What the Wall Street Journal gets wrong about gamification

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In less than 1,000 words — in just one line, really — Farhad Manjoo raised a question that gamification researchers in Canada or anywhere else who seek to commercialize their work will have to answer.

The line in question appears as the sub-head in a piece that ran last week in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, where the paper’s soon-to-be-departing tech columnist explored the rise of gamification in the workplace. “Will Software That Awards Compliant Employees Boost Morale or Deflate It?” it said. After providing some examples of how gamification is being applied within the Fortune 500 and talking to vendors like Badgeville, Manjoo raised some serious doubts:

“Getting people to do things they don’t really want to do turns out to be a key mission of workplace gamification,” he writes. “Many of these (gamification initiatives) sound benign. But what we can’t tell is whether these measures are worth the cost—the psychic cost. What worries me is the potential for stifling creativity and flexibility in the workplace, and the growing sensation of being watched, and measured, in everything we do.”

Perhaps predictably, Manjoo’s opinion piece does not answer the question it raises, so let me try instead: The short version is no. No, gamification will not deflate morale, unless companies use it in knee-jerk fashion to coerce or attempt to fool employees into thinking rule-following is fun. No, gamification will not stifle creativity and flexibility if companies use techniques that truly honour the word “play” — instead, it should open up opportunities for more out-of-the-box thinking than ever before. No, gamification is not worth the “psychic cost” if the way it is applied takes such a toll.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the way Manjoo (and perhaps others in the business community) see gamification as a force to turn people into obedient zombies. Great games have a structure and rules of engagement, just like great companies do, but in both spheres there should be plenty of room to maneuver. Well-designed games don’t simply offer Pavlovian rewards for repetitive behaviour. They challenge players, encourage them to learn and adapt, to identify fresh approaches to solving problems. Though there is such a thing as unhealthy competition, in the best gamification experiments I’ve seen the players are only really trying to top themselves. In traditional workplace culture we would simply call this realizing one’s potential.

I could imagine some researchers with some work that could be commercialized wishing Manjoo’s story had never been published, because it perpetuates a negative attitude that does nothing to help adoption. But think of this column as an asset, not a liability. Link to it. Take a screen shot and add it to your next PowerPoint presentation. Arm yourself with a rebuttal strong enough to win over Manjoo and anyone with similar views. Treat such debate as a game in and of itself. Win the debate, and a successful path to commercialization may be the ultimate reward.

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the editor of CommerceLab. A writer, editor and speaker who helps people create value with information technology. Shane is also a technology columnist with Yahoo Canada, an editor-at-large with IT World Canada, the editor of Allstream’s expertIP online community and the editor of a U.S. magazine about mobile apps called FierceDeveloper. Shane regularly speaks to CIOs and IT managers at events across Canada about how they can contribute to organizational success, and comments on technology trends as a guest on CBC, BNN, CTV and other programs.

  • yudashkai

    Thanks for writing this. I enjoyed your article and your focus on “play” rather than “game.”

    • ShaneSchick

      Coming from you that’s a huge compliment! Thanks so much.

      • yudashkai

        No, it’s great that people like you are defending the reputation of good gamification. It bothers me immensely when people decide to narrowly define gamification as something shallow, and then criticize it as narrow….

        Keep up the good stuff!