This content is currently only available to TSIA members.

If you believe you are seeing this message in error,
please let us know.


We’re big fans of gamification, that is to say, the use of game design techniques in non-game situations. Gamification gives team members timely feedback, reinforces good behaviors, and can kindle healthy competition. But, as with any reward and recognition program, gamification done wrong can cause big problems. Based on industry experience, especially with knowledge workers in technology services, here are the top five gamification gaffes to avoid.

#1: Leaderboard Fixation

Leaderboards are a staple of gamified systems. They’re easy to deploy, they’re objective, and the hope is that they’ll provide incentives to participants to get as high on the board as possible. Unfortunately, they’re also the most dangerous element to deploy. There can only be one person at the top of the board, and for people who were brought up to think of second place as “first loser,” this can be a big source of dissatisfaction, especially if the leaderboard is prominently posted. Management fixation on the leaderboard can also cause people to try to game the system. And, like any stack ranking system, it can create a sense of helplessness and fear for those in the bottom half.

Consider replacing a single universal leaderboard with personalized leaderboards that show employees the performers whose scores are close to theirs. Or, better still, let each worker decide with whom she wants to compare herself. This puts the emphasis on self-motivation, not top-down judgment.

#2: Recognizing Individuals Over Teams

Leaderboard fixation is a specific instance of a broader mistake in gamified systems, which is focusing on individual performance more than team performance. What do we learn from game design? Many of the most spectacularly successful games on the market, like World of Warcraft, are popular precisely because people self-organize into teams and win (or lose) together. Different players bring different strengths and help their team in different ways. Players get satisfaction not just from winning, but also from being part of a winning team.

Let’s apply this learning to our gamified systems. Let people choose their teams. Don’t just reward individual performance with points and badges: reward teams for completing quests together. Give people incentive not only to excel individually, but to help out their colleagues at the expense of their individual numbers. For example, team measures can encourage a support engineer to take one for the team by picking up a very time consuming case that’s smack dab in his area of expertise.

#3: The Crowding Out Effect

You’d probably help a good friend move to a new apartment, and you might expect them to pick up the tab for pizza and beer when you’re finished. However, you’d probably feel quite differently if that friend offered you $50 to help—that $50 would turn an act of friendship into a commercial transaction, and not a very good one. This is called the “crowding out” effect, where we can inadvertently reduce good behavior (such as going above and beyond for customers or mentoring colleagues) by rewarding it explicitly.

The best antidote for crowding out in gamification is to keep rewards virtual, not financial. If there are things that people on the team do because it makes them feel good, gamification should help recognize those good things, but not necessarily reward them.

#4: Can’t Win for Losing

If I get points for how often my knowledge base articles are reused, and I’m working in a very low volume product, I’m always going to get clobbered by the guys working on a high volume product. If I get badges for leading knowledge sharing sessions, and I’m a front line analyst who is still coming up the learning curve, I’m going to lose to the Tier 3 subject matter expert. If I get credit for all the cases I’ve closed since the dawn of time, I’ll never be able to compete with the guy who has been here for 15 years. The bottom line is, if I know I can’t win, then I’ll just give up.

As with the leaderboards, we need to be sensitive to help people compare themselves with others who are doing the same kind of work. We need to make sure that tenure doesn’t trump productivity and make sure old accomplishments expire.

#5: Cutesie-ville

Gamification uses game design techniques in non-game situations, but it doesn’t make work a game. Sure, it adds some fun, but too often, we see well-intentioned efforts go off the deep end with cute: superhero avatars, badges that look like they were inspired by Hello Kitty, and clichés from the boss’s favorite sport. One client required participants to manufacture an avatar from toys or office supplies. Instead of enjoying a fun team-building experience, many participants deeply resented the lost time from “real work.”

No gamification scheme will make everyone happy, but be sensitive to avoid turning off too many of your coworkers with things that are too far removed from the core work, or that are simply uncomfortably cute.

Now that you know to avoid these chutes, you’ve got nothing but ladders ahead. Game on!

Download Now

David Kay

About Author David Kay

David Kay is principal of DB Kay & Associates, a consultancy that provides thought-leading advice in knowledge management, self-service, and social support to the high-technology service and support market. DB Kay customers include IBM, Microsoft, Research In Motion, Tektronix, TI, Intuit, and Cisco. David is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and webinars. He was recognized as an Innovator by the Consortium of Service Innovation, and is a KCS Certified Trainer. DB Kay & Associates is a TSIA Consulting Alliance Partner.