1Ups are for Closers: Shall We Play a Game?

Games are everywhere.

Now, if you’re a parent, teacher or anyone who spends a lot of time vying for attention over a sea of phones, tablets and laptops, this probably makes your life a lot harder. I get it, it’s hard to compete with the entirety of the internet. I’ve spent my fair share of time wishing friends would put down their phones while we’re hanging out. But I also happen to think the ubiquity of games today is incredible. Did you know you can download and play all the “Final Fantasy” games up to “IX” on your phone now? Games that I spent hours tethered to the TV playing can now be played on my commute, on an airplane or in the tub. Even at work. Which might not be such a bad thing. Who doesn’t like games in the workplace?

When I say games in the workplace, I don’t mean the ping pong tables you see in startups or the people secretly playing “Galaga” at their desks (thought we wouldn’t notice, but we did). In fact, I’m willing to bet you’re playing a game right now. And I bet your boss knows about it. For example: if you’re wearing a Fitbit, you’re playing a game. If you’re a part of an office Fitbit challenge, then you’re probably playing with your boss. If you don’t have a Fitbit, then you probably have a credit card or airline membership that accrues points that can be applied to prizes or future purchases. That’s classic sales gamification.

Gamification is a word coined in 2002 by Nick Pelling, creator of the classic game “Frak!” The word gamification essentially means taking principles and elements of game design (aka ludemes, my new favorite word) and applying them to non-gaming contexts. According to Tadhg Kelly, the three distilled principles seen most often outside the gaming world are validation, completion and prizes. Fitbits utilize validation (tracking your progress over time, achievements, sharing your success with others) and completion (striving for 10,000 steps a day and being able to see whether you reached that goal) to turn fitness into a game. Credit card or airline points work much the same, with the addition of prizes when you succeed.

Read More: Sales
Gaming the System: Workplace Gamification

So how does that apply to the workplace? If you’re in sales, you’re probably intimately familiar with validation, completion and prizes. The idea of top salespeople being rewarded with all-expenses-paid trips or pink Cadillacs has been around for decades. However, the enduring problem is how to motivate the middle of the pack if the top prizes aren’t doing the trick. Or how to motivate sales reps to work as hard at the beginning of the quarter as they do when goals are looming.

In practice, gamification software allows sales managers to create public leaderboards streamed to TVs and custom contests to keep healthy competition alive. Maybe every week the rep who signs the most contracts gets a free lunch. Small-scale contests keep motivation consistently high and give everyone a fair shot at a reward. This is great for establishing accountability and transparency as a manager and helpful for keeping reps motivated on more than a quarterly basis. Team competitions can even create an environment where reps motivate and hold each other accountable. The double-edged sword is that while managers may appreciate the ability to see exactly what their reps are doing and when, the scale can tip towards micromanaging relatively quickly. Reps may feel that it doesn’t matter how many calls they are making if they’re reaching their sales goals, so measuring them on that metric will feel unnecessary.

A game is really just a set of rules, so gamification software provides the framework for managers to create and enforce whatever set of rules they like. However, a game without an endgame doesn’t work very well, so setting clear goals is crucial to successful implementation. Sales reps thrive on competition, recognition and incentives, but if the incentives don’t resonate, recognition alone will not drive sales. Leaderboards and dashboards are a given on any sales team, so what reps appreciate are the extra features that either provide validation on a large scale or make their lives easier by, for example, automating tedious tasks or helping with time management.

The problem isn’t that games are everywhere;
the problem is that they
aren’t always implemented properly.

Personally, as much as I love games, I have very little interest in competition. I’m more motivated by food than virtual badges or achievements. I don’t own a Fitbit. I dislike when companies try to gamify their marketing by asking me to invite 10 of my friends to download their app so I can receive some meaningless digital token. And I’m not the only person who feels this way.

It’s easy to take a ludeme like leveling up and slap it on something to make it more “engaging.” But increased engagement doesn’t necessarily mean that your product is markedly better. Maybe people are leveling up a few times and losing interest rather than deepening their interaction with the product.

However, that isn’t to say that gamification can’t work or that everyone finds it tedious in all contexts. Different games have always resonated with people differently. Users are savvy enough to know when they’re being asked to do a company’s job for them without the benefit of being paid. Some companies bank on the fact that there’s always going to be someone who just wants to win the game because it’s there, whether or not it resonates with them.

The problem isn’t that games are everywhere; the problem is that they aren’t always implemented properly. In a sales environment where competition is baked in, it’s perfect. The sports metaphors practically make themselves. Any competitive environment is going to benefit from gamification. What needs to be seriously considered is whether gamification is appropriate in that context, and whether the people using it are gaining something and not performing meaningless tasks.

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