My problem with Gartner's definition of gamification

Focus on business outcomes first



There are about as many written definitions of gamification floating around as there are people who either (a) get and like the concept, or (b) loathe it and think it's doomed to failure. For instance, Forrester's goes like this:

The insertion of game dynamics and mechanics into non-game activities to drive a desired behavior.

Nice. Precise. Pithy. Here's Gartner's:

The use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals.

Also nice, precise, and pithy. But, I have a problem with it.

Human-centered design

Gartner's definition is rooted in the laudable approach called design thinking. (Notice that they use the phrase "their goals".) It's not at all controversial to say that gamification programs, like any software application or user experience, should be built with the needs of the end user top-of-mind. While it's not too hard to find counterexamples that are still successful—how about the back-office software we force on bookkeepers, accountants and HR personnel?—it's safe to say that humane design helps lead to success in the marketplace.

So, I'm all for a player-centric approach to the design of a gamified system. But for any profitable (or hopefully-profitable) enterprise, gamification should begin and end with the needs of the business.

Before I go into more detail on why and how, I'll spoil the ending in two ways: first, I don't think Gartner's approach and mine are actually that far apart in practical application—though I think it's important to consider the difference and how it goes beyond semantics. And second, one way to guarantee failure is a misalignment of your business aims and what users are likely to want to achieve.

Focus on business objectives

two cartoony businessmen looking at a chart Most of us don't get busy adding game-like elements to a non-game system out of altruism. These things cost money (at least in the form of time), so there must be a business driver at work. That driver will vary from application to application, but there's always a pretty clear relationship between some key performance indicator and your return on investment.

If you're doing content marketing on a web site, your KPI might be something simple like return visits or time on site. For a new employee onboarding system, you'll look at task completion rates. If you're gamifying recycling, you'll measure the amount collected.

Whatever the right metric is for you, failing to focus on it from the very earliest stage is a costly mistake.

This is more than mere semantics

Anti-gamification sentiment has been slowly growing for years. Gartner's Hype Cycle has gamification heading into the "Trough of Disillusionment" (one of my all-time favorite phrases). Enthusiasts did a great job setting high expectations early on, and in many cases those expectations were never met. Some of the backlash goes beyond the ugliness of the word, or the aesthetic objections of people who design actual games. Businesses were burned by these unmet expectations.

At least some of that burning sensation came as a result of not clearly defining a business-centric objective from inception. Without picking some meaningful and reasonable goal, even well-executed programs will likely end in disappointment. When disappointment meets the budget cycle, it's often easy to just cut what's failing, and the likelihood of the bosses wanting to try again only ever goes down.

The good news is that there's still plenty of strong evidence that gamification can move those KPIs when the program is carefully considered.

So what's my definition?

It's certainly fair to expect me to have a definition of my own since I've taken Gartner gently to task. And I do! However, it's highly specific to digital communities. I'll share it with you in detail in later posts.

Update: here's my explanation of gamification for marketing via digital communities.

Where Gartner and I come back together

Brian Burke is a Gartner analyst who wrote an excellent book published earlier this year, Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People To Do Extraordinary Things. (I do recommend you read it.) He makes a passionate case in favor of their player-centric definition. But interestingly enough, when he covers how to get started with the design process, his Step One is literally "define the business outcome and success metrics". (~Location 1323 in the Kindle edition.)

So after all, "motivat[ing] people to achieve their goals" really does begin and end with business objectives.


If you've been part of building a gamified system, how early did you consider the business KPIs that would be used to judge its success? Leave an answer—or take me to task—in the comments below.