Outside of big data, gamification—the use of game mechanics in a non-game context to engage users—is the darling child of business publications today.

It's easy to see why businesses of all sizes have flocked to the use of gamification. It is widely applicable since it taps into fundamental elements of human behavior. When executed well, it can make even mundane activities seem like a game, creating motivation and desire for users to keep “playing.”

But there’s a dark side to gamification. When gamification begins to insidiously make its way into product use because it’s the trendy thing to do (but not necessarily the right thing to do), businesses can end up shooting themselves in the foot as they draw customers away from the product’s primary goals in favor of misplaced badges and rewards.

For now, let’s step back from the hype and take a critical look at both sides of the gamification coin.

The sections below feature examples where game mechanics are properly used to help guide ideal user behavior. Likewise, there are examples of where gamification goes wrong by emphasizing arbitrary rewards over end goals that benefit both the customer AND the business selling to them.

How to Win the ‘Game’ of Customer Loyalty

The quintessential example of gamification being used with great success is airline rewards programs. Though airline rewards are often cited as best-of examples, most people don’t truly realize how successful these programs are.

Consider this startling fact from the book, Contagious, from professor Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business:

We all know that miles can be redeemed for free travel, hotel stays, and other perks. Still, most people never cash in the miles they accumulate. In fact, less than 10 percent of miles are redeemed every year. Experts estimate that as many as 10-trillion frequent flyer miles are sitting in accounts, unused.

That’s enough to travel to the moon and back 19.4 million times. So if they’re not actually using them, why are people so passionate about racking up miles?

Because it’s a fun game.”

Frequent flyer programs are based on our natural inclinations toward achievement and competition (two essential elements of gamification). They work because we love earning points and ”VIP” status.

Complementary research from academics Xavier Drèze and Joseph C. Nunes conclusively shows that airline miles incentivize customers even when they are meaningless (taking into account that 90 percent of airline miles never get used, they are essentially meaningless). The takeaway here appears to be that gamification can turn an average customer loyalty program into one that sticks.

You’ve most likely experienced the enchanting nature of video games and their ability to get players addicted to virtual rewards. Gamification leverages the same tactics. As an example, online gaming has found ways to turn nearly any mundane task into a heated competition by building mechanisms for achievements (real and/or virtual rewards) and public competition (where users are recognized for winning).

Game mechanics can be applied in far more ways than mere rewards and achievements. Consider In-N-Out Burger’s viral “secret” menu that has become legend among customers since being implemented.

Or how about Dropbox’s tactic of getting users started with their product by completing tutorial levels that earn them extra space for each completed task?

Source: Dropbox

All of a sudden, it feels less like I’m learning a new product and more like I’m making progress on Level 1 of Dropbox! (It’s of course lacking the 1-Up Mushrooms and turtle shells, but the game mechanics are clear.)

The best part about this particular example is that it helps people understand the benefits of using Dropbox, but doesn’t continue to impact how they use the product once they find their way. Since that’s the case, customers can continue to use Dropbox without any external factors pushing them towards a particular way of using the product.

This point highlights exactly where gamification can go horribly wrong.

Multiple studies have shown that an excess of extrinsic rewards can kill intrinsic joy and motivation. While keeping people unhappily hooked to their online games may work for Zynga (oh wait, no it didn’t!), this sort of effect is disastrous for businesses that depend on customers deriving long-term value (productivity, convenience, etc.) from their product(s).

Let’s dig deeper into this.

Where Gamification Goes Wrong

How can gamification end up shooting you in the foot?

If you believe we are heading into the decade of gamification then listen up, because you’ll need to be watchful of leveraging this tactic in a useful way rather than one that diminishes long-term benefits.

Many have voiced the opinion that gamification is already played out. While a myriad of companies presume that adding game mechanics to their product(s) will make them fun, they can also divert attention away from product benefits and overall usability.

In this regard, most applications of gamification are missing the point; they focus on peripheral or secondary mechanics instead of the ones that really work, motivating people to use the product in a way that highlights the product’s benefits and adds real value along the way.

Dropbox’s gamification works beautifully because earning free space aligns with the product’s most important benefit, which is storage. Share files with people using Dropbox and you (and whomever you share with) are rewarded with more storage. Much like airline rewards, it’s not too cute and is focused on delivering long-term value to customers.

Not every business’ gamification strategy is this clear. Without carefully aligned motivations, gamification can mislead and frustrate customers, or incentivize them to use your product the wrong way.

If personal finance software becomes less about helping people manage their budgets efficiently and more about increasing engagement with a bunch of misplaced game mechanics, do you think customers will end up feeling satisfied?

Gamification and Customer Service

We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from well-meaning customers about how and why Help Scout should join in on the gamification craze, leading us to carefully consider its merits.

Help Scout’s primary benefit is delivering quality service in an efficient way, so any game mechanics that fail to support those two mutual benefits create misalignment and fail to drive the value we and our customers are looking for.

For instance, let’s say Help Scout awards a badge to an agent for answering an email in less than a minute. We’ve just taken the focus off of quality service and put it on answering someone’s question as quickly as possible, which could end up ultimately incentivizing bad service.

We’ve come to believe that any internal game mechanics within a help desk are terribly misaligned. They take the focus off of the customer experience and put it squarely on a distraction that’s clearly less important. Your agents may be as decorated as the local Girl Scout troop, but let’s hope they also made your customers happy!

Call us old-fashioned, but if a team member needs incentive to provide great service, there is a good chance they shouldn’t be talking to your customers in the first place.

One use of gamification in customer service that we like is based on customer satisfaction. Rewarding team members for delivering a WOW-factor aligns nicely with the benefits of a help desk. Companies we’ve partnered with like NiceReply and Hively have build entire businesses out of this concept and it feels nicely aligned with the benefits of a help desk.

Wired has called gamification an enemy of great support, and while dissenting opinions often point to cases like Microsoft and the increased productivity they saw when implementing gamification, the numbers don’t tell the full story—a lower response time does not mean your team is doing a better job of taking care of customers.

When it comes to contacting customer service, 15 minutes in heaven beats 5 minutes in hell.

Since we’ve shown through consumer research, customer surveys and even academic studies that Quality > Speed, gamification could turn into a grind that takes users away from mutually beneficial end goals and steers them towards undesirable behaviors, brought on by worthless rewards that you’ve created.

So, are you leveraging these mechanics the smart way, or are you just playing games?

Gregory Ciotti
Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.