Podcast 18: What makes gamification fail?

Welcome to this week’s question of gamification. My name is An Coppens. I’m the show host of the Question of Gamification podcast and the CEO and founder of Gamification Nation or aka chief game changer.

Today’s question of gamification is: what makes gamification fail? Now, first thing, one of my mentors told me at one stage when I was saying, Oh, I don’t want to talk about failure, I think failure is bad. And I do, I do have some hang ups talking about failure. I think they’re private things I do in private. I don’t necessarily want the world to know, he said, “Yeah, but failure is, your first attempt in learning” (First Attempt In Learning =FAIL)

If we look at failure as finding ways of how something doesn’t work. Then we are also accepting that, we are learning. We are not perfect as we come out, day one, which is also a good starting point, because most of us had to learn the hard way on how to do something right and how things have gone wrong. The podcast this week, therefore, focuses on what makes gamification fail.

Unrealistic objectives

First thing, I would say is having unrealistic objectives. We sometimes get asked really unrealistic objectives. We want to have a hundred per cent increase in engagement. Oh, good. Well, and dandy, but what’s your starting point? Do you know what that is? In most cases, companies don’t know the answer to that either. So how can you then know that you are looking for a 100% increase in engagement if you don’t even have a baseline? So be real, get real and start with finding out what your baseline is before you start asking and setting really crazy objectives.

I’m all for stretch goals. I’m all for being ambitious. But I also want to say that in most cases, gamification has had a positive impact. It’s not a regular occurrence that it results in 90, 100 or 200% increase in something. I find those numbers a statistically challenging to accept. If something achieves a 200% improvement then what on earth were you doing before? Or did you exist before? There is a bit of an element of cynicism in that comment for me.

Irrelevant to the end-user

What else makes gamification fail? Well, if it’s not relevant to the end user. Now, that means that you need to get to know your end user. A lot of the time, people who start in gamification, (and we have that sometimes) we are attracted by shiny objects, we could have this and we could have that. And all of a sudden, you end up with a wishlist of ideas.

Definitely, in the early days of our gamification company, we would have been guilty of maybe adding more than we needed. Adding way too many mechanics that made it too complex. And in some of our designs, that still happens and then we take them to user testing. And we find out that they’re not responding quite as enthusiastic as we had hoped, or as we did, and that happens.

Knowing that you are probably going to get excited, you are probably going to add in more than you needed to add in. That is something to be mindful of. And that is something that is also the main reason why you need to have user research and user testing as part of your process. Because that will tell you for real, if you are hitting the mark or not in terms of your designs. So I would say make it relevant. Understand your user. One shortcut to avoid some of these things, is to actually get to know your user better from day one.

We’re currently working on a project where we are not even sure that gamification is the right answer. Because the first survey that came back from the large user base is telling us that really, they are not interested in game mechanics, they’re really not even remotely interested in gaming. They actually want the companies to stick with what it’s great at. So we are questioning whether we should even add gamification at all.

In our user research step two where we do more qualitative research, we’re going to explore these questions a bit deeper. That means having a workshop, asking questions, finding out, okay, what apps do they use? Where are there some that are already gamified? So we know that they are social media users, social media is gamified. We want to know their opinion about those things to see, okay, is there hope or scope for any gamification? And if there is not, I’m not afraid to turn around to the customer and say, Well, look, you know, we advise against it. We advise against adding game elements that may make the experience actually frustrating, because gamification added in the wrong place, for irrelevant reasons, which are not consistent with what users want, or are used to it can add a level of complexity that makes people turn away from your app. That makes people turn away from the actual process.

So consider it carefully. Relevancy is important. Knowing your users is important.

Cater for only one user

Making your gamification design in depth enough, so that it appeals to more than one user type. In all of the companies that we’ve worked with, we have found that typically, there’s more than one type of user in large organisations of up to 30,000 and 40,000 people. You will find that there are maybe two or three very clear profiles that are coming out, personas that you can build for and different things that they respond to and engage towards.

I would say always make sure that your gamification design is not stuck in superficial points and leaderboards. Because they’re is actually much more that you can do. You can do engaging storylines, you can do quite difficult treasure hunts or puzzles. You can add, unlocking of things, finding of things that you need a level of skill to do, to earn starters, as a way of earning something. But earning something that’s hard, meaningful, and that you can be proud of, is much more of a motivator for a lot of people. Instead of throwing badges around as if there was confetti raining out of the skies.

There are lots of ways that your gamification design can be much more engaging and much more interesting. So don’t shy away from doing that. You want there to be an emotional connection.

One of my my heroes in the game design world is Jane McGonigle and she in her books describes how game designers are obsessed with creating emotional experiences. As gamification designers, we should be too! If we translate that into gamification, for a company, for HR, for your employees, for your customers. The question should be how can you draw them into an emotional experience that they won’t forget? That they will find so good that they’ll tell all their friends about. That’s the type of engagement that you want to look for. If you don’t think it’s “Wow” at the end of your design, then keep digging, keep going because then you’ve probably only hit superficial and superficial can make games and gamification fail.

No clear objectives

You also want to connect gamification to objectives. Every organisation has them. You have learning objectives for learning, you have productivity objectives in most workplaces, project objectives for most projects. You have performance measures, KPIs, and many, many more measures of success, which happen time and again, for each and every organisations we’ve ever worked with.

Adding gamification into the mix, can allow people to get to the results quicker. It also encourages certain types of behaviour. And knowing what type of behaviour you want to go away from and towards is important to understand. What drives salespeople to perform is knowing how they can make the most commission in a lot of cases, and how they can be top of the leaderboard, because a lot of salespeople, in our experience have a bit of a competitive streak, especially if they can earn extra, either status, bonus, incentives, you name it, most of them have done things to achieve that. And most of the top performers have here and they’re taken a shortcut to get there.

Your best performers may also be in some cases, your worst examples. As we learned from one client on a sales gamification project, he said, don’t go with my top performers go with my middle of the road guys who deliver in each and every month close to the target. Because they have best practice, whereas my top guys, they know who to ring three minutes before the quarter end, and rack in the numbers.

You want to make sure that there is a connection to objectives, but that the objectives are not so or the gamification is not so transparent, that everyone knows what to do, and only focuses on that one thing. Because people are smart, they will find out what you’re measuring and that’s all they do, all day long, until they get what they need to get. Be aware of that and build in enough complexity, so they can’t figure it out too easily. But by all means, do tie it to specific objectives.

No consequences and no negative feedback

Gamification gives a sense of progression and a sense of feedback. And in some companies, they shy away from giving negative feedback. But sometimes that’s exactly what a person needs to hear or see, for them to actually change their behaviour. Build in consequences that are positive, build in measured consequences that are negative only when they are frequent offenders, or let’s say display unwanted behaviors.

In one situation, we saw gamification for attendance. And instead of giving praise for an unbroken attendance record, we saw people getting praise for arriving on time. So guess what happened? People asked others to log them in. There were queues to get their cards scanned at the door, whereas before you may have entered as a group, now each person was entering individually. You basically moved the problem.

You want to double examine, what is it you’re doing? What is it you want as the outcome? And how will that translate into actual behaviour? I cannot stress enough how important user testing is, because user testing will show up some of those dysfunctional behaviours. If in doubt, start with a small pilot, run it and then see if it can translate to the rest of the organisation. If the pilot is successful, go with it. If not, don’t be afraid to throw it out and start again, or keep tweaking until it does work.

Right first time and one size fits all

“Right first time” and “one size fits all” are two other things that I have seen that make gamification fail. There is, I suppose, an apprehension in business, that if we need to keep changing it, you will never be perfect. But then, if you think about it, business is evolutionary, sales is evolutionary. What sold five years ago may not sell anymore. What worked in internet marketing five years ago doesn’t work anymore. There are things that are changing, and those we should change with. There are things that are constant, such as people feeling respected, people feeling valued people feeling like they matter and that we should acknowledge and design for. And that if you can achieve that, as part of your gamification, you’re on to something.

If you’re not touching any emotion whatsoever, I would safely say you are on a road to forgettable.

It’s some of the things that we would hope to do in our designs, namely that we actually do create a connection that we do create a regular dialogue. That we provide the best possible solution for the companies we work with. Just know that each new trend, each new way of working will take time, and will take maybe more than one try to get it right. As long as you’re up for it that, then you have a chance of making it work.


One more item. One final bonus reason why gamification fails is that it wasn’t designed to be fair. If you only have one audience or one way of measuring success, you want to make sure that it is fair for your audience. Unfairness can come in many ways. In game design, you often have a situation that gives the winner more boosters, but to balance out, you may need to give the slower person easier levels, and easier ways of working.

Keeping that balance is probably the hardest thing to do in most games, but also in gamification design. Is it important for the user? Is it important for you? And is it important for the objectives are some key considerations to always take on board and evaluate because what’s important to you, as the creator or even the manager of a team may not be of value to the end user at all, but you need them to do it.

Sales administration for a salesperson is a necessary evil, but not every salesperson likes doing it. Yet, at the same time, it provides continuity for sales processes, and for sales teams to operate significantly better.

There are sometimes things that you need to balance, rewarding a person for what matters to them, but also for what matters, as part of the progress to give them encouragement can help. Make sure that if you’re rewarding or giving extra toys to those at the top, or those at the bottom, that they are not so big that they would flip the whole result around.

In one situation I saw in an award ceremony, a price flipping from the first place to the second placed person just by one game mechanic. Now that I don’t think is correct, there should have been more complex systems in place when all judges had voted in favour. There was something wrong in the basic design and the basic balancing in that sense.  If they had both played, the winner and second place person would stay the same. But because only one of them used a game mechanic and knew about it, that flipped the equation, and I don’t think then, if people don’t use what they’re given, of course, it’s a choice. But it’s also a question of balance, and a question of fairness. Is it fair and inclusive for all?

Why does gamification fail? Well, there’s a multitude of reasons. What makes it fail is trying to do things quickly, expecting crazy expectations, not linking it to what’s relevant to the user, not linking it to objectives, trying to do too much with too little. And the obvious one is superficial design. If you are superficial, and you don’t engage on an emotional level, then I can tell pretty sure that you may have a very lukewarm effect with gamification.

I hope this answers the question of what makes gamification fail. I look forward to hearing your questions. If you liked our podcast, do give us a rating. And if you have additional questions, do make sure that you send them to us. Thank you for listening,


Podcast 10: How to create engagement in your community with gamification

The post Podcast 18: What makes gamification fail? appeared first on Gamification Nation.