The Hollowness of Gamification versus Going Deep

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The only things that work at work are those that go deep, like the connection we make to our craft.

I am not an advocate for gamification, to say the least.

I believe that the best counter to the growing disengagement at work is not a hollow reinforcement cycle of badges, attaboys, and digital highfives, but something quite different, a reaffirmation of our connection to our own work.

I read a piece by Jessica Twentyman at the Financial Times that explores the toe-stub that gamification has turned out to be. Gamification, she writes

emerged at the start of the decade and quickly achieved IT-industry buzzword status, has stumbled into a morass of confused definitions and unmet expectations.

In 2011, for example, analysts at research group Gartner were predicting that more than two-thirds of the world’s top 2,000 companies would use gamification by 2014. A year later, they stated that 80 per cent of gamified applications would fail to meet business objectives by 2014, mostly due to poor design.

Today, Gartner analyst Brian Burke acknowledges that gamification was “oversold” and “overhyped” in its early years, but still insists the idea has value.

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, makes the observation that those who have strongly identified with some body of thought — as Brian Burke has with gamification — will continue to support those idea even when evidence comes along to discredit it.

Even Twentyman hurries to support the premise of gamification, suggesting that it is only the current implementations — or lack of them — that are holding back the broader adoption of the practice:

So what is holding workplace gamification back? In part, it is an issue of availability. The blare of industry hype has not been matched by enough enterprise software that cleverly incorporates gamification into the business processes it is designed to support. That leaves organisations keen on gamification in the unenviable position of having to pick from a limited range of gamified enterprise applications or retrofitting existing systems with game mechanisms.

The reality is that there aren't many companies touting the success that they’ve had with gamification. Because there are few, and the basic premises are off putting to people trying to get their work done with as little nonsense involved as possible.

I use the expression ‘dig your own hole, sharpen your own shovel’ to characterize the core elements of reconnecting to your own work. I am doing my work: it’s mine, a core element of my character, and an important aspect of my identity. Yes, I am working for my client (and others are working for their companies), but we should each of us focus on the fact that we are choosing to do this work, actively. I am digging my own hole.

The second aspect of this is ‘sharpen your own shovel’, meaning that it is up to me to educate myself, learn new skills, stay up to date on practices in my field. Yes, an employer may provide time and funding for those activities. But even if they don’t, or if you are a freelancer like me, you are still responsible to undertake the ongoing work of improving your skills and knowledge.

To people that have embraced the deep connection to their work and training, badges and empty measures of supposed performance (‘27 tasks checked off this week!’) are beyond annoying: they are almost insulting. It smacks of contempt to treat grown-ups like kindergarteners, who get a gold star for fingerpainting and not spilling too much.

The only things that work at work are those that go deep, like the connection we make to our craft. But gamification is inherently shallow.

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