With the new crop of gamification programs, that level of experience isn't there. As a result, Sundararajan says, companies should start out slowly and carefully. "It's a good idea for companies to start by using them in non-mission-critical scenarios, and get a sense of how employees are reacting to the new kind of competition, instead of just pulling it off the shelf and sticking it in," he says.
Finally, any gamification project needs to provide value to participants, and not just meaningless badges. "People use Foursquare, it's very exciting," says Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer of gamification vendor Bunchball. "They play with it for a couple of weeks, and a month, and then they're like, 'Why am I doing this?' There needs to be something else there that's meaningful. There needs to be some core intrinsic value to the service. Empty points and meaningless badges are not sustainable."
That value can take different forms at different companies. It could come in the form of helping employees do their jobs better, or in seeing their ideas making a difference.
And value can take other manifestations as well, Paharia says. "You can get an iPad or golf clubs. You can get early access to content. And people want power, moderation ability, ability to join secret or exclusive groups."
Will it last?
It's too early to tell whether the gamification trend has long-term potential, Sundararajan says. "But there are a couple of reasons why I think it's promising."
The first is that employees are increasingly expecting to have technology at work that resembles what they use at home. "They want the stuff that they see at work to be like Facebook, like Foursquare, like the iPhone," Sundararajan says. "This is very different from 10 or 15 years ago, when there wasn't much technology developed just for the consumer."
And the trend is only accelerating, he adds. "In five years, every new employee would have grown up with Facebook and mobile devices," he says. "This is certainly something that is working in favor of gamification of the enterprise as a promising [long-term] trend."
In addition, some of the individual techniques used as part of gamification strategies have been used by companies in more limited contexts for many years, Sundararajan says. Sales contests, for example, are something that salespeople enjoy and are motivated by, and are very common. "Everyone who's ever walked into a call center or sales center has used a leaderboard," says Gamification.co's Zichermann. "Those have been used for 50 years or longer to motivate people. We know a lot about leaderboards, and that's just one example."
Another example is employee-of-the-month programs, which are common in many companies. "Businesses have known for a long time that recognition can be used in place of cash rewards," Zichermann says. "What's new is that we have new language to describe it, and new technology to make it easier to do."
However, he would like to see more research into how well these new technologies work, he adds. "There aren't any long-term studies that support the kind of current, broad, context-based solutions because this discussion didn't start until 2010," Zichermann says.
But gamification is about more than just badges and scoreboards. Those are just the start of the process of applying game techniques to work in order to make it more fun and engaging. "We've done surveys at companies and the passion levels are very low -- and the larger the company the lower the levels of passion," says John Hagel, co-chair of Deloitte's Center for the Edge. "If you believe, like we do, that passion drives extreme performance improvement, that's a real problem."