When Gamification Goes Wrong (And It Often Does)

Gamification - for better or worse, it's a common subject when talking about almost all products these days, especially learning products. I know we get asked about it quite a bit, but what commonly surprises me is the range of questions we get on the matter. These can range from the high level ("What is your gamification strategy?") to the extremely detailed ("Do you have a leaderboard in your product?").

What's surprising about that range? Unsurprisingly, it's questions like the latter that seem to imply an already developed opinion on what gamification aspects work best for the learning product the buyer is looking for. Let's look at why that approach may not be the best choice.

Strategy vs Implementation Details

When assessing the gamification capabilities of products, it seems many buyers like to focus on the details, or features, employed by the product. However, common gamification features like leaderboards, badges, and levels are simply implementation details of the larger gamification strategy baked into the product. And what's most important to the potential success of the product is that strategy. Without the right strategy, the features are largely useless - they're tools with no real purpose.

Not all products employ the same gamification strategy. At a high level, most strategies can be united under a single purpose - to encourage engagement with and use of the product - but there's a slew of critical details underneath this initial layer that define the whole strategy. And it's these details that will make or break a product's take on gamification.

Collaboration vs Competition

Collaboration and competition are typically the two major themes at the heart of any gamification strategy, but the two are dramatically different. Thus, when assessing products, it's best to, at least, have an idea on which theme you'd prefer.

Some products want as much competition amongst its users as possible. This is commonly seen in products that prefer quantity over quality - the more the user performs and/or the more the user interacts with the product, the higher their rank becomes. This is a common theme in video games, for example, where the creators want as many users playing the game as possible. The more you play, the more your talent develops, and the higher you'll climb in the rankings.

A more common enterprise example might be a product employed by the sales team to rank team members on the amount of sales made that quarter. Again, for a mature enterprise product, quantity is key here - more sales, and thus more revenue, is usually seen as a good thing - so at any time, a salesperson can login and see how they compare with their peers. Near the bottom? Uh-oh, better work overtime!

Would a leaderboard like this make sense if it were ranking learners on time spent learning this quarter?

Would a leaderboard like this make sense if it were ranking learners on time spent learning this quarter?

Encouraging collaboration, however, usually requires different means. In products where collaboration is key, quality trumps quantity - use the product as much as you like, but be sure what you're contributing is for the greater good. Products like this commonly employ a similar strategy where the product's user base provide the input that determines the quality of a single user's contributions and thus, their 'rank' in the site. Contrast this with the examples above where input from the user base wasn't even a factor, and you'll start to see the drastic difference between these two themes.

You don't have to look far for examples where collaboration is of critical importance - Quora, Hacker News, Reddit, and even Facebook. All of these sites employ a similar gamification strategy - users contribute something, and other users 'upvote' or 'like' those contributions, which awards the user points. In many sites, it's as simple as that. Often, you won't even find a ranking of the site's users based on these points, which may lead you to then ask "what's the significance of those points then?". Well, it's largely relative to the user. Most users simply feel good when others provide positive feedback on their contributions and don't really care if it's their first few points or if they're the top contributor in the entire site. Positive peer feedback is simply justification for the effort you gave to the site. We all like to get likes on our Facebook posts, right?

Quora doesn't even tell you how you compare to other users. They simply focus on how engaging and effective your contributions are. What you do with that info is up to you!

Quora doesn't even tell you how you compare to other users. They simply focus on how engaging and effective your contributions are. What you do with that info is up to you!

Now, back to those implementation details

I say all this to hopefully encourage you to reflect on your current gamification opinions and ensure you have the strategy in mind and not so much the details. Why? Well, there are a lot of products out there that have a poor gamification strategy but encompass almost identical implementation details. Leaderboards, levels, badges, certifications - they're implemented in a ton of products, but only a small handful get them right due to the right strategy. And if your focus is on whether a product has a leaderboard or not, you may miss the fact that the product simply implemented the wrong strategy to begin with. In this case, no tool or feature will right their wrong. 

I'm not sure where this came from, but this about sums up the "strategy" meetings where many bad gamification strategies were created...

I'm not sure where this came from, but this about sums up the "strategy" meetings where many bad gamification strategies were created...

And what of these products that perhaps have implemented the wrong strategy? What impact could that have on the product's users? Well, when a product employs a poor gamification strategy, it often has the opposite effect desired - instead of motivating use of the product, it demotivates use. Typically, the competition-based strategies are the easier ones to get wrong since a) only certain users are motivated by competition and b) they tend to use more features to power their strategy, and more is certainly not always better (points + leaderboards + badges + levels...let's do it all!). Thus, if the competition angle is either poorly done or simply over-executed on with feature after feature, the majority of users - except that small subset motivated by any and all competition - feel alienated instead of inspired. 

So in short, focus more on the underlying strategy, not so much on the features. In today's product landscape where almost every product touts some 'gamification' angle with almost identical feature sets, the devil is most certainly in the details. And being sure to assess those details could be the difference between a product that sends users away with rolled eyes vs one that has a lasting impact on your organization's users.

Reach out

If you have any questions about our expanded opinions on gamification in learning, comment below, tweet at us (@Pathgather), or reach out to us at support@pathgather.com.

Happy learning!

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