In gamification, remember that the badge IS the reward

Summary : we’re being told that gamification will get more and more traction on our digital workplaces. That’s a relevant lever even if we should be aware that it won’t work for anyone and in any situation. Moreover, there’s a possible bias that can put the whole approach at risk : believing that rewards obtained in the gamification system can be indicators that allow to go further than simple recognition. What would be socially and even legally complicated in many cases.

There’s a big focus on gamification these days. Rather than a long explanation, let’s use the definition found on wikipedia.

Gamification is the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts. Typically gamification applies to non-game applications and processes, in order to encourage people to adopt them, or to influence how they are used. Gamification works by making technology more engaging, by encouraging users to engage in desired behaviors, by showing a path to mastery and autonomy, by helping to solve problems and not being a distraction, and by taking advantage of humans’ psychological predisposition to engage in gaming.The technique can encourage people to perform chores that they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys, shopping, filling out tax forms, or reading web sites.Available data from gamified websites, applications, and processes indicate potential improvements in areas like user engagement, ROI, data quality, timeliness, or learning.

Remember two years ago. I wrote that the only thing organizations can learn from foursquare was not geolocalization but badges. That’s exactly the point.

How does it work ? Very simply. By doing and repeating actions that have been defined beforehand (by the organization, the manager), employees earn badges and as their practice become more intense and / or as they meet some goals their progress through expertise levels. The system can come in many forms but the logic is there.

What interest ? The organization use these mechanisms to make employees try or do things they wouldn’t have by themselves because of lack of time, interest or because they’re not seen as a priority. For employees ? They see their efforts rewarded by something visible and if they have some kind of ego they can compare with their colleagues. “You see…I’m the one who always updates the CRM on time”. “I’m more helpful to my colleagues than you are…”.

The condition ? Employees need to have the right mindset. The funny side of the systems must match my state of mind, the principles may not be used for wrong purposes. That’s not the magic wand that will transform people and usages but that’s sure that it may successfully work with some people. Matter of culture (personal and corporate). Not a matter of age : when you see who uses foursquare and compete for badges with friends it’s obvious that’s it’s more about people in the 30s or 40s than about Yers or millennials.

Does it work ? Obviously yes (at least for some populations and usages). An IBM study even demonstrates that users engagement lowers when the gamification system is turned off. (while warning that their conclusions come from the observation of a specific population and that results may be different with others).

What is it used for ? Today we can see two main trends in the workplace :

– as a motivation tool. Example : Rypple and Salesforce.

– as a tool that help employees discovering and mastering new tools. Example : Bunchball or Kudosbadges for IBM Connections.

So everything is perfect in a perfect world ? These tools can really play a role in behaviors and usages transformation. But beware of side effects.


So if we consider a perfect world, everything is ok. Those who are attracted by these mechanics will have fun, by doing so they’ll do what the organization wants them too so the business is happy too. In the end, employees earn badges that are visible on their profile page, saying “I did it ! I master !”.

In the words as it is in many places, some will wonder if it’s a new way to assess employees. If yes, the system will have to be accepted by all the relevant bodies of the organization. But it’s not an assessment tool…it’s just a game, isn’t it ? But it won’t be enough to prevent from all concerns. What will prevent an employee from questionning a decision (promotion or raise got by another one or lack of for himself) arguing that the other got a better treatment because of his scores in the gamification system ? Or to ask for an upgdrage because the systems says he merits more than others ?

I think than any CHRO can easily get the risks that come with such systems, even if everything is done with the right state of mind, without any hidden agenda.

So yes, I think that gamification is a relevant, interesting and powerful lever. But in some local and legal contexts it can raise many concerns.

So let’s keep in mind that, when gamification is used, the badge IS the reward and not an indicator that may lead to more tangible ones. Any organization thhat forgets that may experience significant drawbacks if things are not clear for both employees and the organization.

Do not think either that this kind of recognition will help to “forget” other ones. That’s a level of recognition that’s useful, free and perfectly fits into some contexts. But that’s not more. Sometimes badges are not enough…

In short, as long as they’re used to help people try and understand new tools, I think that things may go well. But the motivation side seems more problematic to manage from a social and political standpoint.

And if, like in Rypple’s case, the tool also aims at assessing people…I let HR people wonder about all what it means. That will be the topic of a future post.



Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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