Enterprise Game Saga Episode 1: Press Start

SNES_ContIt’s time to get your game on with gamification.  On some level the word “Gamification” is an abuse of the English language, and until relatively recently,  it wasn’t remotely  a word at all.  Just as technology constantly evolves (or devolves depending on your date of birth and/or propensity for crankiness), so does the language.  Oxford English Dictionary nominated “Gamification” as one of the candidate words of the year way back in 2011.  Strangely, “Gamification” was ultimately bested by “Squeezed Middle” which looks awfully like two words to me, but I digress.   But what the heck is gamification?  Any official definition is in a state of flux as the concept tries to gain traction, but quite frankly we’re used to that here in engineering and technology circles.  For example – ever tried to define Product Lifecycle Management lately?  Gamification, in essence, is the application of game design principles outside of gaming.  And when we say gaming these days, we’re invariably talking about electronic gaming.  Sorry, Chutes and Ladders.

When it comes to the concept of gamification, many argue with conviction that the whole premise is utter nonsense, just another fad to entomb in the mausoleum of technology hyperbole.  With respect to IT professionals especially, gamification is probably responsible for the third highest incidence of eye rolling, by gross volume, behind utterances of Big Data and Cloud.  Make work fun?  Don’t be ridiculous.  It’s tempting to turn gamification into an editorial about generational differences – something along the lines of how Millenials are ruining everything by not coping with traditional business and social models.  You know, more or less the same crimes each prior generation was accused of at their respective times.  At its core, gamification is not at all about entertainment, or churning out achievements,  but rather a focused perspective on what drives human teamwork, compulsion, innovation, engagement, and how we fundamentally solve problems.  Gamification is not merely generational, it is universal.  It is as much about technology interfaces as it is a sociological analysis.

It’s easier to see how gamification has real application in a field like marketing, where engagement and motivated brand loyalty are vital.  In many ways, the gambling industry pioneered some aspects of what would be now called gamification, especially in the context of keeping every one engaged in the casino.  These are models that have been successfully applied in retail, for example.  But when it comes to internal business processes, applications, and organizations, specifically enterprise software, skepticism about gamification rises.  Some of that is driven by the fact that marketing and engagement might be the public face of gamification, while there are truly many more interesting avenues to explore that are more applicable to internal business.  Regardless, the gamification trend is pushing forward.  An excellent article by Thomas van Manen summarizes the momentum:

“To follow the curve of gamification in the past years you just have to look at how Gartner’s been talking about this trend. In 2011 Gartner claimed that more than 70% of the world’s largest 2,000 companies are expected to have deployed at least one gamified application by year-end 2014. That of course might still be true, but Gartner also shared a reality check afterwards saying 80% of current gamified enterprise applications will fail to meet their objectives, due largely to poor design. Other interesting stats are that the overall market for gamification tools, services, and applications is projected to be $5.5 billion by 2018 (M2 Research) and the fact that the enterprise industry vertical already accounts for 1/4th of all gamification vendor revenues (M2 Research).”

There’s no doubt about it, the disparate worlds of enterprise software and gamification are on a collision course.  Not surprisingly, early results aren’t terribly promising.  We’re firmly in the swamp that is Gartner’s trough of disillusionment as pointed out by Ivan Kuo.  There’s a justifiable reason for this – gamification and enterprise software expertise are worlds apart.  Enterprise software is like a bad joke (or nightmare) to anyone in the gaming space.  At the same time, very few enterprise software experts understand the intricacies and evolutionary path of today’s gaming state-of-the-art, which seems rather frivolous in comparison to business process.  Cross pollination between the two fields are rare – so there’s quite a bit of guesswork at hand.  That’s why early efforts are obsessed with a rather shallow interpretation of gamification – piling up leader boards and handing out senseless achievements.

The good news is: it’s time for the enlightenment.  That means having some meaningful conversations about gamification and what really can be done with decades of compelling game design knowledge drawn from electronic entertainment.  My original intent for this post was to talk about different concepts of game design as it applies to enterprise software.  As even the outline for that discussion started leaking onto several pages, it was quickly apparent that this particular topic merits a more in-depth discussion.   As such, I will be publishing a multi-post series on enterprise gamification over the coming months.  Look for it to be interspersed among my usual ramblings in engineering, CAD, and PLM.

Next in the series Episode 2: Achievement Unlocked.