Does total rewards need gamification?

Do you roll your eyes when you see the word “gamification” or are you intrigued? I hope a bit of both.

Skepticism may not be a competency on your job description but it is an important part of HR’s mental toolkit.

At the same time anyone not open to new ideas shouldn’t be in management. Gamification really does hold promise for reward, however it can also go wrong.

First, we need to understand what gamification—at its best—really is. Gamification is primarily the science of motivation in the online world. There are two words I want you to underline: “science” and “motivation”.

Gamification matters to reward professionals when it is about science not gimmicks, and when it is about motivating behavior, not just doing something cool.

The tools, their promise and their peril

Gamification has many tools:

  • Recognition: a badge for accomplishing something; e.g. “Completed all performance appraisals on time.”
  • Goal setting and tracking: points for achievements or activities; e.g. “20 points for attendance at wellness activities.”
  • Winning: getting the high score
  • Social goodwill: an opportunity to share ideas or goodwill with others; e.g. The opportunity to ‘like’ someone else’s online posting.

Gamification holds great promise because the tools are evidence-based. Computer gaming companies and websites that use gamification do a great deal of empirical testing. The idea that these tools can drive behavior is not based on a theory; it is based on evidence that it actually does drive that behavior.

Gamification has, in effect, done thousands of psychology experiments by testing their ideas online and seeing what happened; we can benefit from those experiments.

The downside of gamification is that, like anything new, there will be a long learning curve. Also many of the people promoting the idea will have no real idea what they are doing. Furthermore, messing with reward is always dangerous because it risks unforeseen consequences.

What to do first

Gamification tools have the potential to help motivate all sorts of behaviors—so as a reward professional you need to take a serious interest. The first thing to do is get some personal experience with gamification so you can understand the feel, not just the concept. It is only when you have this feel that you can begin to distinguish between the hype and the real value.

Some options:

  • Play a computer game; or get a gamer to let you watch what they do and talk to them about the points, badges, quests, team play and so on that motivate them.
  • Download the Kobo book reading app; get a book you want to read; see how they deploy gamification badges to keep it fun and keep you engaged.
  • Adopt a fitness tool that has gamification elements like Wii Fit, Nike+ or Fitbit
  • Spend some time on Facebook and pay attention to how social connections, “likes” and the rewards associated with Facebook games motivate you to behave in a certain way.

Your conclusion will be that gamification techniques can drive behavior; I say that with confidence because the sites are testing these techniques and keeping the ones that work. From there you can think how to begin to use these tools to drive behavior in the organization.

We need to remember Dan Pink’s line “We are not as endlessly predictable and manipulable as you might think”; gamification doesn’t control people but it can nudge, encourage, and motivate us. It is a rich source of ideas for reward professionals.

We have a lot of topics to cover in this series of blogs, but rest assured I’ll come back to talk more about gamification and how to put it to use.

Have you experimented with gamification as a tool to help motivate employees? What were the results?

For more on employee engagement, read Simple tips to drive up employee motivation and engagement in 2013.


David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research where he does research and writing on human capital management.

He also co- leads a club on evidence-based management with Carnegie Mellon’s Denise Rousseau. He can be reached at dcreelman [at]  creelmanresearch [dot] com.

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