Gamification is like Marmite. Love it or hate it

Gamification is another HR buzzword; in fact nowadays everything is being gamified. It is big business; gamification vendors abound, and there are plenty of gamification conferences too. But does it actually work?

First of all, let’s be clear what is meant by the term gamification.  It is not the same as games (or even game-based learning) rather gamification. According to the

“is the process of using game mechanics and game thinking in non-gaming contexts to engage users and to solve problems.” 

Recently, in quick succession, I read two posts about gamification,  one, Is Gamification Important in 2017?, extolled the benefits of gamification and having fun at work ..

“It can drive better employee performance and uses real-time feedback and goals (personalized ones, where employees “compete with themselves”) to reflect performance — like a Fitbit for work. “

The second article,  Employees Don’t Need Workplace Training to Be Fun, Just Efficient,  said quite the opposite.

“Gamification hasn’t increased employee engagement and motivation the way organizations hoped it would. This is especially true with information workers, where gamification efforts fell flat. “

The latter quote resonated with me, because personally, I find gamification techniques irritating and annoying. In fact, I’ve opted out of the gamification techniques a major UK retailer is now employing to try and encourage me to buy more.  Fortunately, I don’t have to endure it at work (being an independent worker); I can’t think of anything worse!!

I therefore don’t employ any gamification techniques (leaderboards, badges and other competition mechanics) in my own social workshops in order to get people to participate and contribute. I tend to agree with Guy Boulet when he points out that gamification is simply “bells and whistles”, and that

“Competition is an extrinsic motivator because it encourages the performer to win and to beat others, not simply to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity.”

I prefer to focus on participants’ intrinsic motivation – their desire to seek out new things and new challenges – which is why in my workshops, individuals have a choice not only whether to sign up, but also how they participate. I also believe that participants can get as much out of the learning experience even if they don’t actively contribute. Activity doesn’t equate to learning; the only evidence that they have learned is in their new or improved performance.

But I have wondered if participants would really like to have a gamified experience. Maybe I was depriving them of some key ways to get more out of the workshop.  I knew I shouldn’t make assumptions about others learning preferences based on my own, so I thought I would find out what other people thought of gamification at a personal level.

I therefore set up a quick Twitter straw poll. The question was simple.  Here is the poll and the results.

I found the results quite surprising, as they were pretty evenly split between those who find gamification techniques motivational and those who find them irritating, with only a small percentatage undecided. My conclusion is that gamification is like Marmite – you either love it or hate it!  [For those not living in the UK Marmite is the yeast extract that evokes a similar “love it or hate it: reaction ).

Furthermore, on the basis of my very small poll it seems to me that gamification is actually a  high-risk technique to use since it appears to cause as many people to disengage as to engage.

But it was the comments around the poll that were very enlightening and I think added some very valuable insights into what people think about gamification.

Kim said “I hate gamification. I feel like I am being manipulated.”

Professor David Simpson said “I find it faddish. Though I am all for “engagement” I find that gamification often trivializes.”

David Glow said “I don’t have an issue with well done gamification. The issue is, very little of it exists”

So what is well designed gamification? A number of commenters provided some ideas.

Craig Taylor said:   “If done intelligently I have no issue with it/sometimes I don’t even realise that it’s happening. Other times it’s done poorly & the ‘game’ part of it becomes sole focus, with the intended behaviour change secondary/ tertiary.”

Kevin Maye agreed: “Done well and unobtrusively – love it. Contrived and adding no value – bleurgh”

And Doug Shaw introduced the concept of choice:  “At times I enjoy playing as part of my work, I like to choose when, and I don’t like being played!

But do we really need to make work (or learning) a game? I always remember a blog post Harold Jarche wrote back in 2011, Work is already a Game

“The major problem with the ‘gamification’ of professional learning is that work is already a game. It is an artificial construct that society has created, and many of us have to play. Adding badges, or other extrinsic motivators, to professional learning only detracts from the real game. It also creates incentives that, when removed, may result in going back to previous behaviours.”

As for me, from all this, I haven’t been convinced that gamification would add any value to my own workshops. I still believe it is too often used in a desperate attempt to engage people into doing something they really don’t want to be doing in the first place! But if you still want to go ahead and include gamification techniques to try and improve engagement at work or training, then here are my 5 recommendations.

  1. Think again! Are you really sure this is the best way to motivate your people. Couldn’t you do something else to tap into employees’ intrinsic motivation?
  2. Find out from your people if this is something they would enjoy.
  3. Even if you get a majority positive response, don’t ignore those who don’t want it. Think as much about them; turning them off isn’t going to help. If gamification is meant to be fun, you can’t force fun.
  4. Gamification should be a personal choice so offer the option to take part or not; people are actually more likely to try it out if they are not forced to participate.
  5. Finally design it well! Ensure the gamification techniques are unobtrusive and subtle; not overt and patronising, and in particular, make sure people don’t think they are being played.
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Jane Hart

Jane Hart helps organisations and learning professionals modernise their approaches to workplace learning - through public workshops and bespoke consultancy. She is the Editor of the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine, and is the author of a number of books including Modern Workplace Learning 2020 as well as the resource for individuals How to become a modern Learner. Jane was the 2018 recipient of the ATD Distinguished Contribution to Talent Development award. You can contact Jane at

3 thoughts on “Gamification is like Marmite. Love it or hate it

  1. Derek Bailey

    Dear Jane,
    As my dear Geordie mother would say gamification is a “load of bollocks”.
    I have resided in the Antipodes for many years and “Vegemite” equates to “Marmite”, though aficionados would disagree.
    After undertaking several MOCS where gamification was used then at the end of the day being awarded a badge took me back to my Cubs and Scouts Day and in essence debased what learning had taken place.
    Being over 65 might have something to do with it but I actively teach 16 to 22 year old trade apprentices and they all have varying degrees of experience receiving badges in some of the digital games that are popular on the street.
    A trial of underpinning knowledge to be taken was set up on a Moodle platform with badges to be accumulated as the candidate progressed by supposed experts.
    Net result was that many participants considered the digital reward as being condescending and the idea was counter productive.
    What they did enjoy was receiving their work back with gold, silver or bronze stars plus encouragement stickers that you use with young children. From the scuttlebutt many had taken them home to show Mum and Dad.
    Harold Jarche’s comment resonates for me.
    In my day today teaching/training finding the button that unlocks the intrinsic desire to accept responsibility for one’s self learning is still the major challenge because everyone in the class is an individual.
    Thus reliance on being awarded a digital badge may only appeal to a very small minority.
    Like fabled learning styles gamification is just part of the bag of tricks that one use to create self motivation.

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