Gamification and the Behavior-Change Lifecycle 
Published: Mar-28-12

What if work could be more like our favorite games?  This question has been inspiring growing interest in bringing “gamification” to the workplace, which means leveraging games and game mechanics to help shape workplace behavior. 

The idea that businesses might leverage the enjoyable – even addictive – power of games to engage and influence both consumers and employees has a powerful appeal.  You can see this in the growing number of blogs (e.g., and Zdnet), books, and conferences demonstrate.  This appeal has been further enhanced by the emergence of gamification software vendors, such as Badgeville,and Bunchball, who make it relatively easy for an enterprise to get started with gamification.  Technologies now exist to help “gamify” existing applications, processes, and interfaces by weaving in game mechanics such as reward points, leaderboards, badges, and the ability to ‘level up’.  Enticed in part by the onramp these vendors have created, many companies are exploring gamification, and some, such as LiveOps, have made gamification of work a core part of their service delivery model.

The same techniques that keep Farmville players working their plot seem to have real application in the workplace as well, but how broad and deep are the potential impacts? Is it limited to providing employees with small nudges to perform chores like turning in surveys, filling out expense reports on time, perhaps even moving customers through a check-out line a bit faster? Or is gamification something that can address deep-seated and complex behavior change? Can it be used to help change beliefs and priorities? Can it be used to promote behaviors which will take intensive effort to learn, or which employees don’t even realize they need? And can games be used to create change that lasts even after the game is out of the picture? 

The answer to all these questions may well be yes, but it will take an expanded repertoire of gamification techniques, specifically designed to address a broader swath of the behavior-change lifecycle:  One key insight from the literature on persuasion and behavior modification on a range of topics from cancer to computing is that behavior change often follows a stereotyped pattern of stages and that each stage presents different challenges. The stages in this behavior-change lifecycle each pose different kinds of behavior-change challenges that must be understood if we’re to create game-based techniques to all the stages. 

Here’s a 5-stage version of the behavior-change lifecycle which we have adopted from the literature:

  1. Raising awareness: Understanding exactly what the as-is behavior patterns are, and recognizing that there is opportunity for improvement. 
  2. Building buy-in: Committing to the commitment of time, energy, and resources, needed to execute the change.
  3. Learning how: Understanding the mechanisms and techniques that underlie the target behaviors
  4. Initial adoption: Trying out the target behaviors, getting used to actually executing them.
  5. Maintaining and refining: Perfecting the new behaviors through extended practice so that they become they eventually become self-sustaining.

Most gamification we have seen focuses on Stage 4 and, to a lesser extent, stage 5: promoting the initial adoption, and then the maintaining of target behavior patterns.  Stages 1-3 are often all but ignored. This is fine in situations where raising awareness, building buy-in, and understanding the basic mechanism of the target behaviors are not crucial issues.  In some cases, merely motivating initial adoption of behaviors is sufficient to generate buy in because the initial effort is not too great and the advantages become self-evident once the behavior is adopted. For example, if you can motivate someone to exercise for several weeks, he might start feeling good about himself, start enjoying the activity, and thereby start exercising on a regular basis.

But in many more challenging behavior-change scenarios, stages 1-3 play key roles in an effective behavior-change program.  Consider some examples: An employee who uses a condescending tone with customers may not even realize they are doing so, which would mean that raising awareness of the problem is a first, crucial step toward sustainable behavior change;  an employee who is too blunt or cursory with colleagues may not buy into the need to provide more tender-loving care, because there is no explicit connection made between that behavior and the morale or retention problems that it causes; an employee who does not understand the mechanisms for carrying out a new business process will be unable to respond to incentives to execute the new process – regardless of how well game mechanics are used to provide that incentive.

One game mechanic that can be effectively used for achieving buy-in is cause-and-effect game simulation.  These simulations can help raise awareness of the impact of the user’s existing behavior patterns and the need for change. A simple example of such a simulation is Stone City game commissioned by Cold Stone Creamery, in which employees learn to scoop the right portion-size ice cream.  An aspect that we see as critical to achieving buy-in – and thus to sustaining motivation beyond the confines of the game – is the game illustrates the long term repercussions of incorrect portioning behavior on the profitability of the company.  Simulations can make long-term consequences, which motivate change, visible in a compressed timeframe. Outside the enterprise, games such as World of Warcraft motivate hours of detailed work, planning, and skill building, by making clear connections between that work and a big mission that players find meaningful.

The concept of gamification is currently enjoying a successful stint as a kind of ‘child star’ but now it is time to see whether it can transition to equally-successful work in adult roles.  The true potential is not fully known, but we expect that as more organizations recognize the need for a more extensive behavior-change toolkit, exploration of more advanced gamification will produce a range of effective –and affordable – techniques to produce complex and and sustained behavior change.


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