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How do you make something boring more compelling? By turning it into a game!

That’s the current line of thought that’s spreading across the web like a plague, as if slapping on a few badges and leaderboards is enough engage users. The truth? Gamification can be harmful.

Gamification is a specific tool meant to address a specific class of problems – and in the right context, gamification can be immensely fruitful. But before you think about gamifying your business, your community, or your lifestyle, make sure that the context is the kind that will actually benefit from it.

To help you think about this, let’s take a look at how gamification can backfire.

A Whole Lot of Pointless Badges

Imagine that you’re walking down a busy street in a well-known city. As you’re walking, a smiling stranger hands you an award ribbon cut from wax paper and colored with crayons. How would you feel? Elated and proud? Or indifferent and confused? I’m betting on the latter.

In 2011, Google became that stranger when they introduced a badge feature for Google News. The concept was simple: the more you read about news of a particular topic (e.g. basketball), the more badges you earn for that topic. While Google News is great 5 Interesting Ways To Use Google News RSS Feeds 5 Interesting Ways To Use Google News RSS Feeds Read More , this idea wasn’t.

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What good were these badges? Nobody knows. Perhaps Google thought that reading more about a subject made you more of an expert Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice Want To Become An Expert At Something? Try Deliberate Practice It's all too easy to feel crestfallen when you're arduously trying to improve a certain skill. Use the power of "deliberate practice" to get you over those infuriating plateaus. Read More on that subject, thus badges were meant as a way to signify that. But that’s complete nonsense. News consumption has nothing to do with expertise, knowledge, or authority.

Unsurprisingly, the badge feature was quickly removed and never spoken of again.

Contrast that entire fiasco with the merit badges given out by the Boy Scouts of America. These are only awarded to boy scouts who have demonstrated expertise in particular skills. They’re perceived as valuable because they actually represent an accomplishment.

The Lesson

Gamified elements do not have any intrinsic value for users; rather, they only have value when they represent deeper actions or motivations that users already consider valuable. Points and badges should be seen as means to an end, not ends in and of themselves.

The Unintended Dating Game

Dating may be a game of sorts to some, but the creators of the Let’s Date app decided to go even further. Their app turned dating into a guessing game – one far more frustrating than it intends to be.

Like most dating apps What Is The Best Dating App For Android? What Is The Best Dating App For Android? Dating apps have come a long way, and there are actually some great options on Android. Give these fantastic apps a try! Read More , Let’s Date extracts friend data from the user’s Facebook account which is used to verify identities and localize the dating pool. Users create “dating cards” that are then presented to other users.

Doesn’t sound like much of a game yet, right? Wait for it.

As a user, you have a constant feed of dating cards that you can judge. (Think of it as “Yes I’d date you” or “No I wouldn’t”, in a similar manner to dating on Tinder Using Tinder? Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes Using Tinder? Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes When using Tinder, it's just as important to know what NOT to do. Read More .) So far so good, but here’s where the guessing game comes in.

gamification-is-bad-dating-apps

If another user clicks “Let’s Date” on your card, their card is moved up to the front of your feed somewhere. It could be the next card you see, it could be the fifth card you see, or any of the cards between. You’re notified that someone clicked your card but you aren’t told who it is, so if you want to match up then you have to guess which of the next five cards that person was.

As Leslie from TechCrunch explains, it can subconsciously turn the dating process into a game that can be won or lost. “Was this the person who clicked my card?” Instead of judging each card based on its merits, some users click “Let’s Date” simply to see if they can correctly guess who it was that clicked them first.

The Lesson

Gamification can add unnecessary layers of complexity. If users are already motivated enough to perform certain actions (for example, judging cards), don’t try to gamify those actions without a strong reason. You might just be frustrating people.

Competition In A Collaborative Environment

To most people, gamification is synonymous with points and leaderboards. While leaderboards have their uses, there’s an important consideration that many gamifiers overlook: the fact that leaderboards are inherently competitive. Microsoft learned this the hard way.

Starting in the 1980s, it became commonplace for large companies like General Electric and Enron to use the stack ranking method of employee performance evaluation. This method is like an academic grading curve: out of every 10 employees, two are labeled “most productive,” seven are labeled “adequate,” and the last one is fired.

In essence, it’s a leaderboard system where the top ranks are rewarded and the bottom ranks are penalized.

gamification-is-bad-stack-ranking

For Microsoft, these rankings were used to determine individual compensation plans. The higher one’s rank, the higher the bonus they received. Can you guess what kind of behavioral effects this might have in a supposedly team-based environment?

According to the Wall Street Journal, this method fueled complaints of reduced cooperation amongst employees as everyone prioritized their own rankings above the rankings of their coworkers. Furthermore, employees focused less on improving their skills How To Spark Personal Growth: 5 Tricks Of The Entrepreneur How To Spark Personal Growth: 5 Tricks Of The Entrepreneur Not everyone has to be an entrepreneur, but everyone can learn something from the entrepreneur. By tapping into some of those entrepreneurial traits, you can radically alter your own life in an upward direction. Read More and more on exploiting the system for any edge they could find.

In 2013, Microsoft realized the error of their ways and abandoned the stack ranking method. Even so, it appears that about 30% of Fortune 500 companies still rank their work force’s performance along a curve.

The Lesson

Gamification can impact the behavior of users in unforeseen ways. When implementing a system, define the desired behavior first and make sure the gamification design encourages that behavior. Don’t just throw it in because everyone else is doing it.

Final Thoughts

If you subscribe to Richard Bartle’s theory of the four gamer archetypes — achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers — then the weakness of gamification is easy to spot: it mostly appeals to achiever-type personalities, and falls short for everyone else.

While it is useful in certain situations where an achieving attitude is desirable — such as when motivating new habits Points For Everything: How I Tried to Win At Life With Gamification Points For Everything: How I Tried to Win At Life With Gamification My brain is stupid. It thinks I can get done tomorrow what I need to do today, and that I can do this afternoon what I need to do this morning. It puts everything off.... Read More and spurring long-term progress Time Is Money: 4 Ways To Cure Financial Procrastination & Save Today Time Is Money: 4 Ways To Cure Financial Procrastination & Save Today Wake up! The longer you wait around to get your present and future money in order, the more money you're going to lose. Yes, that's right. Financial management is time-critical. Read More — gamification is nothing close to the cure-all for user engagement that everybody thinks it to be. Think twice before you consider implementing it.

How do you feel about everything on the web becoming gamified these days? Is it helpful or just an annoying gimmick? Tell us what you think in the comments below!

Image Credits: Mobile Love Via Shutterstock, Performance Ranking Via Shutterstock

  1. Jessica C
    January 27, 2015 at 7:34 pm

    I must have been fortunate to only encounter or notice Gamification where it was good. Great counterexamples here.

    Thanks for this article, helping us get past Survivorship Bias!

    • Joel Lee
      January 28, 2015 at 3:37 am

      Survivorship bias! That's a good way to boil down the gamification hype into a single term. :)

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