Gamification is Scientifically Validated – Now What?

Gamification is Scientifically Validated – Now What?

cc flickr throgers

Since the beginning of the gamification movement, we’ve had our fair share of naysayers. Some have been academics, others simply impassioned folks with strong opinions. At their most charitable, these critics have stated – as fact – that basic gamification mechanics simply won’t (can’t) work. At their worst, they’ve accused us of being manipulative, under-informed distorters of “true” game design – taking umbrage with our movement even when we’ve been working in the constructive public interest. Discussion and evaluation of our approaches have been further hampered by the insistence – even by some of our most ardent supporters – in making our basic mechanistic elements into the stuff of derision. PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboards) have been used by well-meaning folks as shorthand for banal, insipid ideas in gamified behavior design.

All along, those of us actually building, testing and deploying things into the world (myself included) have been calmly and quietly repeating the same thing over and over: “we hear your criticism, but gamification works.” I’ve talked at length about the need to be innovative and insightful, but without over-engineering. While it’s essential that your gamified effort be unique and targeted to your specific audience, that doesn’t mean you should re-invent the wheel or start with anything that’s not focused. Agility and real-world testing are key, and starting with a simple, thoughtful MVP (Minimum Viable Product) – which is often PBL and a simple narrative – is usually the right strategy. That doesn’t mean you should stop there, but dismissing the basics as infantile masks the importance of their foundation.

Now the science is starting to catch up with us. Recent research (from Mekler et al. at the University of Basel) clearly shows what we’ve known all along: the basic methods of gamification clearly work to drive core behavior. Moreover, if they are presented properly, they are not demotivating as these so called “experts” predicted. And, in a clear victory for the SAPS model I pioneered – we’re starting to see that a core problem with most behavioral research (going all the way back to Deci/Ryan) may be that they used cash as the incentive/reward in testing. The real tension isn’t around the “strict construction” of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation/reward, but rather that cash itself is a poor motivator.

In any event, I’m grateful that our academic peers are making an effort to research and understand the phenomena we have been describing. The Mekler study – and the dozens to surely follow – will help support so many gamification designers in their continued effort to bring the approach to industry, government and academia. Clearly, more research needs to be done and new questions need to be addressed (particularly those around specific approaches, contexts and meta-mechanics), but I’m confident that these are in the works.  There’s no substitute for empirical evidence, but as the momentum continues to grow in our favor be sure to share these results with your colleagues, peers…and haters.

You can read the research here and an article by the study’s authors describing their work here.


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  1. Gabe, my dear – the conclusion is that it’s viable – it is neither guaranteed nor conclusive. My own deep research shows that Gamification fails in 74% of all cases. Would you be happy selling customers something where 3 out of 4 are deeply unsatisfied?

    • More than three quarters of restaurants that are opened fail. What would become of entrepreneurial spirit if people did nothing because there was a chance to fail?

      I would like address your statistics, was the failure rate based on the first attempt to gamify a task? Was the person creating the gamification experienced? Were there follow on iterations, which relied on feedback from users of the previous iteration?

      I remember a statistic from early in school, that most application development efforts fail. That did not prevent people from developing applications, just forced them to perform their work in a manner that did a better job off meeting customer expectations, soliciting input, delivering on time

      Please let us know where you have published your results so that we can address the issues and concerns that it raises

      • Hia – the research which took almost 6 months has been compiled into a paper which examines some 300 empirical studies as a part of a systematic meta-analysis of the efficacy of gamification to impact performance. It’s the largest meta-analysis on impact of gamification that I’m aware of, and is currently awaiting publication in a peer reviewed journal.

        The key findings were in almost 50% of the time Gamification has no long term impact. in 26% of the cases gamification actually reduces productivity/performance over time – and it’s only 24% of the studies that shows it works.

        The majority of failures involve PBL applied without a proper understanding of UX, or appreciation of the user’s perspective.

        It’s important that if you stand for something you see it for what it is and acknowledge where it goes wrong and why – too much of ‘gamification’ says it works, it works, it works – well you know what it mostly fails. Not to say it doesn’t ever work – but it actually mostly fails.

        Right now I’m heading up around $30m worth of gamification projects across, big data, social learning, enterprise innovation etc.. Clearly I wouldn’t be doing this if I though it was a guaranteed failure. But with so much at stake, I’m just making sure we have a greater chance of success than the 76% of the studies we’ve examined in detail.

        BTW this 76% is not too far from Garner’s 80% failure – it’s imperative that you know why it fails.

        • Thank you for your clarification, I agree that IT tends to foist ideas on to customers without involving them in the decisions or design. I would be interested in receiving a copy of your study when it is released, since you seem to have addressed the issues that you have identified. All too often developers take a fanboi approach and do not want to consider the issues that customers raise

  2. Are you trying to tell us that a SINGLE study of people doing an image tagging exercise can somehow be generalized to the blanket claim “gamification works”?

  3. Hi! I’m doing a research in an Argentinian Universtiy with a Gamiffied Course and is having great results in our first exprience. I think that are the first steps to make this Scientifically Validated, but this are excellent news for the ones that we are working on it.

    Guido Olomudzski