7 potential pitfalls of gamification

Although gamification can be an excellent tool for engaging consumers, there are a few caveats of which to be wary. A common criticism of gamification is its manipulative nature. It is true that developers are taking advantage of elements of human psychology, and this can be somewhat exploitative. But this is part of what makes games fun, and what we enjoy most about them. If not for the addictive quality of gaming and the way games allow us to be unabashedly competitive, we would not enjoy them so much. Still, it is an issue to keep in mind -- but it's not exactly wise to avoid the very tactics that make engagement so appealing and hard to resist.

7 potential pitfalls of gamification

The following are seven important downsides of gamification that you should consider.

The motivations might be superficial

Motivations involved in gamification might not be enough to truly draw in users. Points that lead to real-world rewards are great, but often a sort of virtual "badge" is not enough. If the only driving force behind putting in the time is a chance at digital bragging rights, users aren't going to buy it. On top of that, if the incentives aren't worth the effort, not only will you reach fewer users, but the ones that do participate will likely be missing what the brand truly has to offer -- in lieu of simply wanting to be first at something.

You're rewarding them too soon

The achievements you award should build over time to reward a long-term commitment. If rewards are given too early and often, they will seem too easy. These will be perceived as hollow, and therefore not worth the effort. But if achievements mark true progress toward a defined goal, users will feel a sense of accomplishment.

You aren't providing a true game

Another criticism of gamification is that it lacks the essence of a game. When the concept becomes a cut and paste add-on to try to force engagement, no one will want to play. The challenge is to try to incorporate the originality and difficulty of much-loved video games -- without getting in over your head. To put it frankly, if it's a boring game, people won't play it.

It feels like bribery

If participating is clearly just a means to serve a brand, people are going to feel used. Rather than providing an organic experience for one's personal entertainment, gamification always has an agenda, which makes it difficult for users to want in. This is one reason why social programs and services (e.g., health care, online dating, fitness, education, job search, environmental causes, etc.) are having the most success with gamification. If users already feel they are doing good just by getting involved -- good for others, and for themselves -- rather than helping a company profit, they won't feel as dirty.

They are finding ways to cheat

First of all, you need to do your homework. Make sure your gaming elements are sophisticated enough to make cheating difficult. There is no perfect solution, especially since gamification is never as sophisticated as actual video games. If you have a cheating problem, either the rewards must be perceived as less desirable or you must make it harder to cheat the system. (I'd say go with the latter.) But again, if you are truly offering a social good, people are likely to actually want to do the work.

Social elements are forced

The social aspect often associated with gamification can easily fail if it feels disingenuous. Only when there is a strong common goal and a sense of community (alongside friendly competition) will strangers truly want to connect online. If there is nothing to gain from interacting, the opportunity to connect could just foster bad sportsmanship -- in a public way.

It's treated like an easy fix

Gamification companies like Bunchball, Badgeville, and Big Door make it seem easy to attach gamification to your website, but this isn't such a good thing. To reach their full potential, the gaming elements need to be well designed and thought out. This should take a significant amount of time.

With proper design and planning, introducing gaming elements can prove enormously beneficial to companies. But it's all about your level of investment. (And being in the right industries.) Francesco D'Orazio, research director for Face Group, said "Game mechanics have massive potential in the research industry, but low-grade gamification is only going to distort social interaction and skew research outputs."

As with anything, when done cheaply or without proper research and preparation, gamification will not provide value, and can even make your brand lose credibility. If you treat gamification like a passing fad, that is exactly what it will be. Make the decision to gamify only if you plan to go full force and embrace it. You'll have to commit -- hire an expert, do the research, and weigh your options. Success will only come if you make it an intrinsic part of your company's mission.

Jesse Schell said, "In ways it is a fad -- adding points and badges in tacky ways, looking at 'gamification' as an easy way to make boring things seem interesting -- that is a fad. However, the idea of designing business processes so that those who engage in them find them more intrinsically rewarding -- that is a long term trend."

Chloe Della Costa is an editor at iMedia Connection.

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Comments

Brant Emery
Brant Emery May 18, 2012 at 10:46 AM

This article considers gamification to be the definition 'using games' as a tactic to encourage interaction. It's not that, it's much wider - gamification is applying game theory. Much more than games. It comes from the study of participants' behaviour in strategic situations. The criticisms levelled at it here are ony based on one simple layer of what applied game theory can do.
-Brant, bran(d)t, rentabrant.com