The Why And How of Gamification

Elijah Cox Gamification

As is the case with many things, including CRM’s and computing, all Gamification is not created equal. Gamification is joining the list of business and technology buzz words and its various applications are wrongly getting lumped together as several industries attempt to apply this concept into every possible scenario. While some applications of the term gamification are less accurately applied, there is a reason for all the hype, and that is because when properly and systematically applied, the principles of gamification work. Gamification works not only with millennials (who are often the most targeted demographic group of gamification techniques), but results prove that gamification works effectively with every generation currently participating in the workforce.

Mobile Gamification
It is likely that most people have experienced or heard of gamification by now, but to make sure we’re on the same foundation, we would like to define the term. Gamification is the application of principles or aspects of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to an activity or desired behavior as a technique to encourage increased engagement with a specific procedure, product, or service. There is confusion surrounding gamification not only because of its broad definition but also because of the various applications of these techniques. So, to simply ask “Why use gamification?” is not enough; one must also ask, “How should I use gamification?” in order to be as effective as possible.

By simply applying digital rewards or games into a specific activity, many service providers and employers are triumphantly adding the term “gamification” to a features list or marketing materials for their products or offers of employment. While it is true that this type of application falls under the umbrella of the principle idea of gamification, this is arguably not the reason why gamification has so rapidly risen to prominence. From my research and experience, there are 5 concepts applicable to Gamification that transcend the simple check-the-box or features list applications and move gamification into the realm of effective and necessary for every organization and industry.


Very little is accomplished simply by playing games; I will not presume to say that nothing is accomplished, just very little. What may be accomplished is: a small reprieve from daily monotony, a brief appreciation of the moment and/or a potential motivation to be able to play again. These things are all fine but most organizations are seeking opportunities to create recognizable shifts in their businesses. I have seen a well-positioned gamification concept visibly move the needle in many circumstances in various industries, but only when the metric where changes were desired were clearly identified and defined.

Metrics, both behavioral and performance, always have context and correlations which can be discovered and measured using appropriate data and analytics; however, these metrics aren’t always obvious and in many cases require context and trend analysis. The required data sets can be collected in many ways but two of the most successful methods I’ve seen are 1) CRM data and 2) a well implemented incentive program. Once the contexts of the desired metrics are identified a needle can be discovered and measured.

Without a clear and outlined context, gamification (or any reward system) can sometimes even have an adverse effect. I’ve witnessed call centers who have abysmal call quality scores dedicate all their resources to improving their call quality only to find that their average call times skyrocketed and they instead failed to meet their call volume quotas which ultimately decreased their profitability: they were robbing Peter to pay Paul. Without full understanding of their proper context, some reward systems, even those using gamification, can hinder more than thay help.


In low-margin high-volume environments, time and efficiency reign supreme. In creativity-minded quality-based environments the opposite can be true. The point is that a one-size-fits-all gamification system is not going to be effective in all circumstances. There are different ways to reach, motivate, and address the behaviors of different individuals which requires that gamification tools reflect these differences. In other words, there is no guaranteed solution which works in every situation.

An effective gamification application must be adaptive to the diversity of the entire set of users within a system and yet, the complexity or cost of gamification tools do not always correlate with the effectiveness of the system. Gamification systems which are deployed with a clear context and appropriate application typically have much higher correlations of effectiveness. A fast paced, high demand work environment requires the use of quick and decisive gamification methods while a more methodical business environment might want to concentrate more on gamification aspects relating to long-term relationships and customer experience. Both applications of gamification have their appropriate places in different business environments.


Once appropriate context and applicability have both been addressed within the context of gamification, functionality comes into play. As mentioned above, the stand-alone act of playing games during or after an activity does not necessarily produce changes in an individual beyond the simple enjoyment of playing the game itself. Gamification needs to be directed toward engagement in a specific activity with a specific purpose for that engagement.

I have seen many different and creative instances of effective gamification systems. An application where I’ve seen great success is within training programs. Gamification principles are used during and after specific training modules to gauge the effectiveness of the training and the retention levels of the trainees as well as to make the trainings themselves more enjoyable and interactive. A well-designed gamification system can even have users engaged in required training activities without them even knowing that training is taking place. Gamification is also often used as a very effective method for periodic refresher trainings through the application of randomized quizzes and other post-action training techniques.

With a little bit of creativity, gamification can become part of almost any work-flow scenario. Digital games are by far the most popular and easiest method to deploy, but any process, procedure or activity can be turned into a rewarding opportunity using gamification principles. The opportunity of gamification in an organization is limited only by the creativity and desire or willingness to try something new within the context of other points mentioned in this article.


Engagement is another buzz word that has been flooding the business world lately. Engagement, like gamification, can either help or hinder a business depending on the context in which it is deployed. How are you engaging your users? Using what methods? Are they engaged in playing games, or are they engaged in your system or activity? The Arbinger Institute has systematically outlined the importance of an individual not only performing an action but also living in such a way that an individual’s mindset matches a desired action or behavior. Said another way, individuals can do the right things (performed behaviors) for the wrong reasons (improper motivations) and this can be true with improperly applied gamification techniques as well.

If the games themselves are the end goal, then the purpose of using gamification is diluted; the gamification principles applied may not be diluted, but their purpose is diluted. While this may be a delicate balance to manage, the difference here is substantial. Creating the desire and motivation for an individual to be able to participate in the gamification system once more is a desired and natural result, but the more desirable result is to find ways to use that motivation to improve or change both internal and external behaviors.

As users interact again and again with a well-designed gamification system, ideally they should understand each time what goal(s) they are working toward and why. Thanks to current technology, an effective gamification-based system is able to gather and disseminate data from the uses even while some gamification attributes may be partially hidden from the user.

A very effective type of gamification engagement that I have seen commonly implemented is the rewarding of coworker appreciation and recognition. Using gamification as a reward methodology, people begin to look beyond the individual activities that are being gamified and become more engaged in the processes and the people involved. This often also adds a small aspect of competition and camaraderie as individuals and teams work to recognize the outstanding contributions of others around them. In this type of scenario, the actual games then become supplementary and an added motivation to an effective process, instead of another required step in the process of a person’s work day.

Success Factors:

In Lewis Carroll’s beloved story, Alice Through the Looking Glass, a very confused and lost Alice has the following exchange with the devious Cheshire Cat:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

The same is true with defining success with gamification: Without knowing where you want to end up, simply applying the term “gamification” will get you “somewhere” if you do it enough. Providing games without a clear direction or end goal is like wandering through a forest or down a street: it may be pleasant, you may see some things that you like and even have a rewarding experience, but you’re no better off than when you started your meandering.

Much of this falls into the study of context, but if I am implementing a gamification system, I need to know what success looks like, I need to what ideal behavior and thinking looks like. Only then can I begin to build a program which encourages the behaviors that lead towards success over and over again using the principles of positive reinforcement. A gamification system that does not apply to a defined success factor or attempt to improve a specifically identified metric isn’t in fact gamification at all. Rather, it is simply “playing games,” and in my opinion, that should be done on one’s own unpaid time.

Here are some useful questions to determine if you have an effective gamification system or if you are considering implementing one:

1) What do I want to change/improve in my organization?
2) How can games be appropriately integrated into my process or activity?
2) Why are games being played? How are these games being used to improve my organization?
3) What results (short-term and long-term) do I want to see?
4) What results (short-term and long-term) do I actually see?