Blog Post

Beyond the hype: 5 ways that big companies are using gamification

For sure, gamification – or the use of game mechanics in non-entertainment contexts – is one of the most overhyped and misunderstood subjects in enterprise today.

Yet from humble beginnings in 2010, M2 Research projects that companies will spend upwards of $2 billion on gamification services by 2015. By that same point, Gartner Group’s Brian Burke forecasts that 70 percent of the Global 2000 will employ gamification techniques, but that 80 percent of those projects will fail unless they’re designed thoughtfully. To meet these needs, we believe U.S. companies will need 5,000 certified gamification designers over the next three years to infuse every aspect of their operations with the science of engagement.

For my forthcoming book, “The Gamification Revolution” and through our GSummit conference , we looked at hundreds of leading companies that have successfully leveraged gamification in the enterprise to see how they found success. Here are the top five areas where companies are using gamification to find efficiencies and gain a competitive advantage:

Recruitment and hiring

Companies have used games to recruit for some time, but with social and game technologies it’s become more effective. Most famously, Google posted a billboard in Silicon Valley with a tough math question that led users through a series of game-like challenges, and eventually to a special job application queue; those who could solve the puzzle were “pre-screened” in a fun way.

Companies like Quixey have adapted Google’s approach (sans billboard) and recruit using a reality TV-style game that yields qualified engineering candidates for under $4,000/each – compared to $20,000-plus using traditional recruiters. The U.S. Army-developed America’s Army game has brought millions of potential recruits to the attention of the armed forces and has become its most cost-effective recruitment strategy (and one of the world’s most popular games on the way).

On a larger scale, Domino’s Pizza developed a game called Pizza Hero where you can pretend to be a pizzaiolo and make pies the way you like. The app lets you order pizza for delivery based on your design and apply for a job at your local Domino’s – if you’re good enough.

Employee training and development

Like Domino’s, Marriott needs to hire upwards of 50,000 people per year to fill positions in its hospitality division – and those employees also need training. So the company developed a game called My Marriott Hotel that lets you play various hotel roles, develop a basic understanding of how they work and apply for a job. The simplicity of My Marriott Hotel led to over 25,000 players joining in the first week, and is part of a major growth cycle of similar training games that are as easy to play as Angry Birds.

Several other major multinationals are finding success too:  Siemens use its online game Plantville to train plant operators; GE Healthcare’s Patient Shuffle game teaches health care workers how hospitals work; and Sun Microsystems built an adventure game to replace its stuffy new-hire onboarding training. For many companies, gamified training has lowered costs and raised engagement by over 50 percent.

Employee feedback

The lack of adaptability of employee feedback has led many leading organizations to question the structure of the annual review. Enter gamification-based recognition systems like (formerly Rypple), DueProps and PropstoYou. They use gamified approaches to persuade employees to provide feedback instantly on their mobile device. This peer recognition is turned into social achievements (like badges and leaderboards) that are shared throughout the organization, and typically replace direct cash bonuses or “spiffs.”

Companies like LivingSocial, Spotify and Facebook have embraced the approach, replacing annual reviews in many cases. The fun, instantaneous feedback loops have driven employee engagement to over 95 percent on an opt-in basis at many installations. Early successes led to buy Toronto-based Rypple for a reported $65 million after just two years in operation, rebranding it as late last year.

Health and wellness

One critical approach to increasing employee performance is by helping to improve their health and wellness. Besides having the effect of improving cognition, it also results in reduced absenteeism (and thus health insurance costs, too). NextJump, a New York-based employee-incentive startup, has gotten international attention for its gamified approach to encouraging employee fitness.

Using team-based competition and peer support, over 80 percent of the company’s employees currently go to the gym two-plus times a week without a mandate. Similarly, to help others gamify workplace health, startups like Keas deliver “wellness as a service” (WaaS?) to customers like Pfizer and Reed Elsevier.

Creating new profit centers

As gamification’s power to change the enterprise has grown, it has also become a profit center for early adopter organizations. IBM developed a game-based BPM (Business Process Management) simulator called Innov8 that has spawned several B2B products, including a game called City Manager aimed at municipal executives.

Today, the Innov8 platform is used by over 1,000 institutions to teach BPM, and has become the company’s number-one lead generator. Similarly, global consulting giant NTTData has built a platform called GO! that enables its 60,000 worldwide employees to gamify BPM and professional development, helping the company close and retain clients.

Gabe Zicherman is editor of and chair of the Gamification Summit. His book, The Gamification Revolution: How Leaders Leverage Game Mechanics to Crush the Competition (McGraw Hill) is due out April 5. Follow him on Twitter @gzicherm.

16 Responses to “Beyond the hype: 5 ways that big companies are using gamification”

  1. adsffdsa

    Gamification… I contest the whole premise… it’s like we’re supposed to treat employees like children? That’s what I really take away from this.

    You can take your Amazon gift card and stick it. I think mature people just have a passion for something and they need to do something they love. You don’t need nerdy incentives, especially automated platforms. You need smart people who love what they’re doing.

    Love what you do and you’ll never work another day in your life.

  2. Greg Sheldon

    It seems there is way too much focus on the process of game mechanics/dynamics and not enough consideration for the creative talent behind successful “gamified” business solutions. I doubt anyone would buy in to the notion that you could read a book on comedy and go to a one-day “humorfication” course to be a great comedian.

    • Kevin Slavin

      Greg, then you obviously don’t take into account the great success of these historic trends:

      — cinemafication. 10 easy steps have allowed every major company to draw from the success that every movie enjoys, and make themselves more efficient and productive.

      — literaturification. More ambitious at 15 steps, this takes the strict design principles that every best-selling novel adheres to, and applies them to brands, helping them sell more things to more people.

      — comicification. Amateur designers who were certified by Scott McCloud were able to increase profits between 20 and 60% by using the same proven principles that drive so many people to read so many comics. The War of Drugs was considered to have been won with the distribution of anti-drug comics in the 80s.

      Like these great schemes that preceded it, Gamification is only the latest arrival in a long history of reducing creative and complex work into a facile set of rules that can be sold through “guest posts” linking to marketing schemes. It’s a proud history.

      If you don’t see the value of it, you’re a reactionary who probably still thinks the pleasure produced by games is complex and nuanced. But I ask you, if games couldn’t be reduced to simple — certifiable! — principles of engagement, how would game industry giants like Sony or Zynga be able to just keep growing, month after month and year after year?

  3. Baka Tono

    I looked at the examples of gamification and I have been the (un)fortunate recipient of current iterations of “virtual” meeting spaces and everything you reference or I have seen is, well, not that great. It is neither game-like nor work-like.

    For example, the *props stuff above and are not, in my opinion, gamifying work tools. They are really just kind of gaudy attempts at finding ways to “reward” employees with emoticons. One of them actually allows you to automatically reward employees. Lolz. How unrewarding would it be to be rewarded to goofy graphics and emoticons by the server on a scheduled basis?

    Games work for two reasons mainly:
    1) anonymity – you can be anyone you want to be and no one is the wiser
    2) actual reward – you get something that furthers your goals within the game or which can actually be used

    These gimmicky things have neither of those to items mentioned above. Corporations and businesses want all the cool stuff that happens in games and so forth but they then require everyone to register with their real names and titles. Fail. Corp bosses are either hypocritical or lying to themselves with regards to their desire for collaborative tools. No tool will ever really work if you have to plaster your real name an face all over it. No one will every really tell the rest of the group/network what they really think if they know that the boss may just fire them over it. So, until corps and businesses let go of that, none of these initiatives will ever go anywhere.

    The other thing is the rewards. They are useless. Can they be sold to get something cooler? Can you slay a dragon or blow up a star-ship with it? See, the gamers don’t like games because of the awards they receive; they like games because of the dope-amine rush they get when they use those awards to do something cool. The awards are a means to an end. Giving the gimmicky awards will do nothing unless they are a means to an end which gives that rush. Come up with a way to have a quest at work which lets you play against the “boss” (in this case the real boss) and you may be getting somewhere.

    Otherwise, this is just not going anywhere. Just another example of companies attempting to copy something successful and incorporate a junky corporate framework which ultimately makes the “game” unappealing.

  4. Sierra Tolter

    One other point on the fallacy of small sample size and selection bias with respect to gamification “evidence”: I continue to find it astonishing that the leaders in the gamification space — the platform vendors and consultants (including graduates of Gabe’s certification program) — have themselves shown a frighteningly low level of success gamifying *their own work*. Considering that they are marketed as “engagement specialists”, their own websites have little to no engagement, and those brave enough to attempt gamification on their own sites have appear to have almost universally failed, with either zero comments or the kinds of incentivized one-word comments common sense predicts: “awesome!”, worth 10 points toward your next badge…
    If there is to be science and evidence to back up the claims of gamification, I would expect that those who are the best in the world at doing it would be able to… Actually do it. Instead, they point to areas where it appears to have worked (sometimes clearly, sometimes more likely a correlation not causation) for someone else. And these examples are often too diverse to make useful, reproducible generalizations. There is one area that does seem both clear and potentially reproducible, and that’s quantified-self feedback (now co-opted by gamification). But even there, where we know both THAT it works and to a certain degree WHY, what about all the companies, apps, programs where it was tried and still *failed*?

    • Gabe Zichermann

      Kathy (aka Sierra Tolter) – you can use your real name with confidence here I’m sure:

      The pointlessness of arguing against the efficacy of gamification without facts was precisely the impetus behind my Huffington Post piece (and by extension, this article). Engaging in a fact vs conjecture argument is a waste of everyone’s time — just as it is in politics, art or any other domain.

      Make no mistake, there are plenty of problems in gamification, but every design discipline has its failures. The key is to learn from those errors, understand how they worked and how they didn’t, and incorporate that understanding into the next iteration. This is as true today as it was when the Wright Brothers finally figured out the shape of an airfoil, and it will continue to be the model for gamification as long as I’m involved. We’ve substantially added to, evolved and matured in our thinking even in the 3 short years since the movement started — and I have no doubt this will continue.

    • Baka Tono

      Agree, Every example of “gamification” I have participated in or reviewed has failed. We attempted virtual worlds for meetings for a while and while it was funny to make Palm Trees grow in the middle of the conference room or throw a “virtual” grenade on the table (vs. the figurative one), the novelty died very quickly and we just eventually shut the servers down.

  5. Sierra Tolter

    I’m not a stats expert, but it seems that the gamification “success stories” are not, despite Gabe’s contention, based in “science.” They are, however, a good example of the fallacy of small sample size and the fallacy of selection bias. The fallacy of small sample size says:

    X is true for A
    X is true for B
    X is true for C
    X is true for D
    Therefore, X is true for D, E, F, G, and so on.

    When you show only the success stories, they are examples of something that worked in a specific context, and by no means evidence that “gamification works.” For we do not have a sample that includes the ones that did NOT. Well, except when gamification thought leaders need to explain the high-profile failure they had previously held up as success examples / proof.

    So it may be that while X worked for A, B, C, and D, it was tried and failed for… The rest of
    the alphabet. The burden of proof is on those who are proposing and especially selling these solutions.

  6. Yuval Krymolowski

    Thank you for a very interesting review of what is also called “serious games” . I believe that in order to make the interaction in such games more natural, NLU (Natural Language Understanding) technology is required.

    NLU can be incorporated via either a text box or voice interface, as VR is getting more and more mature these days.

    We in Semantic Interfaces have designed a NLU development platform for serious games that can be easily incorporated (APIed) with either speech or text interaction.

    For more information, visit our web site

  7. How quickly people forget.
    Didn’t Giga run an article in 2011 where Gabe was called out ?

    I work with so I’m not opposed to Gamification, I do think as a means of engagement it can improve how we view and participate in selective activities but it shouldn’t be some broad brush approach slapped across everything we do and productivity and achievement of work should be at the heart of it when applied in an enterprise context, not the achievement of points scores.

    Like I said in the article Chris points to, there needs to be more collaboration between industry verticals to understand each other more, citing happy examples is not the way to do it and writing a book and creating training materials doesn’t make you a thought leader in my eyes, just a businessman…..I’ve seen plenty of those in the BPM industry Gabe talks about already.

    • Gabe Zichermann


      The need for industry collaboration is precisely why we created — the conference I chair that will take place April 16-18 in SF. Now going on its 4th iteration, we bring together a very wide range of speakers from multiple verticals to talk about how gamification works (or doesn’t) and what key patterns can be extracted. By bringing in discussions from education, finance, CPG, advertising, games, social good and more, we’re able to foster that kind of information exchange. The enterprise/HR track is particularly exciting, with almost every major enterprise vendor giving their insights and worth checking out especially if you’re interested in BPM or HR.


    • Gabe Zichermann

      Thanks, Chris.

      The points I’m trying to make are quite different from the ones you make in your comment. To recap:

      1. There is no “ebb” in gamification’s growth, rather it is accelerating as more success stories come online. We are on-target to meet some version of Gartner and M2’s analysis, and most of the key benchmarks more-than-doubled last year.
      2. Posts (critiques) like Theo’s are not particularly useful unless they can be backed up by data. Everyone has a different opinion on how things *should* be designed, but unless we have a discussion rooted in science and evidence, we’re just wasting everyone’s time really.

      A fast-moving design-centric field like gamification tends to be evidence-based, and I’m renewing my calls for folks to focus on facts — both positive and negative. Here’s my take on that issue from the HuffPo: