Mandatory Fun: New Gamification Research from Wharton

Mandatory Fun: New Gamification Research from Wharton


Wharton’s Gamification Research Shows You Can’t Force Fun

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: “What are the biggest mistakes/risks/pitfalls of Gamification?” My answer almost always includes a cautionary note about the risks of compelling people to “play” gamified experiences, because using force reduces a sense of agency. This is a trap many companies fall into when they gamify an employee process. No matter how much money they spend building an amazing, engaging system, many HR folks fail to consider how they’ll get users to participate beyond “they have to”, or “this is the new process.”

New gamification research out this week from UPenn’s Wharton Business School puts a spotlight on this thorny question, looking at the efficacy of sales team gamification when it’s optional vs compulsory through a primary research project at a high-growth tech startup. The results indicate that gamification is effective at improving employee satisfaction, but if its compulsory it may actually reduce their overall affect. The researchers, Ethan Mollick and Nancy Rothbard, found their research work earlier studies proving that games in the workplace raise satisfaction and performance, but also noted a strong inverse relationship between consent and happiness.

In an interview, I asked Mollick about why he and Rothbard chose this angle for the research. He mentioned that most past games-at-the-office research focused on employee-generated games, rather than managerial ones. Gamification – because its often managerially imposed – begged a whole set of new questions about the role of consent and the efficacy of interaction. This lends further credence to the idea that gamification is a new discipline that requires its own frameworks, language and structure – informed by games but not limited by them.

While the growing academic support for gamification is positive, it’s also important to provide feedback to researchers so that they can shape their focus to match best industry practices. One of the the things that got my attention in the work was the professors’ assertion that “Gamification…adds a layer that [does not] redesign the nature of the actual job” – a belief that Mollick reasserted in our interview. The arbitrary line drawn by the researchers doesn’t take into consideration that many of the elements that are gamified in work – such as CRM usage, bug tracking, time reporting – are now fundamental parts of employees jobs, not adjunct.

Sales Leaderboard by LevelEleven
Sales Leaderboard by LevelEleven

For example, in an environment where salespeople spend 30 hours/month interacting with their CRM (e.g. Salesforce, SAP) on average, it’s hard to argue that gamifying such software is a “layer” on the job. Similarly, when training is elemental to your work, it would be tough to argue that gamifying such experiences is tangential. In both cases, making the system, tools or interaction more engaging does alter the fundamental activities of the job, because that human-computer interface is so core to what you do. To whit, if your success depends on meeting or exceeding key performance indicators (KPIs), like sales, calls per hour, customer satisfaction, etc. – it would be tough to argue that mechanics like leaderboards or progress and mastery indicators are external to your work.

But this issue is a small nit with an otherwise fascinating and enlightening piece of work that will surely help our industry advance its understanding of behavior and performance in the enterprise.

Flickr Image by Kalexanderson


  1. This is where motivation comes in! If companies would spend more time finding out what types of gamification programs or incentives are valuable or have meaning for their employees, they might get higher rates of participation, and happiness.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post. The research question is interesting.

    A math teacher friend of mine has a similar concern around game based learning. If students are forced to have fun learning using a particular technology X, we are not really honoring the tradition of gaming to invite players to play.

    I like how Dr. Jane McGonigal challenges designers to find ways to get players to volunteer for the work of the game. This is not easy to design for the classroom or office.

    This is a great puzzle of human motivation for the game design community to discuss. Thanks for sharing the research!

  3. I think any activity that is compulsory will reduce it’s attractiveness to employees. In my experience even removing the chocolate machine and replacing it with free fruit ,does not make the fruit more attractive, in fact it creates a level of irritation among employees who might have requested the fruit option.

    Gamification must have some element of not conforming to the work expectations.While the game may reflect fundamental element s of the job, it should not be a part of the job. Otherwise it is not gamification.