Feature Article - May/June 2014

State of Play

Gamification in Sales Incentives

By Brian Summerfield


At first blush, gamification would seem to be a new trend. After all, the word itself was coined a bit more than a decade ago, and most companies have just started to consider taking it on. Moreover, so-called "gamer" culture—which describes the large group of people, predominantly young and male, who devote a significant amount of time to playing, studying and talking about video games—only came into being sometime between the late 1970s and early 1980s.

However, the roots of gamification, defined as employing elements of games for the purposes of learning processes and problem solving in real life, extend back many millennia. As long as humans have lived in groups, they have used games to teach skills, illustrate points and establish social norms.

"Games have always been social," said David Reisner, director of strategic design and integration for ITA Group, a rewards and recognition solutions provider. "The mechanics in social video games are the same ones you find in board games, sports and so forth. And the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts use badges to demonstrate progress and achievement and convey status. It was only when games were put on computers—and those computers weren't connected with each other—that this became a solitary activity."

The nearly universal familiarity and fun of games make gamification a powerful tool for companies that use it to instruct, inform and incentivize. But many organizations are still wary of gamification, worrying that it's too gimmicky, too frivolous, too off-putting. If you've gotten pushback to proposals for game-based rewards and training programs, or if you're looking to make the case for this kind of initiative, bear the following points in mind.

A Problem of Perception

One of the biggest challenges for gamification is the term itself, said Bob Marsh, founder and CEO of sales incentives provider LevelEleven, which was established in 2012. Marsh saw this trend pick up steam over the past decade while working with large enterprises in high-level roles at Salesforce.com and ePrize, and he said "gamification" can elicit negative responses for its jargon-y, business-speak quality.

As long as humans have lived in groups, they have used games to teach skills, illustrate points and establish social norms.

"It's this new vocabulary that makes your brain hurt," Marsh said. "I'd never heard that word, even when I launched the company. For me, it was all about creating a tool that helped sales managers motivate their salespeople. People are trying to understand exactly what it means.

"The word 'gamification' itself is not helping the cause," he added. "I have to drive real results. It's not just a game."

That phrase—"just a game"—encapsulates another problem. Some see it as a trivialization of important business goals, said Karl Kapp, professor of instructional technology at the University of Bloomsburg in Bloomsburg, Pa., and co-author of the book "The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Theory Into Practice."

"The term 'game' 10 years ago was a four-letter word in most organizations," he said, but added that gamification has made headway in spite of being semantically challenged. "We're seeing some traction, mistakes and success stories. It's past the experimental phase, but it's now only in the toddler stage."

Marsh agreed with that assessment. "It's in the end of that early-adopter stage," he explained. "It's not mainstream. There are certainly a handful of skeptics out there. I think there are plenty of VPs of sales who say, 'I like the idea, but I'm not sure how to make something like that work in my company.'"

That skepticism is perhaps understandable in light of the fact that about four out of five gamification initiatives fail to produce their intended result, according to Reisner. "These things haven't found the right place in the market yet," he said. "The reason for that is there are flaws in the design of the initiative. A lot of companies want to throw a few badges on their Web site and say they gamified, for example, onboarding. It doesn't work that way."