Feature Article - November/December 2016

Game On!

How Gamification Techniques Can Strengthen Incentive Programs

By Rick Dandes

Making work, or typically mundane tasks, more interesting and even fun by using the principles and tactics of game theory and mechanics has proven over the past few years to be one of the more effective strategies used by incentive program designers to drive and improve employee engagement.

Not that the idea of "gamifying" an incentive and reward program is anything new, said Ira Ozer, president and CEO of Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y. "Game mechanics and dynamics have been used in the incentive industry for more than 100 years. They just weren't defined that way. More recently, many brands today give premium items away free when a purchase is made, often for a limited period of time; others provide them for continuity of purchases, such as gas stations giving away dishes with the ability to collect the whole set over time. Most companies run sales and employee incentive programs that use points, badges, leaderboards, recognition and rewards and have done so from the earliest days of the industry."

But just because you've set up a leaderboard doesn't mean your incentive program can generate the same results as it might if that program adhered to the best principles inherent in a well-thought-out, scientifically designed gamification model. "If you don't do it right," warned Rodger Stotz, chief research officer of the Incentive Research Foundation, "it will fail."

An understanding of basic game mechanics and dynamics helps, Ozer said. Game mechanics relate to elements including giving people "points" for participating in various activities, using "leaderboards" as a form of social recognition and competition to rank people against one another, "badges" to recognize accomplishments, and "awards" as a way to reward participants for their efforts. Awards can be intangible, such as the joy and sense of accomplishment people feel by playing the game, as well as tangible awards, which includes merchandise, gift cards and other items for value.

Game dynamics relate to the process by which the sponsoring organization wants participants to play the game—in other words, the specific path they want them to follow, such as: A) enroll in the program, B) watch a short video, and C) take a quiz. The dynamics of the game often change over time and often with the input and progress of the participants.

Gamification, in summary, applies the "coolest" elements of games that make them engaging to drive interaction, competition and other gaming behaviors in a non-game context, Stotz said. "Those non-game contexts can be anything from work, learning, health and fitness, civic engagement and meetings, to incentive program participation and more."

The true elegance of the idea, in conjunction with several poster children of gamification success (such as FourSquare) have popularized this concept. Startups from every industry are building gamified apps, and consultancies—big and small—are helping companies implement gamification strategies.

Successful Strategies

Gamification is great at getting people to care, said Greg Greunke, vice president, partners and customer success, Think Smart One, San Francisco. "Competition, the element of surprise, all those elements can make an incentive program more interesting."

The ability of participants to invite others to join in the game and play with them is a huge contributor to engagement. Continual promotions and rule changes are also important ways to keep the program fresh and exciting for participants.

But the program is even more successful when participants are already passionate about the topic being gamified, added Stephen Baer, managing partner, The Game Agency, Los Angeles. "For example, last year, in support of the launch of Rock Band 4, we worked with videogame publisher Harmonix to roll out a gamified brand ambassador program called the Rock Band Road Crew. This program encouraged fans of the game to participate in gigs, earn points and redeem rewards. Gigs included spreading the word about the games (tweeting, instagramming), taking polls and quizzes, and hosting game parties."

The ability of participants to invite others to join in the game and play with them is a huge contributor to engagement.

Participation was off the charts for the eight weeks that the campaign ran, Baer said. "Why? Because the program simply formalized things that people were already doing and incentivizing them to do it even more."

Technology, in general, has made gamification more applicable to senior executives who want to see hard data and results, Greunke suggested. Although gamification is mostly about psychology, not technology, behavior tracking is where technology can really help.

"If one of the key benefits of gamification is to provide an environment where you can measure behavior, that's where software is really effective," Greunke said. "You assign something with points, you give it a value for certain behavior. Then, when you add that to social media it creates competition and bragging rights.

"Here's the trouble with just having a leaderboard posted on a wall, though," he added. "It's only those people in the office that can play it. But when you gamify something on a website, and you make it layered into a platform they are using, like a salesforce, then it becomes much more interesting for the participant and for the person who is running the game."