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There’s no shortcut to the promised land of employee engagement, but gamification can get you moving in the right direction.

It can even get you there, if your strategy is solid, sustainable and skilfully managed. The big question is, can it keep you there?

What is engagement?

Definitions of employee engagement at work abound in academic and practitioner literature, but to get to the heart of the matter, many popular examples reference emotional commitment and engagement as key indicators.

  • ‘Engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace’ (Gallup)
  • ‘Engagement is employees’ willingness and ability to contribute to company success’ (Willis Towers Watson)
  • ‘Employee engagement is the level of an employee’s psychological investment in their organisation’ (Aon Hewitt)
  • ‘Engagement typically refers to an employee’s job satisfaction, loyalty, and inclination to expend discretionary effort toward organisational goals. (Deloitte)

Definitions aside, the more useful question from a gamification design perspective may be, ‘What does engagement look like?’ And for that matter, ‘What does disengagement look like? Gamification is all about changing behaviour, so what that behaviour looks like matters.

What does employee engagement look like?


Behaviour table

When you’ve got engagement

The end-game of engagement is, of course, better work performance and gamification can help get you there. From an employee perspective, here are a few sample stats from a 2019 Gamification at work survey.

  • Employees say gamification makes them feel more productive (89%) and happier (88%) at work
  • 33% would like more game-like features in their employee training software
  • 61% of the respondents receive training with gamification
  • 87% said game elements provide a sense of meaning and purpose at work (81% in the 2018 survey)
  • 89% believe they’d be more productive if their work was more gamified
  • 78% of the respondents say that gamification in the recruiting process would make a company more desirable

When the thrill is gone

What do you do when the gamification thrill is gone? When user numbers drop, missions are abandoned and work performance metrics are on the slide? In other words, when employees are actively disengaged with gamification and the work. There are any number of places to look for potential problems. But start with the obvious.

Gamification is a program, not a project, remember, so you need to plan and budget for the long haul to be successful. Do a big picture assessment of the many moving parts of your gamification strategy with this brief Q&A:

  • Are you clear on the objectives of your program? You’ll go nowhere fast without a clearly defined statement of the business objectives for your gamification solution. You want higher levels of engagement, but what actual business outcomes are you looking for?
  • Have you correctly identified the metrics to measure your user’s behaviour? These are a helpful sanity check throughout design and implementation. Maybe you’ve missed the mark at some point along the way?
  • Are you using the right motivators for your specific user group? Did you do the upfront research to get a true understanding of your user’s needs, values, aspirations and attitudes? What makes employees feel happy and fulfilled? The objective is to design activities that users find intrinsically motivating to spark their desire for learning, professional growth and personal development.
  • Is the user experience lacking depth? Design is where so many gamification efforts fall apart. Maybe you need to change your story and beef up your narrative structure. Have you introduced enough challenges and included multiple decision trees to draw users in and stimulate higher levels of engagement? Look at your countdowns, time limits and feedback loops to identify weaknesses.
  • Did you test before launching the system? If not, you may have inadvertently created your own problems from the start. Review, retest, and listen closely to the feedback. In fact, never stop listening, it’s an important part of the necessary on-going program adaptations. To keep employees engaged and motivated, you need to keep the user experience fresh and challenging.
  • Did you plan for player fatigue? Aha! Thought not. Let’s refresh.

Find advice on avoiding epic failures in 9 Reasons gamification fails

How did it go so wrong?

You worked with the best gamification designers, you followed all the best practice design advice, you encouraged employee participation and launched to great uptake. And now – you’re looking at near flatline participation and performance. So how did it all go so wrong? Player fatigue.

At some point in planning and development you read advice along the lines of, “It is important to plan for player fatigue…as time goes by and the novelty wears off, player engagement and delight may go down as well.” Or, more emphatic guidance, “…any application that is gamified will interest users for a while, but as soon as the novelty rubs off, participation drops rapidly.”  And you thought, ‘Check that – we’ve got a great narrative, perfect mechanics, no problem’. Think again.

Keep the releases coming

You would be amazed (or maybe not so much, now that you’ve experienced it) how quickly people chew through content.

For Sipho, the challenge of opening the secret vault is interesting…once…as is finding the hidden trove of gold bars. And if there’s no new challenge to crack after reaching the max skill level, well, he’s checked out of the program and likely lost some passion for the business objectives it was meant to promote. Nellie, on the other hand, may need a little more time to get the hang of the mission, so you’ve got her attention for a while longer. Until she levels up, that is.

But don’t get comfortable. Get writing the next release. What’s the lifespan of a release? As long or short as your users make it, but you should launch with enough fresh content to carry you for a rolling 12-months.

For more on content see Two parts gamification, one part content

Map the journey

Another approach to content planning and production is to look at the players’ journeys and their level of expertise with your gamified system. For new users, introduce a small set of features and add additional features as their skills expand and improve. (Remember Nellie?) In game parlance, think of your users as Rookies, Regulars and Masters and develop a roadmap of features to introduce over the next few releases to keep a steady level of engagement with the program.

There is an art to keeping users, or players, engaged with the narrative of a well-structured gamification program. You can leave some of that to the expertise of designers and developers, but be prepared to fatten up your content production to give them material to work with. It’s a long road to the promised land of employee engagement with gamification. Plan and budget smartly, and you’ll get there.