Beyond the Hype: Gamification in a HR Context is Still About Humans

The world is abuzz with the term ‘gamification’: yet another piece of business jargon vying for your attention, alongside terms like BIG DATA. While these trends are changing the world, the terms themselves are poorly understood, overused, and thrown around in relation to almost any activity with a tenuous link to gaming or data. So when did gamification start, what is it, and how does it apply to the world of HR?

Virtual mayors and the beginning of the gamification ‘hoopla’

If we turn to Google trends we find that interest in gamification as a search term picked up in 2010, and there has been an explosion in interest ever since.
Interestingly this coincided with the emergence of an app called Foursquare, which allowed users to check-in to local businesses, receive rewards, and keep track of what their friends were doing around town. Frequent a place often enough and you could become the virtual ‘mayor’ of that venue, thus unlocking special deals. Users benefitted by being able to boast certain privileges, badges and achievements, and businesses got more custom. The penny dropped for many at that point and the world was awakened to the power of gamification, its benefits, and the real revenue/performance based outcomes it could drive.

Is gamification what made the Dyson vacuum so successful?

James Dyson’s vacuum design with a transparent container for the dust was rejected by major vacuum companies because ‘people would not be interested in seeing the dirt accumulate’. But Mr. Dyson loved to see his progress and how much dirt he was collecting, so he persevered – and the rest is history. Is this gamification in action?
Yes, in part. We can apply the same concept to many activities, but it’s trivial to look at gamification through this lens. Let’s again turn to Google, which gives us this definition:

The application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, to encourage engagement with a product or service. 

This definition focuses on how gamification can make things more engaging or fun. However, something can be fun, but also without purpose. Successful gamification must consider how to engage people in purposeful activity.  Gamification is also co-dependent on a lot of other factors (e.g., user experience and design) and steeped in human psychology. In fact gamification forms part of a greater movement: Human-Centered Design (HCD).
Human-Centered Design considers why people engage in certain activities and why they shy away from others. It’s technology made intimate – drawing on people‘s insecurities, optimising for their feelings, understanding their motivation and aiming for overall engagement. We are just starting to capitalise on what game developers have known for a long time. Badges, achievements and rewards are just the surface level stuff. It’s actually all about human factors. The focus is squarely on the player: their psychology, personality and style.

Help! How do I make HR policies fun?

It’s not surprising that game thinking has seeped into other domains. It aligns perfectly with the shift occurring in the wider context of technology, work and everyday lives. Consumers are driving content and experience, and so are employees. Competition for talent means employee and jobseeker experience matters. According to’s white paper, Gen Y employees expect technologically augmented experiences to be built into their working life, through teamwork, competitions, recognition, and real-time feedback.
It can’t solve every employee management problem but gamification has the potential to be a powerful tool for HR. So far we’ve seen a recent emergence of game/HCD thinking in the spaces of recognition and rewards, performance management, learning and development, talent and retention.
It has been successfully used in sourcing talent for some years. For example the US Defence Department created ‘America’s Army’, an online game that allows potential recruits to get a taste of life in the army. Through gamification the army is seen as a more attractive employer but the candidate also gets an immersive and realistic experience of army life, not just a shoot-em’ up adventure, creating realistic job expectations.
The next leap for gamification in HR – screening and selection – has been made possible by US software start-up company They harnessed the power of games and psychometrics through a game called Wasabi Waiter, brought to the Australian market by Onetest. In 10 minutes the game measures a number of job performance predictors like efficiency and conscientiousness, based on how players serve sushi to customers. Players tend to get caught up in the action, so they are more likely to reveal their true selves. It delivers results in the form of robust reporting for the employer, as well as a great experience for candidates.

How to win: gamify everything!

Not really. It’s not a simple proposition. Turning mundane activities into engaging, immersive and purposeful activities is hard. The time, energy and cost involved needs to measured against the value.  Yet the market for gamification will continue to grow significantly. Research from Gartner indicates that by 2015, 50% of organisations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes, and by 2014 more than 70% of Global 2000 organisations will have at least one gamified application. A report by M2 Research predicts business spending on gamification to increase from $242 million in the previous year (double that of spend in 2010) to climb to $2.8 billion in 2016.
Understanding the reasons gamification became a buzzword in the first place allows us to consider how and why to follow the trend and adopt gamification in our systems or processes. The two big questions are:

  • Will it engage people purposefully?
  • Will it make the human experience better?

Perhaps this is gamification’s greatest gift to us. It shines the light back on the human factors behind each interaction. We must consider the user as the pivotal player in this whole game.

If you want to keep up with changes in talent management, don’t miss out on this year’s Sourcing Social Talent event in November. Join global leaders in sourcing, including Shannon Pritchett, Chris HoytBill Boorman and Martin Warren, who will be travelling to Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland to distill the art and science of being a modern day sourcer. Register for the event now.

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