by Rich Hein

How to Use Gamification to Engage Employees

Jun 06, 20139 mins
CareersCIOIT Jobs

More companies are adopting gamification to improve engagement with both employees and customers. Learn why gamification is an evolution in management practices, how to get started and where career opportunities lie.

Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users, according to Gabe Zichermann, author of the upcoming book “The Gamification Revolution” and founder of Dopamine, a consulting agency focused on gamified campaigns for employees and consumers.

“People may be motivated by getting a gift card, but what really drives them is recognition [as well as] status, access power and stuff (the SAPS Model), “says Zichermann.

Gamification in the workplace

The problem with stuff is that it doesn’t scale very well and over time people want increasing rewards for the same activity in order to feel motivated. It’s a common feature of humanity called “habituation.” Habituation means you’ve become immured to a stimulus over time,” says Zichermann.

How does gamification fit in with managing a tech staff–or any staff? Status, access and power are virtual rewards, things like recognizing employee achievement. These are things that can scale cheaply and easily versus “stuff” and cash. That’s part of why businesses are attracted to gamification–it scales.

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The other part of it involves making work increasingly fun by leveraging the concepts of gamification. “It’s about figuring out ways to create alignment with incentives and motivation. You increase productivity [and] performance and you can attract a higher-quality employee, this next generation of employees or millennials generation who bring with them their increased technology skills,” says Zichermann.

Why Gamification Works: The Mechanics

Remember your first paycheck? It was pretty exciting and felt awesome. Today, you probably make more money, but you don’t get as excited about it. That’s because it’s the same stimulus over and over again. Every type of reward will need to increase in intensity over time due to habituation, which is part of the behavior of economics, according to Zichermann.

Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball and author of the upcoming book “Loyalty 3.0: How to Revolutionize Employee and Customer Engagement With Big Data and Gamification” lays out what he refers to as the 10 key mechanics of Gamification:

  1. Fast Feedback
  2. Transparency
  3. Goals
  4. Badges
  5. Leveling up
  6. Onboarding
  7. Competition
  8. Collaboration
  9. Community
  10. Points

“Game designers have known how to do this for a long time. All the way back from Pong in 1972 up to modern day Call of Duty, they have had every piece of data about how users work and behave in their systems, and they’ve been able to use that data to get players to perform better,” says Paharia.

Bunchball realized that game designers have all this data and they’ve learned how to leverage that data to improve performance of players. “We thought, can we take it out of the gaming world and use it to motivate people to do anything better,” says Paharia.

What Gamification Isn’t

“Gamification is a word that just throws a lot of people off. The thing you have to make clear to people is that it has nothing to do with games. Gamification is about driving business objectives and motivating people through data. It’s not new but it has suddenly become more powerful because we have all this data available to us,” says Paharia.

Gamification Penetration

“Gamification has been going on in the workplace for a long time. What’s really changed in the last three years has been the new set of tools, technologies, design disciplines and frameworks that are allowing us to do gamification in the workplace in a more scalable and repeatable way. It’s also about understanding the evolving science of human engagement and interaction in a way that produces better long-term results,” says Zichermann.

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3 Examples of Using Gamification to Engage Workers


One of the most classic examples of gamification is Target’s approach. Being a cashier can be a disconnected job–the only time you may get feedback is when your drawer count is off, but what Target has done is engage employees by encouraging them to get in the flow when checking out customers by making it more game-like.

Target stores have implemented a little game cashiers play when checking people out. It shows the cashier in red and green based on whether the item that was just scanned was done so in the optimum time. Then they see their immediate score on screen and know how “in-time” they are with the ideal time.

This, according to Zichermann, illustrates a great point–that gamification isn’t about turning everything into a game. It’s about using the best ideas from games, like loyalty programs and behavioral economics, to drive the behavior that businesses are looking for in their employees.

“The bias that people have to win something is how achievement-oriented people tend to view the world,” says Zichermann. People who are achievement-oriented want some sort of pay-off or prize, but people who aren’t as achievement- or winning-oriented–which according to Zichermann, is the majority of people–are rewarded through a feeling that they control their own destiny.

Before, as a cashier, you didn’t know how you were doing. You just checked people out and if you did something wrong, your boss would come and yell at you. “The idea here is to bring the feedback as close to the action as possible and make the feedback as constructive and positive as possible,” says Zichermann.


Zichermann’s group also worked with Omnicare, which is a more IT-centric organization that produces pharmacy management software –a kind of outsourced helpdesk for pharmacies.

Omnicare was experiencing long wait times at its helpdesk. The employees were experienced and knowledgeable about the service. The company wanted to gamify a solution to improve efficiency. It started by adding a leaderboard and showing the reps the board. They also issued cash rewards to employees with the fastest times on the floor.

However, the results weren’t what management expected. Immediately wait times increased and employee turnover spiked; people were quitting their jobs and customer satisfaction plummeted. The difference here versus the Target example is that the client didn’t think about what was motivating the reps.

These helpdesk employees were high tech and, according to Zichermann, felt like they already had a sense of control over their own life. When Omnicare introduced a scoring system as it did, these employees felt like Big Brother was watching them. “To a Target cashier, it’s positive feedback to a high-end helpdesk rep, it’s Big Brother,” says Zichermann.

So Omnicare iterated and changed the design of the system. Now instead of being all about time and motion, they set up a series of achievements that reps could reach. The reps are given a challenge at the beginning of every shift. For example, a helpdesk support analyst might receive a note like this at the beginning of their shift, “Today find three customers who have a specific problem with billing and help them with billing.” As they progress through these series of challenges, they are given short-term rewards that are achievement and recognition oriented (non-cash incentives).

“Time in their waiting queue was halved, customer satisfaction went back up and employee turnover was down. It’s a very different design, but with the same core premise and with wildly different results,” says Zichermann. The bottom-line is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Ford Motor Company

Bunchball worked with the Ford Motor company in Canada to help add gamification to its learning portals to assist sales and services teams that must become familiar with new car models, financing plans, technologies and options every year.

After testing and implementing the methodology, Ford’s learning portal saw a 417 percent increase in use and its younger audiences, in particular, were more engaged, which resulted in better sales and customer satisfaction, according to Paharia.

Gamification in the workplace

3 Tips to Help Management Get Started With Gamification

1. Delegate someone to be the point person for advancing the gamification idea. According to Zichermann, one of the main things folks can do to get started is to find the person who would be the right kind of engagement advocate internally.

2. Get your point person certified in gamification design. This is an essential step and will provide the basic frameworks to get started.

3. Identify where the engagement issues are with your employees and/or customers. Using this gamification framework and methodology, the point person can apply this knowledge against whatever engagement issues your company faces.

You can do a low-tech or a high-tech implementation, according to Paharia. For example, in a car dealership, you’ll see a leaderboard that shows monthly sales. In many hotels, in the back you’ll see a leaderboard that shows most rooms cleaned or best customer satisfaction rankings.

Gamification Career Opportunities

In a recent article, Zichermann answers his most frequently asked question: How do you build a career in gamification? Below is the list he put together on what he sees as the top career opportunities within the emerging gamification job market:

  • Gamification Design Consultant
  • Gamification Project Manager
  • Business Process Analyst/Engineer
  • Product Manager/Designer

As companies grow, according to Zichermann, they will need to have a Chief Engagement Officer or someone inside the organization, likely from IT, who is responsible for knowing how to engage both employees and customers.

Companies will need someone who knows what the best practices are and can put those into action. “It’s not about knowing everyone’s perspective; it’s about knowing the science behind engagement. It’s a lot of design and a little bit of psychology,” says Zichermann.

If you want to further investigate gamification credentials, these organizations offer gamification design courses and certifications:

  1. Gamification Design Certification from the Engagement Alliance
  2. Gamification from Coursera and the University of Pennsylvania

(This list isn’t all inclusive. If you know of a gamification course or certification, please add it in the comments section below.)

Is your company putting gamification into action or do you think it’s a passing fad. We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback so please add your comments.

Rich Hein is a senior writer for He covers IT careers. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.