A New Day for Gamification, or Is It?

I've been working in the field of gamification since 2007, and I'll admit, I'm somewhat perplexed that there's still so much debate about what exactly gamification is, and what it is not.

As I see it, the definition of gamification is straightforward -- it's about motivating people through data. To be more specific -- gamification engines capture the big data that your customers, partners and employees are generating as they're interacting with online experiences, and use that data to motivate better performance and drive business results.

But even "straightforward" definitions can be misinterpreted.

For instance, I've heard gamification incorrectly defined as "games created for a business purpose," and yet, to reiterate, gamification is not about games, and it's not about creating something new. Gamification is about amplifying the effect of an existing, core experience by applying proven motivational techniques -- the kind of tactics that increase high-value interactions with customers, employees and partners -- so that companies can drive more sales, stronger collaboration, better ROI, deeper loyalty and higher customer satisfaction.

A few weeks ago, Gartner released a research note aimed at clearing up some of these misperceptions. In "Redefine Gamification to Understand Its Opportunities and Limitations," analyst Brian Burke acknowledges that confusion around the definition of gamification leads to missed opportunities to leverage gamification solutions, and on this point, I couldn't agree more. Over the years, it has become crystal clear that the gamification market can't continue to evolve unless we're all on the same page, using the same terms, with the same expectations.

But does Gartner's new definition achieve its goal? Does it improve our understanding of gamification's opportunities and limitations?

To answer that question, let's take a careful look at exactly what's being proposed.

According to Gartner's new definition, gamification is "the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals."

Here's what I like most about this new definition:

  • Motivation takes center stage. As Burke writes, "The goal of gamification is to motivate people to change behaviors or develop skills, or to drive innovation." The amazing thing about human motivation is that if you can tap into it properly, there's a never-ending supply of it. That's why I call motivation "cold fusion for loyalty." And whoever figures out how to harness that energy is going to win.

But motivation tells only part of the story. To understand gamification, you also need to recognize that it's purposeful, data-driven and proven. Because those aspects are so essential, here's how Gartner's new definition could be made even stronger:

  • Less emphasis on game language. Continuing to use terms like "players" and "play space" perpetuates the notion that gamification is about games. Again, gamification is not about "play." Burke even goes so far as to note that "gamification is not about fun."
  • Less emphasis on digital engagement. The important thing to keep in mind is that gamification is data-driven, not necessarily digitally-driven. "Digital" implies that the experience happens completely online, and that's not always the case. Companies using gamification can motivate physical activity, meeting attendance and many other "analog" behaviors. Technology enables the more efficient capture and distribution of that data at scale, but it isn't a hard requirement for gamification.
  • More emphasis on business results. Businesses don't implement gamification because they want to help employees and/or customers achieve their short-term goals. Businesses implement gamification because gamification drives value. Gamification increases high-value interactions with customers, employees and partners, which in turn, helps you improve business performance through more sales, stronger collaboration, better ROI, deeper loyalty and higher customer satisfaction.

Modifying the definition in these three ways would help companies better understand that gamification is not about games, and that it's not limited to digital behaviors. Perhaps most importantly of all, they would also understand that the whole idea behind gamification is to deliver business value. How could it not? Gamification enables businesses to motivate customers, employees and partners to engage in high-value interactions -the very interactions that drive more sales, stronger collaboration, better ROI, deeper loyalty and higher customer satisfaction. In fact, Gallup recently found that companies that engage customers and employees experience a 240 percent boost in performance-related business outcomes.

Burke ends his note with this: "The opportunities are vast, with many yet to be exploited, but before embarking on the journey, a clear understanding of the opportunities and limitations of gamification is needed."

Again, I couldn't agree more. And I'm glad that we're continuing to refine the true meaning -- and the true business value -- of gamification.