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Rise of the Planet of Achievements: Gamification of the workplace


In 2011 a study named Gaming Britain: A Country United by Digital Play was published by the Game Steering Group (part of Internet Advertising Bureau). A nationally representative sample of 4,000 respondents was engaged. It reported that 32.9 million people across the UK play video games regularly. That’s 82% of Britons aged between 8 and 65. While the definition of ‘regularly’ is rather vague in the report, with ‘frequently’ translating as ‘within the previous month’, it’s important to note the rise of this industry throughout the country and many generations. The stereotype of the average gamer is changing as you read this.


It’s not only those inside the industry and external advertising companies that are interested in the rise of this culture. Gamification, first coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, looks to how the reward systems in video games can be introduced into other elements of life. Unlocking an Achievement for not being late to work in the real world could no longer be a bizarre take on the future.

To many Gamification is more than another buzzword. It’s the origin of utilising video game mechanics, the likes of leaderboards – which are spreadsheets made stimulating – and Achievements/Trophies, for non-gaming activities. The vision dates back in exercise to practitioners such as Amy Jo Kim who were part of eBay’s introduction of seller ratings, and helped in the design of titles such as The Sims and Rock Band. Therefore, the idea of constant smaller rewards throughout a lifeline rather than at the end goal: Turning the most boring of tasks into a fun game. In the workplace this could be implemented with visible rewards for meeting project milestones within cost and time, producing internal competitiveness within teams, or celebrating successful targets.

As seen, it takes modest exertion to turn a new method of reward into a condescending means for elevated productivity. Comparisons to colour stars in Primary school are not far fetched. Elizabeth Corcoran said “Gamification… doesn’t rely on internal motivation…it’s using the oldest tricks in the book.” With Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research & Development at Future stating that giving people an opportunity to do something they want to do is doing good. If you’re using the power of games to get people to do something you want them to do, then you’re doing evil.

This is an idea many believe can overcome that hurdle. Our urge to become better is intrinsically linked to how we feel and it is this that Gamification uses to its advantage. It comes as no surprise that the aforementioned Amy Jo Kim has a PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience. Richard J. Davidson in his Cognitive Neuroscience Needs Affective Neuroscience paper said: “Of primary significance is the fact that the brain circuitry of cognition and emotion is not segregated… There is a form of happiness that arises as an individual anticipates a future positive outcome.”

Davidson is saying that our emotions are directly linked to cognitive functions such as memory and planning, and that projecting this into the future allows us to gain happiness from outcomes that are not yet guaranteed. Rewards following specific goals, therefore, eliminate risk and enable us to gain a form of happiness as we progress towards a known outcome. This explains why the action of working towards an Achievement, or Trophy, brings a positive emotion and warmth before the actual reward (which is worthless in reality). The reward acts as the goal, the motivator. Davidson concludes, “Cognition would be rudderless without the accompaniment of emotion, just as emotion would be primitive without the participation of cognition.”


Research by Gartner suggests that within two years an estimated 70% of organisations will have embraced this concept in some form. Gamification is reaching far and wide. In one case study, Evo Media Group, which runs DevHub, a site that allows users to create their own blogs and websites, adopted the this ideology. Originally, 10% of users would finish using the system and create their own site. After introducing the new concept, however, this rose dramatically by 70%, with 80% of users now completing it.

By introducing points, coins and badges they enticed visitors to stay, increasing the possibility that users would then spend money on additional features. As Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat noted, “The site has a meta game built into it, giving users rewards for completing tasks and allowing them to compete for prizes. Too often, early users created only basic, skeletal sites. DevHub fixed that by creating a step-by-step process where you can level-up with each new addition that you complete. Each step is like completing a mission in a game.”

On reflection, I came to realise that I myself had introduced similar ideas many years ago. In a previous position as a manager, I was responsible for ensuring a team had fun while doing their job right. To encourage this, the team whiteboard was utilised to create a scoreboard. Each team member was allowed to pick an illustrated character that was printed off and name tagged. These were then placed on the board which featured two camps.

The first was the safe zone. The cartoon character would be moved onto the second half of the board if they hit one of the agreed negative triggers. By involving the team with clear goals the previously boring and strict targets were now fun and socially engaging. However, the fault at the heart of Gamification is that it presumes all games are inherently fun, regardless of design. It must also consider that it’s irrelevant if the task itself is not enjoyable or forced. Video games are not fun solely because they’re games, but only if they’re well constructed.

Games are, according to Jon Radoff, “about involving you in an activity that is fundamentally fun and taking you through some sort of transformational journey–whether it’s about a character transforming from the mundane to the heroic, or simply teaching you a new skill that changes you in some way”. The task of making a game out of task that the user may only be doing to get paid is a more difficult challenge than many will expect. It is therefore the responsibility of the company or employee to use this approach with commonsense, rather than a buzzword crowbarred into daily office life. As such, the term itself has received its fair share of negative attention.


Gamification leaves me sat in two different camps. The psychological basis is sound as is the evidence in real life case studies and theoretical neuroscience, making for an interesting read. However, my gut reaction screams that there’s something condescending and worrying about a concept that is, quite frankly, stating the obvious, looking to eliminate any real meaning to patience and self-investment. This is about the quick money grab by basing reward on the way our brain perceives and reacts to instant gratification. But by doing so with an authoritative voice and research it allows itself to enter spaces that would not have before given it the time of day previous. Perhaps you’ll soon see it happening in your workplace.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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