8 - Common Design Pitfalls

The perspective that gamification is simple, "we just need to add some points and badges" is a typical perspective, and one that leads to failure. Gamification isn't adding gimmicks to something that already exists, but a change in strategy that requires a great deal of thought and planning to execute well.

Many organizations fail on the fundamentals: there are no clear business objectives, no consideration of the player's interests, and the solution is transactional or superficial. But there are a number of other mistakes of a smaller order that are also detrimental (or deadly) to gamification efforts, which the author will discuss in this chapter.

Failing to Manage the Game Economy

Most games engage the player by offering rewards for efforts, and just as in the real world an imbalance between the two can make an economy unstable and untenable. The amount of effort that playing the game requires, all in all, must balance the amount of rewards.

Where involvement in a game earns real-world rewards, the balance is easy to see: if it requires too much work to earn a reward, players won't bother with it - any more than they would participate in a sweepstakes that requires them to jump through hoops for a chance to win a negligible prize. If the effort is too little, they will not perceive that they are playing a game, but as a promotional offer (or even a standard offer).

The value of intrinsic rewards - points, badges, and recognition in the game - is even more difficult to balance. A badge that requires little effort is not valued, as many people get them as a matter of course and there is no esteem for just showing up; and a badge that requires great effort tends to be valued, as few people have them. But the "value" is simply in self-esteem or the recognition of others, so even if a task is difficult, there's little value in the recognition if it is not meaningful.

Game economies often undergo constant tuning, but care must be taken. Each time you increase the cost of a reward, those who were on the cusp of earning it will be demotivated. Each time you decrease the cost, those who have already earned it will value it less because it's easier for newcomers than it was for them.


The author observes that people love shortcuts, and that they don't mind cheating at games in order to finish quicker. Do a search for "game cheats" and you will find many sites that offer everything from tips and walkthroughs to "cheat codes" and even software hacks that enable players to get through the difficult parts of a game.

In video games, cheating harms no-one else: the player doesn't get the benefit of playing the game (though some seem to like to brag about their scores to others) but that's the only consequence. In competitive games with others, the cheating of some irritates others and drives them away from the game. In games where there is a prize, the game sponsor feels cheated, not to mention the other players who played fairly and lost to someone being dishonest.

Commercial firms, who seek to make money from players, are generally upset by cheating. People even cheat in non-game situations (this is called "fraud"), whether they cheat to win a prize in a promotion, or simply try to cheat the firm by finding loopholes in policies and procedures to get benefits they didn't pay for. They will even present false credentials (such as pretending to be an Eagle Scout, a college graduate, or a war hero) in order to gain esteem and benefits they have not earned.

Companies don't need to be told to be on guard against cheaters in situations where cheating costs them money - but even when it does not cost them money and the points, badges, and other achievements are strictly within the game, cheating is detrimental.

Building validation into the game to prevent cheating (which, really, merely makes it harder to cheat) is one approach - but another approach is to remove the incentive to cheat. If the game is fun to play, even without incentives, people have no reason to cheat. If the rewards can be earned with reasonable effort, there is likewise little reason to cheat because it's easier to earn something legitimately.

There is no overcoming the urge to cheat, and cheaters are very inventive in circumventing anti-cheating measures - so to assume you can eliminate it altogether is unreasonable. But this doesn't mean you should be indifferent, given its potential to poison your gamification efforts.

Being Inappropriately Competitive

Watching hockey players pass a puck and shoot it into a net, without an opposing team on the ice to try to prevent them from doing so, is not very exciting at all. And in the same way, some games attempt to create a sense of drama and excitement by getting players to try to outdo one another for bragging rights instead of prizes. This is not always productive or appropriate.

In most gamification efforts, offered to customers and employees, firms want as many people as possible to participate and succeed. A game in which players obstruct and undermine one another to win is counterproductive.

A more appropriate form of competition is to challenge all players to accomplish the same goal, such that they wish to out-do others but do not feel the need to interfere with them. Like a marathon, the point is not to trip up the other runners, but merely to run faster.

But back to the point on cheating, some players will seek to compete by interfering with other players. Gamification efforts should be structured to prevent this.

There are a few, and very few, instances in which competition that involves defeating others is appropriate - like the war games that soldiers play to train for combat. There are also contests in which there will be a winner - like picking the best new-product idea submitted by customers. In the latter case, sabotage is discouraged.

It's also mentioned that having a "winner" at all means that there will be losers in the game, and this can be demotivating. Consider contests among sales departments, in which the top salesman wins a prize like a paid vacation. A small handful of salesmen who are already the best are highly motivated to work harder - the rest of the staff takes a "why bother?" attitude about such a contest.

Steep or Shallow Learning Curves

Consider physical board games that existed before computers: learning "how to play" was often very difficult and there is a lot that must be learned in order to begin playing. Even then, players will struggle to learn to play the game well. This is the reason very few people are interested in games like chess, and even simple games like checkers takes a while to learn and a lot of work to play with a reasonable level of competence.

Video games take a different path: players at the first level with a very easy challenge tghat needs little to no explanation, and then the game incrementally increases the difficulty. This is shown to be very effective in engaging players for a long period of time, because the increasing difficulty keeps players involved by keeping the game challenging. However, the game would be intimidating and demotivating if the player started off at level ten because he hasn't developed the skill to succeed.

He also mentions that increasing complexity incrementally can be effective. He mentions "angry birds", a popular game where birds are flung from a slingshot to demolish a target. At higher levels the game is quite complex: there are different kinds of ammunition, different kinds of blocks, obstacles and special features. (EN: I looked into strategy guides for this game, and some of them run 50 pages or more.) But the user starts simply with one kind of ammunition and one kind of target, and the others are slowly added, so the player learns gradually.

Gamification efforts should likely follow the same path as video games: start simple and basic so people can get involved and enjoy early success without much effort, then incrementally increase difficulty to make sure the game remains challenging.

He briefly mentions that it is possible for a game to be too simple - such that the player doesn't feel challenged enough to remain engaged. Such games are like the cup-and-ball puzzle in that a player who learns to solve it loses interest, because all that remains is for him to do the same thing, over and over, and achieve the same results.

Targeting the Wrong Audience

Games are targeted to specific audiences: a game with fuzzy bears and balloons is not going to appeal to teenage boys, and a game designed for teenage boys is not going to appeal to middle-aged women (who are, by the way, now the largest demographic for online games). Likewise, prizes must be appealing to an audience: a contest in which you are giving away tickets to a monster truck rally isn't going to resound with many white-collar workers.

Burke also mentions the problem of building a game that casts too wide a net in a desire to have a large audience. A video game wants to be appealing to as many players as possible, but gamification seeks to reach a target audience. Having a game that is wildly popular with people who won't buy your product is a waste of an opportunity (and possibly damaging to your brand).

Another problem is failure to consider the target audience - in essence, you are building a game that you would like, assuming that others will like it as well. You really must do some market research and early focus groups to define the kind of game you need to develop to appeal to the right players, and only the right players.

Mandating Participation

People can't be forced to have fun - and trying to make a practical into a game only makes the experience all the more noisome, particularly when the theme, mechanics, and tone of the game seem to condescend to the audience and the game is much less efficient than doing things in a straightforward manner.

Employees are all too familiar with this: mandatory training programs are often time-consuming, obnoxiously cute, and very condescending. Even productivity contests are often handled as hokey themed events that seem all the more manipulative and belittling. What was meant to make work fun merely makes it dreary and demotivating, and sometimes even embarrassing or humiliating.

The same is also inflicted on customers, buy theme restaurants that insist they order sandwiches by corny names. Online, a prospective customer may be put through a forced process to create a login to shop a site, and making the buying process into a game merely makes a routine task irritating and confusing.

Simply stated, participation in a game should be optional - and it should not be the only way to accomplish basic functional tasks.

Adding Work to the Work

In many instances, gamification is used to attempt to make an existing process more engaging - and to the extent that game mechanics match the process this may be possible. But quite often, game mechanics are bolted onto a process without adaptation, and it makes a task require more effort and learning than the original form.

This is particularly noisome for internal systems, where employees to the same work repeatedly. Entering an invoice into an accounts-payable system is dull and routine, but when game mechanics are added to make it "fun" the process becomes more tedious for the user. Particularly if there is a clerk who enters ten or twenty invoices a day, having to play a "game" to do his job is not going to be fun, but annoying.