9 reasons gamification fails


“Ha ha ha, FAIL!” is something your 10-year-old nephew might say as you walk headlong into a glass door, but I bet he doesn’t know that this popular exclamation - FAIL! - has its roots in video games, specifically the arcade classic Street Fighter! In Street Fighter, you battle your opponent until, after a flurry of kung fu moves, you either WIN or FAIL. We want to win our gamification street fight, so let’s look at some very common fails that are often encountered when designing gamified solutions.

1. Failing to recognise and understand user needs

All humans have needs. There are many writings and theories on this subject, most notably Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but they all generally agree that if a user’s needs are not met, you can expect them to gradually disengage. In some instances the disengagement won’t even be gradual! Users who feel that a gamified solution doesn’t address their specific needs as a human being will not see it as a solution at all, just another chore. It is thus crucial for gamification / human-focused design to determine the needs of a multigenerational, and where applicable, multicultural workforce. Understanding how the needs of a Gen X user differ from a Millennial’s will allow program designers to provide options and cater specifically to those individual’s needs, creating a truly personalised experience.

2. Fixing something that isn’t broken

Gamification inherently makes digital tracking and monitoring possible and that data can be analysed to provide vital insights. Netflix gathers data about what you watch, how long you watch for, and who else is watching. This information is used to serve up suggested titles with the intention of making the product or service “so personalised to [the viewer’s] own needs that they cannot imagine using another service”. This is called the Alfred Effect. Why Alfred? Well, those of you who know your pop culture will know that Batman’s indispensable butler is called Alfred. Even though Alfred is portrayed as an elderly gentleman (Michael Caine in the movies), it’s precisely because Alfred knows exactly what Batman needs at any given time that makes him indispensable. The Batman / Alfred dynamic works so well and is so familiar that it would be nonsensical for Batman to replace Alfred with a younger butler. So if you’re on to a winning formula and have found your Alfred, stick with it.

To the Batmobile!

3. Failing to mind your feedback

Gamification is not a ‘fire-and-forget’, catch-all solution. Even the most meticulously structured and carefully designed program will benefit from consistently monitoring user feedback. Thanks to the Internet of Things, that feedback is readily available and can usually be gathered through the program’s backend with minimal disruption to the user’s experience. That is to say, users can be tracked and observed electronically without them having to provide input themselves. Traditionally participants evaluated the program’s efficacy in a survey at the program’s conclusion; the fact that it’s all digital now allows for more immediate feedback loops that enable tweaks and refinements to be made on-the-fly. Ignore feedback at your peril! 

4. Too much black hat motivation

Too much of a good thing can be bad, and feedback will tell you when you’re headed into bad territory. Black hat motivation, the ‘Act now or else’-type that creates urgency and the fear of loss, is great for establishing behaviours quickly but over-application can lead to a general feeling of being hurried and harassed. Be very sure when choosing urgency (and the associated fear) at the expense of the user’s sense of calm, autonomy and feeling in control – It’s a quick fix but it can lead to burn-out and disengagement.

For more on black hat motivation, read What’s a black hat core drive’ and why do you need to know?

5. Lack of compelling narrative

The standard points, badges and leaderboard (PBL) model may be insufficient for total user buy-in. PBLs are no longer novel enough to be applied in isolation. By adding an additional layer, a story if you will, the reasoning and objectives behind the program become more accessible and clear to the user. The behaviours that management is trying to encourage take on substance when contextualised and made relatable through a story. Creating a story and then making the user an active participant in that story creates a sense of inclusion and autonomy that feeds our very basic human need to be both individuals and part of something larger.


Be careful, however, to ensure the story and game elements complement your program. There’s a wonderful term – ludonarrative dissonance – you can use it at parties. It describes the jarring, internal conflict that happens when ‘who you are in the game’ doesn’t match the behaviour you are expected to display. For example, to get proof-readers to be more engaged with their work, it would make more sense to tell them they are sleuths looking for clues at a crime scene than astronauts looking for aliens in space. It’s hard to be authentic and relatable when operating way outside the bounds of believability. Storylines should always be relevant and relatable.

For more on narrative, read Why narrative is gamification’s secret learning weapon

6. Failing to make content relevant and relatable

They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I’m not sure who ‘they’ are and I can’t think of a single reason why you would want to skin a cat, but it’s comforting to know I have options. Similarly, there is more than one way to encourage desirable behaviour in a multigenerational workforce. If we want to encourage a specific behaviour, such as proactively and regularly searching through the backlog of work or administrative tasks, we should provide several avenues to get there. I’m not using the cat analogy again because you get the idea. If you provide options, an individual can choose the incentive that ‘speaks’ to them and they are most comfortable with. Some folk may like the idea of a badge that identifies them as a ‘backlog buster’ while others, who aren’t particularly concerned with social prestige, might prefer some other form of reward, like a cash bonus.

Know your users.

7. Clear, short-term objectives are better than vague long-term goals

If your long-term strategic goal is total world domination, you wouldn’t declare war on all 190-plus countries at once, would you? You’d do it piece-meal and bit-by-bit, knocking over the easy ones first and working your way up to the more challenging opponents. And so it is with strategic gamification – there is a long-term goal but to get there you have to progress through a series of clearly defined and measurable missions.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”, says Peter Drucker, the ‘father of modern management’. Employees need to know what is expected of them, by when, and how their performance will be measured. In other words, what metrics will be used and what does ‘finished’ look like?

Research has shown that clear and concise short-term goals are far better at producing results than vague long-term goals. Without clear instructions, individuals tend to do what they want to do, not what they need to do. It is all too easy to mistake activity for progress and that is why clear metrics and regular feedback are essential for an effective gamified solution.

8. Misapplication of rewards

Beware of the over-justification effect. This theory states that extrinsic rewards can have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation. Essentially, intrinsic motivation comes from within, our natural desire to perform, and it shouldn’t need any external reward. According to the over-justification effect; when providing extrinsic rewards like a cash bonus or an e-voucher, the user’s motivational focus shifts from “I want to do this because I’m inspired” to “I have to do this if I want my reward”. Gradually, the intrinsic motivation is extinguished, never to return. Consequently, withdrawing the rewards will then extinguish the behaviour altogether, or so the theory goes.

For more on motivation and rewards, read Understand extrinsic and intrinsic motivation like a boss

9. Failing to cater for all player-types

The emphasis of this blog has been the ‘fail’ state but what happens when you win? Once the game is over, how do you get users to keep coming back until you release the next iteration of the gamified solution? Consider for a moment the open sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim or Dead Rising. All of them have a central storyline with a beginning, middle and an end; and they all feature optional side-quests and missions. How do these games retain the players who have completed the main story line? Quite simply, they pander to the four core player-types; the killers and achievers, the explorers and the socialisers.

The four core player types

Killers will want to play the game again, this time with a higher body count. Explorers will play the game again to see if there’s anything they may have missed or, given the exceptionally high quality graphics of contemporary games, will quite literally explore the game environment as an alternate reality.

Achievers will want to finish every single side-quest and find every possible collectible. Socialisers will want to share their experience with other veteran players or they may even mentor some of the ‘noobs’ in the game environment. It’s not unusual to find MMPORG players with maxed-out characters still wandering the game world as either benevolent ‘gurus’ or malevolent ‘boss fights’, determined to acquire either fame … or infamy.

You can find out a lot more about these and other player-types when you read Know the player, know the game

Identify the player-types in your organisation and capitalise on their characteristics – Having a veteran explorer-type still active in the gamified solution is an absolute boon. Users are far more likely to seek help and advice from a peer who’s ‘been there, done that’ than trawling through endless help files. Similarly, a killer-type may have insights on how a task can be completed quicker or more efficiently, achievers will know if anything remains to be done, and of course the socialisers help to foster a sense of community and belonging.

The path to victory – For the Win

Make your gamified environment a fun place to be. Include many fresh, engaging and relevant activities that cater to all sorts of users and they will tend to stick around and keep coming back - without the need for external rewards or motivation.

A gamified solution should be more than the sum of its parts and you want your users to feel that they are part of something larger too. Bridge the gap between management’s values & objectives and employee’s needs & expectations by framing the project as a story where everyone has an essential part to play. Let your employees become acutely aware of their value to the organisation. Structure your program in such a way that it provides options and has employees feeling autonomous and in charge. Identify the very human needs of your employees and keep an eye on feedback loops to ensure that these needs are met.

Do the above while avoiding the 9 common fails and you should be firmly on the path to WIN.

Ready player one.



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Tags: Gamification Insight Strategy