making the routine more enjoyable. After all, if work feels less like, well, work, and more like a game, employees are more likely to dive in enthusiastically. It’s about turning the ordinary into an adventure, the mundane into a quest, and the tedious into a challenge worthy of a high score. At its heart, gamification is about enhancing routine tasks with elements typically associated with games, making them more engaging and, dare I say it, fun.

However, the novelty of gamification began to wane with time. By the time the ice bucket challenge made its rounds, many early innovators in the gamification space had quickly pivoted, distancing themselves from the concept as it hit the mainstream and began to face backlash. The idea of “having fun at work” really does rub some people the wrong way. After all, work isn’t about having fun, and I shouldn’t get a participation trophy for merely doing my job. Isn’t it all rather infantilizing?

Well, yes and no. Like everything else, gamification can be done well or it can be done terribly.

What Gamification Really Means: Understanding the Psychology

If you’ve ever been subjected to a ‘gamified’ corporate compliance course where the prize for correctly identifying the fire extinguisher is a digital badge as flammable as your enthusiasm, you’ve seen the disheartening depths to which gamification can sink. But it’s crucial to remember that this is not a problem with gamification itself, but rather, a reflection of poor implementation.

True gamification is about much more than simply adorning routine tasks with badges, points, or leaderboards. That’s akin to slapping a fresh coat of paint on a crumbling wall and calling it a renovation—it’s a superficial fix that does nothing to address the underlying issues. True gamification dives much deeper, tapping into our most fundamental psychological drives: the need for autonomy, mastery, purpose, and relatedness.

Gamification is 75% psychology and 25% technology

Gabe Zichermann

Autonomy is about having the freedom to make choices and control our own actions. Games offer players an array of choices and paths to success, and effective gamification should do the same. It’s not about turning employees into game-playing automatons, but empowering them with a sense of ownership over their work.

Mastery is about the drive to improve, to overcome challenges, and to see tangible evidence of our progress. We play games to get better at them, to level up, to beat our high scores. In the workplace, gamification can provide a clear pathway to mastery, offering immediate feedback and rewarding improvement.

Purpose is about understanding the ‘why’ behind what we’re doing. In games, this could be saving the princess or building the most prosperous city. In the workplace, gamification can help employees see how their tasks contribute to larger goals, providing a sense of meaning and significance. For example, a gamified sales goal isn’t just about reaching a certain number, it’s about seeing how each sale moves the whole team or company closer to a larger objective. It’s about framing individual tasks within a larger narrative.

Relatedness is about feeling connected to others. Multiplayer games tap into this drive by offering cooperative and competitive play, forming communities around shared experiences. In the workplace, gamification can foster a sense of camaraderie and shared achievement, promoting teamwork and collaboration.

In essence, gamification, when done right, is a potent tool for motivating and engaging people. It leverages our natural desire for play, competition, achievement, and social connection to make tasks more enjoyable and fulfilling. But it requires a thoughtful approach, an understanding of your audience, and a well-designed system that aligns game mechanics with meaningful goals.

Benefits of Experiential Learning Blog | Simplayfi

The Brain on Games: Dopamine and Reward Systems

Let’s take a moment to step into the fascinating world of neuroscience. You might be wondering, why are games so addictive? Why do we willingly spend hours trying to beat a level, solve a puzzle, or complete a quest? The answer lies in a small but mighty neurotransmitter: dopamine.

Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, but it’s more accurately described as the ‘wanting’ hormone. It drives our desire to seek out rewards, urging us to take action and propelling us forward. When we anticipate a reward—say, leveling up in a game or completing a challenging project at work—our brains get a hit of dopamine. This creates a kind of feedback loop: the more we play, the more dopamine we release, and the more we want to keep playing.

Now, here’s where gamification comes in. By incorporating game mechanics into work tasks—such as challenges, progress tracking, and rewards—we can stimulate the release of dopamine. This can make even the most mundane tasks feel rewarding and engaging. It’s not about tricking the brain, but rather understanding how it works and using that knowledge to create a more motivating and satisfying work environment.

Of course, like any tool, it can be misused. Over-relying on extrinsic rewards (like points and badges) can lead to a ‘sugar rush’ of motivation that quickly fades once the reward is attained. In the worst cases, it can even undermine intrinsic motivation, making tasks feel like chores that are only worth doing for the reward. That’s why the most successful gamification strategies also focus on fostering intrinsic motivation, tapping into the desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

So, the next time you find yourself aimlessly clicking through a ‘gamified’ training module, remember: true gamification is not about turning work into a game of Minesweeper. It’s about using our understanding of the brain to make work more engaging, satisfying, and, dare I say, enjoyable. After all, we’re not just employees—we’re complex, dopamine-fueled beings with a natural desire to play, improve, and achieve.

Addressing the Critiques | Simplayfi

Addressing the Critiques: Infantilization or Empowerment?

As a seasoned veteran of the corporate world, I understand the skepticism surrounding gamification. The mere mention of words like ‘badges’, ‘leaderboards’, and ‘achievements’ in a professional setting is enough to send a shudder down the spine of anyone who’s ever been subjected to a poorly executed team-building exercise. The fear of infantilization is real. We’re adults, not school children. Our work is serious business, and we’re professionals. Should we really be reducing it to a game of Candy Crush?

Firstly, let’s get one thing straight. Gamification is not about turning every task into a game. It’s not about earning points for showing up on time, getting a gold star for meeting a deadline, or doing the ‘floss’ dance in front of your colleagues for closing a deal (although, if that’s your thing, who am I to judge?). The goal of gamification is not to infantilize but to engage, motivate, and empower. It’s about understanding the psychology of motivation and leveraging it to make work more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Consider this: Games are not just for children. In fact, the average age of a video game player is 35 years old. Furthermore, games have been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years, long before the advent of digital technology. They challenge us, entertain us, and help us to learn and grow. They tap into our innate desire for competition, collaboration, and achievement.

So why shouldn’t we bring some of that energy into the workplace? Why shouldn’t we make work more engaging, more rewarding, and yes, more fun? It’s not about infantilizing employees, but about respecting and recognizing their complexity. It’s about acknowledging that we’re not just cogs in a machine, but individuals with a desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We want to learn, grow, and make a difference. And if gamification can help us to do that, then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing after all.

Of course, like any tool, gamification can be used poorly. It can be overused, misused, or used in a manipulative way. But that’s not a failing of gamification itself, but of how it’s implemented. When used thoughtfully and effectively, gamification has the potential to transform the workplace for the better. And as a gamification skeptic turned advocate, I can assure you, it’s worth giving it a shot.

The Power of Play: Serious Games and Learning

I won’t deny that I’ve been skeptical of gamification. After all, it’s hard not to be when you’ve seen it in action in the form of fruitless team-building exercises or a seemingly endless string of badges, points, and stars. However, I’ve also seen the profound impact it can have when applied thoughtfully and effectively, particularly when it comes to learning.

Take, for instance, Duolingo, the language-learning platform that’s turned many a casual learner into a devout disciple of its charming, if slightly coercive, green owl. A prime example of gamification done right, Duolingo has managed to make the daunting task of learning a new language feel like less of a chore and more of a game. And it works. I’ve seen people (myself included) maintain a 100-day streak not because they’ve suddenly developed an insatiable love for French grammar, but because they don’t want to disappoint their feathered friend. It’s a testament to the power of gamification that our brains are wired to respond to rewards, even when they come in the form of virtual high-fives from a cartoon owl.

But Duolingo isn’t the only example of effective gamification in learning. There’s a whole world of ‘serious games’ out there being used to teach everything from coding to corporate compliance. We at Simplayfi are part of this world, specializing in serious business games and experiential learning simulations. There is a school of thought that argues these aren’t examples of gamification, because we’re not inserting game mechanics into a non-game activity. We’re embedding game mechanics into something that is fundamentally a game, even if it’s a serious one.

However, this perspective overlooks what’s truly being gamified. When we participate in a serious business game or simulation, it’s the learning process that’s transformed. We utilize game dynamics to enhance the process of learning about a wide range of subjects, from IT Service Management best practices, DevOps ways of working, to Customer Excellence practices.

Our company name, Simplayfi, even carries the word ‘play’ within it, and our tagline is “Game-Changing Experiences.” We’re all about leveraging the power of games. Ironically, this might be the first time we’ve used the word ‘gamification’ in our many thousands of words of content on these very pages. Partly because it’s become somewhat tarnished. But it’s time to reclaim it, and give it the resurgence it deserves.

So, in a world where “play” is central to our work, we recognize that it’s not about infantilizing the workplace or trivializing the work. It’s about engaging, challenging, and empowering people to learn and grow. Much like QR codes, which, after facing skepticism and backlash, are now an integral part of various sectors, gamification is due for a resurgence. It’s time to reclaim it, give it another look, and acknowledge its potential. Just like our green owl friend from Duolingo, we’re in the business of making learning more enjoyable and effective, one game at a time.

Gamification, in our view, isn’t a dirty word. It’s a powerful tool that, when used right, can inspire, engage, and transform the way we learn and work. So, let’s give it the comeback it deserves. Because in the end, who doesn’t want to have a little more fun?

About Simplayfi

At Simplayfi, we have over 15 years of experience supporting large complex organizations globally in leveraging experiential business simulations to engage their teams and drive cultural change and business transformation.

Customer Excellence Simulation

A dynamic journey to customer loyalty, growth, and advocacy.

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A high-impact way to create breakthrough understanding of ITSM.

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An interactive experience demonstrating the business value of DevOps.

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