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Gamify the right way

Don't give up on gamification quite yet. In his new book 'Gamify,' Brian Burke explains the real value of gamification and how to avoid the pitfalls.

Gamification is one of the most hyped and misunderstood areas of IT today, and the path to adoption is littered with failed projects. In fact, Stamford, Connecticut-based research firm Gartner Inc. predicted in late 2012 that 80% of all existing gamified applications would fail by 2014 due to poor design.

So, should gamification be chalked up to unfounded fad? Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner, doesn't think so. Burke has worked closely with organizations undertaking gamification projects over the last several years, and has observed firsthand what makes for success -- and failure. In his new book Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things, Burke attempts to clear up the confusion surrounding gamification and get to the heart of its real value. sat down with Burke to talk about what gamification actually is, how organizations should build the technology behind it and how to avoid its most dangerous pitfalls. While Burke listed three primary audiences for gamification today -- customers, communities of practice and employees -- he wrote that the latter is the fastest-growing segment, and so this Q&A focuses specifically on using gamification for employees.

How is gamification different from games and reward programs?

Brian BurkeBrian Burke

Brian Burke: Games are positioned primarily for entertainment. Gamification is different -- you're trying to change behavior, motivate, develop some skills, [or] whatever it happens to be, and so there's some kind of motive. With games, the only motive is to entertain.

With reward programs, you're trying to get people to change behavior, so the objective is similar to gamification. But the way you incent people is different. Typically, reward programs have a tangible reward, so people are extrinsically motivated to take action. But it's not because they want to -- it's because they want the reward. In gamification, the goal is the goal -- [it] enables people to achieve their goals [without] paying them off with a reward and typically not using entertainment.

The distinction is really around why people are engaging. With games, it's to be entertained, with reward programs, it's for rewards, and with gamification, people are trying to achieve their goals.

If gamification should be about helping employees to achieve their goals, how can a business align player goals with the organization's goals?

Burke: I think that's [something] people perceive as a challenge until they start thinking about it more creatively. The employee value proposition [comprises] a number of things. One of the primary reasons people go to work is pay, but once that minimum has been met, they are looking to achieve other goals. We say if we want employees to do something, we have to pay them -- well, that's not really true. If we're trying to get employees to develop skills -- skills are rarely unique to the organization, so it counts for both the organization and the individual. If you engage employees in training as a way of developing their skills and [increasing] their value both [for] the organization and for themselves, than you'll probably think about how to position courses and material differently to encourage people to take training.

You wrote that business leaders who'd like to gamify will probably have to dispel myths among senior management. How can they create a winning business case?

Gamify book cover

Burke: The business case has to be built on outcomes. So, if you're [aiming] to improve training, the number of people going through courses or the level of comprehension are things you can measure, and that's the basis for the business case. You have to be very clear about what business objective you're trying to achieve with gamification.

When I talk about dispelling the myths, business leaders tend to jump to the conclusion that gamification is like a game. Therefore, it's not serious and not something we want to do at our serious company. But gamification isn't a game -- it's about motivation. Once they get past that, they're more [accepting].

In terms of technology, you laid out three options for gamification today: internally developed systems, purpose-built software, or a platform provider such as Bunchball or Badgeville. How can a company decide which is the right choice?

Burke: The most important factors to weigh are flexibility, cost and skills. A gamified application is developed to engage people in an experience. Most IT organizations don't develop for engagement, so you may not have the internal capability to develop a gamified solution. The technology is straightforward but developing that experience is not, so that would push you towards either leveraging the expertise of a platform provider or going with a specialized solution as opposed to internal development.

Cost is another issue. An internally developed platform is a one-time cost, and then the cost of adding users is relatively low. When you go with an external service provider -- software as a service in most cases -- there's a per-user charge. At a medium size, that is financially attractive, but when you get into a large number of users, it becomes more expensive.

The third [consideration] is flexibility. In a custom-developed application, you can do whatever you want. If you're using Bunchball or Badgeville, you have quite a lot of flexibility in terms of what you [can] integrate. But they don't provide anything you might think of, and so there are some limitations around what you can do.

If a company chooses to gamify by developing a system in-house, you warn that a traditional software development approach won't work. Why not?

Burke: Traditional software design uses a decompositive approach to problem solving: You take a big problem, break it into smaller pieces, solve them and then build the solution. That isn't going to work for gamification -- it's partly a technical quality design issue, but it's much more an understanding of people and their motivations. Design thinking builds on things as opposed to decomposing them -- [that's] a better approach to gamification solutions. It's a solution we're more likely to build and enhance over time as we start to understand what employees' goals are [and] what engages them.

What are some of the common pitfalls you see with gamification?

Burke: One I see on a daily basis is that organizations don't have clarity about what business outcomes they're trying to achieve -- they just want gamification because it's cool. By definition, if you don't know what you're trying to achieve, you're going to fail.

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The other big one is that people don't try to think about what the player goals are in the gamified solution. I had a conversation with a client that wanted to increase readership on their website. Their proposed objective was to get people to read, comment on and write more articles, and they [would] give them points for doing those three things. But they're missing the point of gamification: the player's goals. And so the question has to be, why is your audience reading at all? If they're reading to develop knowledge, then we should be focusing on making them more efficient and effective, and recognizing that they're developing knowledge -- not pushing them to read more articles with points.

Also, gamification [development] requires a unique set of skills, and there's not a critical mass of experience yet anywhere in the world. So, experience is another area that's a real danger in terms of potential for failure.

What would you recommend as the first couple steps to get started with a gamification project?

Burke: The early steps are selling senior management, getting funding, dispelling the myths and building support. In most organizations, I think the biggest challenge is to identify the highest-priority opportunity. It's a target-rich environment, and there are lots of things you could be doing.

Then, really spending time to understand the target audience and their goals and motivations is critical. In a lot of ways that's half the challenge -- if you can have clarity around the players' goals and motivations, then developing is downhill from there.

Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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